Excluded, By Design

I began my earlier review of Widdows’s Perfect Me by wondering which is preferable: a feminist text such as Widdows’s that seems to add disability to its analysis as an afterthought (and in doing so naturalizes and rebiologizes disability) or a feminist text such as Kate Manne’s Down Girl  that disregards the apparatus of disability almost entirely. I suggested that “[p]erhaps there really is no salient difference between the two kinds of feminist philosophy texts. After all, both sorts of approaches to feminist analysis revolve first and foremost around nondisabled women (and men) and reinforce the exclusion of disability from serious consideration in political discourse.” I continued the post in this way:

Not surprisingly, Manne’s book and Widdows’s book have each garnered much attention in philosophical and wider feminist circles. That their respective failures to adequately address the apparatus of disability seem to have thus far gone unnoticed is indicative of the intransigence of depoliticized notions of disability in both philosophy and feminist studies and of how little attention philosophers and academics in general, feminist philosophers and theorists in particular, and the literate public give to the production of disability and the social, economic, and political position of disabled people.

Manne’s attempt to deflate the criticism that Down Girl fails to account for ableism and disability in its analysis of misogyny comes in her response to a commentary on the book that Elle Benjamin contributed to the symposium in the APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy. In the commentary, Benjamin aims to compromise some of the universalizing claims that Manne makes in the book, especially with respect to “himpathy.” As Benjamin puts it,

One of Manne’s criticisms of himpathy is that it diverts attention away from the experiences of the victims of misogynistic mistreatment, and instead refocuses the discussion back onto the experiences of those who mistreated them. But I wonder if there are any cases where focusing on the experiences of the misogynist can be beneficial for everyone—including the misogynistic perpetrators and the misogynystically oppressed. In particular, I wonder if there is an unhimpathetic way to talk about Elliot Rodger that illuminates the effect of his condition on his misogyny, without emitting any sympathy at all in virtue of his maleness. The himpathetic commentators that Manne discusses mischaracterized the nature of Rodger’s condition by calling it mental illness. Consequently, readers were denied a deeper understanding of what Rodger was experiencing, why he was experiencing it, and how we can help people with similar experiences avoid Rodger’s fate. Without crossing the line into himpathetic territory, that is what I am going to try to do here. I leave it to Manne to decide whether or not I succeed.

Although I was pleased to read Benjamin’s contribution to the symposium, I don’t think that Manne should be the arbiter of whether the former’s discussion of ableism and the politics of autism is compelling. Let me explain.

In response to Benjamin’s commentary, Manne writes:  

I am particularly grateful to have the benefit of Elle Benjamin’s valuable perspective here, since the intersection of misogyny with ableism in general and anti-autism bias in particular is manifestly lacking in my book. (By design, since I don’t take myself to have an epistemically appropriate standpoint from which to speak here.) I also find her account of the socially clueless sense of entitlement evinced by Elliot Rodger, in contrast to the “Golden Boy” Brock Turner, compelling (and non-himpathetic, for the record).

I set aside (at least for now) Manne’s invocation of the ableist term clueless in order to draw attention to the more general rhetorical move that she makes in response to Benjamin’s remarks. Notice that after Manne explains that she doesn’t take herself to have “an epistemically appropriate standpoint from which to speak” about how misogyny “intersects”* with ableism in general and anti-autism bias in particular, she nevertheless proceeds to do just that. In her next remarks, that is, Manne writes:

I also find much to agree with in her general remarks on autism in relation to misogyny—especially Benjamin’s important observation that neuroatypicality in girls and women has long gone comparatively underdiagnosed, and still tends to attract less by way of moral attention and material resources.

And

However, I do worry somewhat about ascribing neuroatypicality to Rodger. Reports of his having been diagnosed with any kind of autism are, to the best of my knowledge, conflicting. It is true that a CNN story reported a family friend’s attribution of an autism-spectrum condition to Rodger; but subsequent reports said that the family friend had been mistaken. According to a comprehensive police report about the Isla Vista shootings, Rodger was diagnosed with “Pervasive Development Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)” in 2007 (a diagnosis removed from the DSM-5). Subsequent testing in early adulthood put him below the cut-off for autism or autism spectrum conditions.14 Indeed, despite Rodger’s having had fairly extensive mental health treatment, there is a paucity of clinical labels that were confidently and consistently applied to him.

And:

I think it may be worth adding here that girls and women (autistic or no) do not, to the best of my knowledge, run any significant risk of becoming an Elliot Rodger: that is, a mass killer, animated by a false sense of aggrieved entitlement, and toxic masculine delusions reflective of patriarchal social structures. These structures are historical relics, which nonetheless cast a long moral shadow. Bring on the dismantling.

Putting to one side the matter of Manne’s appeal to a medicalized conception of disability, I want to ask: does Manne know anything about autism, anti-autism bias, and ableism or doesn’t she? Did she do research on autism after she received a draft of Benjamin’s commentary? If Manne accessed the cited research after she read Benjamin’s commentary on her book, then perhaps she didn’t know the relevant information about autism (and ableism). If that is the case, however, how should we understand Manne’s claims that analysis of ableism (and “anti-autism bias”) were excluded  from her book “by design,” that is, because she doesn’t take herself to have “an epistemically appropriate standpoint from which to speak”? If Manne had access (in some form) to the aforementioned claims that she makes about autism (and anti-autism bias and ableism) before she wrote the book, why weren’t they taken into account in her analysis rather than intentionally excluded?

The previous paragraph assumes that when Manne claims to lack an epistemically appropriate standpoint from which to speak, she means something like (for example) she has never taken a course on disability and ableism, has not read any books or articles on ableism or autism, and certainly has never read any of the growing  body of work in philosophy of disability that would provide support for her to advance claims about ableism, disability, and anti-autism bias that take account of the ways in which misogyny and ableism are mutually reinforcing and co-constitutive.

Nevertheless, that interpretation of the phrase “epistemically appropriate standpoint” may be a misinterpretation. The phrase could be regarded as ambiguous.

Maybe the phrase should be interpreted in a way that channels Harding, Haraway, and Hill Collins. That is, maybe Manne’s claim is that Down Girl excludes analysis of the ways in which misogyny “intersects” with ableism and anti-autism bias because Manne is not disabled, not autistic, and therefore believes that she doesn’t have the situated knowledge that would qualify her to make authoritative claims in this regard.

But why should we accept this sort of argument from Manne as a response to the criticism? After all, Manne’s positioning didn’t lead her to exclude (“by design”) analysis of other apparatuses of power that collude with and reinforce misogyny yet don’t subject and disadvantage her directly and personally. (I note in this context that in their review of Manne’s book, Nora Berenstain [2018] has argued that Manne’s understanding of misogynoir and the ways in which white supremacy shapes and colludes with misogyny are inadequate and require re-evaluation.)

I can’t end this post without drawing attention to the unfortunate irony of the fact that Manne uses a version of the phrase “exclusion by design” to justify the fact that she disregards the apparatus of disability in her analysis of misogyny. For exclusion by design—philosophical, architectural, social, and conceptual—is a central and productive focus of the work that I, Aimi Hamraie, Tanya Titchkosky, and other philosophers and theorists of disability have developed in recent years to articulate how the innumerable ways that disabled people are excluded from social, political, public, academic, and other realms are intertwined and co-constitutive. We increasingly know more about what exclusion “by design” looks like.

*I put this term in quotation marks because it is the term that Manne uses. I, by contrast, think that apparatuses of power are mutually constitutive and more complicated than the idea of intersection allows.

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