One of The Latest Faces of Ableism in Philosophy

In my most recent post of the Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future series, I explained some of Foucault’s ideas about the productive character of power, including the idea that power is most effective that enables subjects to act in order to constrain them. One of the most effective ways in which relations of productive power coalesce is (as I intimated) through the constitution of identities and subjectivities. In short, certain actions, behaviours, modes of comportment, etc. are constitutive of certain identities and subjectivities and the constitutive character of these identities and subjectivities in turn has looping effects (to use Hacking’s term) that reproduce and expand these kinds of actions, behaviours, modes of comportment, and so on. In various places throughout Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I discuss how this production of identities and subjectivities—that is, how this subjection—operates with respect to disabled identities, mad subjectivities, nondisabled philosophers, and so on.

The term benevolence refers to a composite of attitudes, dispositions, and beliefs and suggests modes of action that produce many of the ways in which nondisabled people understand disabled people, including how to interact with them, what they deserve, and how to distribute social goods and resources to them. Nondisabled people like to do things for disabled people and to be recognized as having done them. Nondisabled people also like to witness other nondisabled people do things for disabled people. Unfortunately, some disabled people have internalized these pervasive modes of interaction between disabled and nondisabled people, affirming them and encouraging their reproduction.

When nondisabled people observe other nondisabled people do things for disabled people, they seem to feel reassured that their fellow citizens are working for a common good, that extant social relations are as they should be. Yet disability studies scholars such as the late Paul Longmore have critiqued the spectacular, voyeuristic, and other manifestations of benevolence in the form of telethons, lotteries, foundations, and charity more generally. When distribution of social goods and resources to disabled people takes these seemingly innocuous and even reparative forms, asymmetrical relations of power between disabled and nondisabled people are sustained and the disparity between the material conditions of the lives of these groups, including the grinding poverty of many disabled people, especially disabled First Nations people and disabled people of colour, is tacitly legitimized and reinstated.

Given these intersubjective relations, I wasn’t entirely surprised by the over-the-top reactions to the recent news that the Georgetown philosophy department will soon post a job with a cross-appointment in the Georgetown disability studies minor program. Hundreds of nondisabled philosophers who likely have never given a second thought to philosophy of disability and disability studies showed up to express their awe and appreciation for this apparently magnanimous and pathbreaking act on the part of the Georgetown philosophy department. My “favourite” response was:

“This is A M A Z I N G.”

I think it may be great that Georgetown philosophy will hire an assistant professor to cross-appoint in their institution’s disability studies minor, but let’s pull back from these initial reactions and put this news into some kind of perspective.

First, take note that this hire will be a cross-appointment of a philosopher in the disability studies program rather than the appointment of a philosopher of disability (let alone a disabled philosopher of disability) in the philosophy department itself. Although the new Georgetown appointment is likely to be a philosopher of disability, at this point, that is not guaranteed. We should wait until the job is advertised when we can scrutinize its wording before we consider drawing that conclusion. Given the current composition of the Georgetown department and the disability studies minor there, my guess is that someone who does bioethics will get the job. This bioethicist/philosopher might have a quite medicalized understanding of disability: medical humanities perspectives routinely encroach upon a politicized disability studies.

Second, philosophy cross-appointments are not novel, but rather happen all the time. For example, many feminist philosophers whose home base is a philosophy department are cross-listed or cross-appointed in their institution’s women’s and gender studies departments. Some black philosophy faculty (few as they are) are cross-appointed in or have some other kind of affiliation with the black studies or African-American studies departments or programs of their universities and colleges. Nor are minors in disability studies with cross-appointments in philosophy a new thing. Indeed, the Lehman College (CUNY) philosophy department has incorporated a disability studies minor under its own auspices for a few years now, with one of the department’s disabled faculty members acting as the chair of the program.

The number of minors in disability studies is steadily growing. Here is a (probably incomplete) list of North American institutions that currently offer a disability studies minor, program, or degree:

California Baptist University
Carleton University
Chapman University
Eastern Washington University
Gallaudet University

Georgetown University
Hofstra University
Kent State University

King’s College at Western University
Miami University
National-Louis University

New York University Steinhardt
Northern Arizona University
Ohio State University
Pacific University

Penn State University
Purdue University
Ryerson University

Shippensburg University
Stony Brook University
Syracuse University

Temple University
The City University of New York
Towson University
University at Buffalo

University of California at Berkeley
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA)
University of Delaware

University of Georgia, Athens
University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
University of Illinois at Chicago

University of Iowa
University of Maine
University of Manitoba

University of Massachusetts Lowell
University of Pittsburgh
University of Texas at Arlington

University of Toledo
University of Utah
University of Washington
University of Winnipeg and Red River College

University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Wyoming
York University

The philosophy department at any of the institutions listed above could offer cross-appointments or cross-affiliations in its institution’s disability studies minor or degree program. Yet few of them do. Some of the nondisabled philosophers who noted their enthusiasm for the Georgetown news actually work in the philosophy department of one of the aforementioned institutions.

Given the persistent homogeneity of the profession and discipline, I think therefore that these (and other) philosophers should ask themselves why they haven’t made efforts to draw specialists on disability into their own departments. Why haven’t they hired disabled philosophers of disability? In other words, the Georgetown news should have evoked self-reflection and self-criticism in these (and other) philosophers rather than awe and amazement, self-reflection and self-criticism about the roles that they themselves play in the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession and marginalization of philosophy of disability in the discipline.

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