Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future, No. 4

In this fourth post of Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future—a series of posts designed to explain claims that I made in response to commentators in the Pacific APA symposium on Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability—I want to elaborate my claim that naturalization of disability in philosophy has expanded in new directions. My central aim in the post is to point out how the naturalization of disability is increasingly produced in an expanding array of domains and contexts within philosophy, including domains or contexts that variously seem unrelated to disability and domains or contexts that appear to be progressive, ameliorative, and anti-oppressive.  

In my previous post in this mini-series of posts, I drew attention to one of the ways that disability is naturalized in the work of Elizabeth Barnes. I suggested that Barnes’s identification of disability as a “mere difference” rather than a “bad difference” and her inadequate account of impairment and its constitution—that is, its production as a mechanism of the apparatus of disability—limit the transformative potential of her analyses. Indeed, I maintain that the circulation and re-articulation of Barnes’s theory of disability in philosophical and theoretical contexts has itself further consolidated and (re)entrenched the naturalization of disability in philosophy.  

In this post, I want to turn to examine the naturalization of disability that continues to take place in discussions in philosophy about gender/transgender. Although the naturalization of disability has not been an avowed focus of these discussions, nor disabled people an acknowledged target of the discussions, naturalization of disability has, in various interventions into them, been an (unintended?) effect of the discussions and disabled people have repeatedly been explicitly and implicitly derogated in the course of the discussions.

I am inclined to think that the ways in which contributors to the debates about gender/transgender have over the last few years employed tropes of disability give new life to Foucault’s much-cited and often misunderstood remark about the concealment of power: “People know what they do, they frequently know why they do what they do, but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”

In the midst of the uproar over the publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s article in Hypatia, I wrote a post for Discrimination and Disadvantage about some of the ways in which I saw disability used in the heated discussion that surrounded the publication of the article. I have copied this earlier post in its entirety below and follow it with additional remarks about more recent interventions in philosophy. The title of the post, which appeared on Discrimination and Disadvantage on May 9, 2017, is “Notes on the Tuvel Controversy and the Depoliticization of Disability.” The post reads:

In 2013, I published an article entitled “Introducing Feminist Philosophy of Disability” in which I presented findings of a relatively comprehensive survey that I had conducted to identify the ways that disabled philosophers are excluded from the profession and philosophy of disability is severely marginalized in the discipline.

Among other things, the article showed how disabled feminist philosophers and philosophy of disability are underrepresented in feminist anthologies, discourses, analyses, and articles, as well as on journal editorial boards and the boards of feminist and other philosophical associations. I offered estimated percentages of disabled philosophers employed in the profession, percentages with respect to representation of disabled feminist philosophers and feminist philosophy of disability in feminist philosophy anthologies and special issues, and so on. This data has almost never been cited or referenced in discussions about underrepresentation in philosophy.

In the article, I focused in particular on the underrepresentation of disabled feminist philosophers and disabled feminist philosophers of disability on the Hypatia editorial boards and the scarcity of critical work on disability in the journal. Four years later, disabled feminist philosophers of disability remain underrepresented on the Hypatia editorial boards. Yet, in virtually none of the blog posts and Facebook posts about “rebuilding” the journal in the wake of the heated discussions about the Tuvel article has there been any acknowledgment of the dearth of (disabled) feminist philosophers of disability on these editorial boards nor has the suggestion been made that this underrepresentation be rectified.

In one exchange that I read on Facebook, furthermore, two nondisabled white feminist philosophers discussed the urgent need for venues other than journal articles where philosophers of colour and other marginalized philosophers could engage in “dialogue” with philosophers from dominant social groups. Such remarks, I pointed out, ignore the fact that these sorts of opportunities have already been available on this very blog. For the past two years, that is, I have interviewed disabled philosophers in the Dialogues on Disability series (archived here). Almost half of my interviewees have been Black or Indigenous disabled philosophers or disabled philosophers of colour. None of the nondisabled white philosophers who, in various venues and fora over the past week, has remarked on the lack of opportunity to “dialogue” with racialized philosophers and other underrepresented philosophers has shown up to comment on any of the interviews over the past two years.

Why? I suspect this lack of attention to the concerns, experiences, arguments, and so on of disabled philosophers, including disabled Black and Indigenous philosophers and disabled philosophers of colour is, among other things, due to the ongoing unwillingness of nondisabled philosophers to recognize disability as a political apparatus in which everyone is implicated and which thus colludes with other apparatuses of power, rather than as a disadvantageous personal attribute or unfortunate natural disadvantage that affects only a certain sector of the population.

From my perspective, that is, the unwillingness of philosophers to enfold analyses of disability into current conceptions of intersectionality and multiple interacting oppressions has in fact been evident throughout the discussions, accusations, and criticisms of the Tuvel article and ensuing protests and apologies.

To take one example: the matter of “deadnaming” has been a key point of dispute in the controversy, a reminder that language is never neutral but rather is saturated with political potency. Yet, the articles in which this point has been underlined have almost routinely appealed to ableist metaphors and tropes of (for instance) “blindspots,” “tone deafness,” “damaged daughters,” and “epistemic ignorance.”

To take another example that has been central to the “controversy”: inappropriate and inadequate citation of marginalized philosophers and failure to appropriately confer epistemic authority on such philosophers have been identified by philosophers, including feminist philosophers, who seem quite willing to overlook the ways that these pernicious practices are routinely committed with respect to disabled people in standard bioethics texts and even writing in feminist bioethics, as well as in feminist philosophy more generally.

My aim in the Discrimination and Disadvantage post was to draw attention to the ways in which feminist philosophers, among others, discursively employ the apparatus of disability, that is, put it to work, even when, or especially when, their arguments and claims are designed to convince their interlocutors on a given position about other (political) issues. In these contexts, in other words, disability is not regarded as itself political or as a political concern, but rather is taken to be a natural entity that props up that which is actually political in character.

In the past week, I have read a number of Tweets in which claims made by cis men who support gender critical feminists were described as (for example) “mind-numbing” and the suggestion was made that “the brains have fallen out of” the heads of the men themselves. Several months ago, I read a number of blog posts in which a gender critical feminist philosopher repeatedly used ableist metaphors and other ableist language to boost the impact of her claims. Last week, a cis male philosopher published an article critical of the rhetorical violence that he perceives in the remarks of gender critical feminists, the tone of which article is motivated and conditioned by the terms intellectually dense and morally obtuse.

One week, philosophers use derogatory appeals to (the artifact referred to as) “mental disability” in order to disparage Trump; the next week, they use similar appeals to derogate their philosophical adversaries in the gender/transgender debates and the claims of these adversaries.

Regardless of their declared targets, these rhetorical devices, this racism against the abnormal, detrimentally effects disabled people. Although the equation of some disabled people with whatever is derided in a given case is obvious and indeed the whole point of the use of the given linguistic practice in that case, the detrimental effects of the practices fall upon all disabled people, especially given the ontological status of the apparatus of disability, the shifting parameters of ideas about normality and deficit, contested claims about who counts as disabled, and so on.

Without question, the employment of these ableist tropes and rhetorical devices is (as is characteristic of modern governmental forms of power) intentional and nonsubjective: directed at a particular aim (intentional) and, insofar as they circulate in systems of language, cannot be attributed to a given agent who introduced them into practice (nonsubjective).  

Although my published work makes evident where I situate myself with respect to the theoretical issues that surround sex and gender, I am increasingly alienated from the gender/trans debates in philosophy precisely because of the ableism that various contributors to them persistently produce.

If contributors to the debates want to build support for their arguments and interests across diverse constituencies, I recommend that they begin to pay (more) attention to the apparatuses of power with which gender is mutually constitutive and reinforcing. For all the ensuing jabs and pitches in the “gender wars” in philosophy about who has the appropriate and authoritative expertise and credentials in the debates, the importance of attention to a myriad of apparatuses of power, especially disability, seems to be a lesson that few contributors to the debates have learned or at least practice. They could begin to do so by challenging the ableism of both their allies and adversaries whereever and whenever it appears, including the previously unaddressed ableism of the letter in support of academic freedom from twelve prominent scholars.   

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