Weinberg and Barnes on Ableist Language

Last week, Justin Weinberg put two additional posts on Daily Nous that make liberal use of ableist language. Elizabeth Barnes gave him permission to do so. In a manner of speaking. For only days before Weinberg put these ableist posts on his blog, he published an interview with Barnes in which she speaks disparagingly about the critiques of ableist language that some disabled philosophers make. Since no disabled philosopher of disability has written more about ableist language than me, I think it is safe to assume that I am the target of Barnes’s remarks, a role that I seem to have served since the heyday of Barnes’s rather uninformed posts about disability on the Feminist Philosophers blog.

The crux of Barnes’s latest dismissal of the (my) critique of ableist language in philosophical and everyday discourse seems to be this: attention to ableist language is trivial, or at least lacks the urgency of other issues with which disabled people must contend, most notably access to health care and lack thereof. In the past, Barnes made the same argument in a post at Feminist Philosophers, though she subsequently seemed to retreat from this position in an uneven article about disabled people and harm that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In the article, Barnes suggested that communities of disabled people should be the arbiters of which speech acts are harmful to them.

Given the limited interests of analytic philosophers, responses (from philosophers) to Barnes’s CHE article revolved primarily around the implicit assumptions and explicit claims that the article makes about harm — what the character of harm is, what counts as harm, whether the notion of harm is aptly applied in this context, etc. In this post, however, I want to set aside these questions in order to address other issues that Barnes’s most recent remarks about the philosophical critique of ableist language raise.

I want first to point out that Barnes formulates her claims about the (in)significance of ableist language in everyday and philosophical discourse as a conflict between concerns, that is, as a sort of zero-sum game between two mutually exclusive concerns: disabled philosophers of disability should be concerned about health care rather than ableist language. How can disabled philosophers of disability advocate for access to health care if they spend their time criticizing ableist language? But the dichotomy that Barnes constructs is a contrivance. One can readily devote one’s time and energy to critique of both ableist language and lack of access to health care. Indeed, the scholars (including philosophers) who have developed the most important critiques of ableist language work on a variety of issues — including accessible pedagogy, underrepresentation, health care, immigration and disability, and racism and disability — in addition to their work on ableist language. What does Barnes work on? Does Barnes devote all her research time and resources to health care for disabled people and their access to it?

Given the zero-sum relation that Barnes erects, we might say that, according to Barnes, access to health care should be regarded as the only issue that disabled people confront at present or at least the only urgent issue. But we shouldn’t accept either of these claims.

First, it is simply not the case that in every jurisdiction disabled people grapple with the lack of access to health care that they do in the U.S. where Barnes currently resides. Thus, the zero-sum relation that Barnes presents us with seems ethnocentric. The U.S. is in fact an outlier in its refusal to implement a system of universal access to health care.

Second, access to health care or lack thereof is not even uniform amongst disabled people in the U.S., as Barnes, who is both disabled and has excellent health care, acknowledges.

Third, it is not the case that in countries where disabled people enjoy the same access to health care as their nondisabled neighbours that they are not subject to other forms of discrimination, are not derogated by name-calling, are not subjected to disability hate crimes, do not encounter personal prejudices, can readily find accessible housing, and so on. The suggestion that access to health care is the only urgent concern that disabled people have medicalizes (the apparatus of) disability. Even a disabled person, such as Barnes, who lives in the U.S. and has great health care (and is privileged in many other ways) may confront inaccessibility and other forms of ableism (such as ableist language and name-calling) on a daily basis.

Fourth, the zero-sum relation that Barnes sets up implies that disabled people’s access to health care or lack thereof is separable from, that is, can be extricated from, how disabled people are represented in language and other discursive practices. But the assumption that language and discourse can be isolated from other social activities and practices misunderstands the performative character of language and flies in the face of much of the work that feminists, critical race theorists, trans writers, and other oppositional thinkers have produced over the past few decades, both within and outside of academia.

Every social movement in the recent past and at present has challenged oppressive and subjugating discursive representations of its members, and understandably so. These representations in language and discourse contribute to the constitution and reproduction of other social, economic, and political practices, reinforcing structures and apparatuses that condition the acts, actions, prospects, and possibilities of the subjects whom they come to signify. Anyone who doubts the importance of language to the development of identity, for instance, should read Foucault’s work on the constitution of subjects and Hacking’s work on making up people, including making up kinds of people.

Indeed, the social constructionist critique of essentialism that has helped to spawn fields such as critical race studies, queer studies, and critical diversity studies is wholly indebted to the critiques of language that Foucault, Spivak, the Combahee River Collective, and others have articulated. In fact, Barnes seems not to realize how the social constructionist critique of language now conditions her own assertions about disability apparently. At one point in the recent interview, Barnes, evidently drawing upon my assertion that disability is an apparatus of power rather than a property (characteristic, attribute, and so on) of individuals, invokes the term disabilities in quotation marks, doing so, as I have (see Tremain 2017), to suggest that the term is problematic, requires further reflection, ought to be contested, is not straightforward or self-evident. Without my assumptions about the performative character of language and the critique of ableist language that these assumptions encompass, I likely would not have recognized the significance of the language (namely, “disabilities”) used to represent disability as a human property or trait. If I had not developed my insight that disability is an apparatus rather than a property of persons, Barnes might have been left to take recourse in her own published claim that disability is a mere (i.e., natural, prediscursive, and value neutral) human difference.

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