Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Raymond Aldred

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-seventh installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Raymond Aldred. Raymond is a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department at McGill University. A member of the Métis Nation and descendant of the Historic Red River Métis Nation, Raymond has Cree kinship ties stemming from his father, who is a member of the Swan River First Nation, in Treaty 8 Territory. Raymond has published in The Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics, writing on cognitive disability and agency. In addition, his chapter on the insights that Indigenous philosophies and practices can offer to answer tough philosophical questions about so-called “good sex” is forthcoming in a book on the ethics of sexuality.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Ray! I’m delighted to interview you again in the series. When we did your interview in September 2015, you were very early into your doctoral studies at McGill. You are now putting the finishing touches on your dissertation. Please tell us about your overall experience as a disabled graduate student at McGill and how your dissertation has progressed. 

Tanisi (Hello), Shelley. It’s a pleasure to be interviewed again; and I thank you for the wonderful opportunity. Yes, when last we spoke in this context, I was very early in my dissertation. I’m happy to report that I’m nearly done the dissertation phase.

My overall experience as a disabled graduate student at McGill is best described as a challenge, that is, there have been multiple barriers and challenges during my time as a graduate student that have led me to appreciate how much the completion of grad school is serendipitous, how success in grad school is not solely determined on the basis of merit.

I was fortunate enough to get teaching assistantships, research assistantships, lectureships, and a few scholarships to afford living expenses, complete my degree, and take extra time. Without these things and support from my colleagues and mentors, I’m not sure that I would be able to finish. Not everyone gets these sorts of opportunities, which are often necessary for disabled students to succeed. Indeed, it’s usually the case that funding opportunities and employment opportunities drop out from under you after four years, which can lead graduate students to silently leave their programs. Combine these circumstances with the fact that disabled students and Indigenous students often need more than four years to complete their degrees, and the result is students who fall through institutional cracks.

My dissertation has transformed since we spoke last in the series. I’ve decided to take the route of writing three papers. The three papers that I’m including in my dissertation are loosely related to the theme of human difference. In brief, these papers are an attempt to take difference seriously. In philosophy, there’s an unfortunate tendency to either ignore or flatten difference when we try to understand the world around us. As a result, we get theories that rely on a set of claims that overgeneralize and are too universalistic. The implication of this philosophical strategy is that theories tend to be exclusionary of human differences. That is, the experiences of disabled people, trans people, queer people, Indigenous people, and a host of other distinct experiences are either left out, flattened, or uncomfortably integrated. This homogenization can have significant consequences in the real world.

Consider the philosophy of love, which is a major topic in two of the three papers of my dissertation. One part of what I highlight is how the phenomena of mental illness and the experiences of people with mental illnesses are left out of discussions of love. That is, philosophers of love usually try to develop their theories about romantic relationships around what they think “normal” lovers and beloveds are like in these relationships. People who deviate from what counts as normal are either left out of such theories or considered exceptions to the norm.

Furthermore, these universalistic methodologies tend to also be monistic in the sense that they assume that romantic love comes in only one form. This monistic tendency can lead to the disciplining and punishment of people who fail to conform to the corresponding universal idea of love. In one of my papers, for example, I point out that, in the context of settler colonialism, Indigenous people have been punished, controlled, institutionalized, and disciplined because their relationships and sexual activity have deviated from what settlers think love and sex are and should be.

I draw from a large body of literature to demonstrate this. For example, philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes casually utilized stereotypes to describe the perceived barbarism in what he conceived as the state of nature. Hobbes presented this consideration as justification for a state. I don’t think philosophers sufficiently appreciate how this description consigned Native peoples to a kind of sub-humanity, which, in turn, provided justification for control of Indigenous populations.

In the context of love, similar Hobbesian stereotypes were adopted to describe how Indigenous people formed relationships and engaged in sex. In missionary travel texts and ethnographies, for example, we can read the way that European missionaries denigrated and adopted moralistic stances to criticize the ways that Indigenous people in North America formed relationships and had sex. In addition, Indigenous bodies were locations of erotic fascinations by settlers and missionaries alike. In my view, this moralism and eroticization is related to the monistic commitments that people hold about love and sex.

In your previous interview, you spoke only briefly about the relationship between mainstream Euro-American philosophy and Indigenous philosophies. I get the distinct impression that your academic work on Indigenous philosophies has expanded considerably in the last few years. Please tell us more about the latest developments in your research, including more about your research on Indigenous philosophies and sexuality.

There’s so much that can be said about this! The paper that I’m working on now uses the Indigenous practice of talking circles as a metaphor for how Indigenous philosophies tend to be more pluralistic and open to difference. Talking circles, for those unfamiliar with them, are a common way that Indigenous communities make decisions and address problems. In a talking circle, everyone begins by sitting in a circle. The circle has a symbolic significance for quite a few Indigenous communities in Canada and represents the fact that everyone is connected to everyone else, that we are interdependent. Without everyone there, that is, if someone gets up from the circle to leave, the circle would be incomplete. An object of significance—typically a talking stick or a feather—is passed around the circle, and when each member of the circle gets the object, they get the opportunity to talk on some designated question, topic, issue, or problem.

Of course, in the circle, listening is just as valuable as talking, so members can also choose to pass the object to the next person. There’s an unspoken decorum in these circles according to which antagonism and criticism in the circle are perceived as somewhat rude. While you can disagree with someone, the point of the circle is to listen and to voice your initial opinion. The assumption is that everyone has a voice, that each voice should be respected, and may be an important piece of the puzzle to help address the topic or issue at hand. Importantly, there is no assumption that there is one and only one answer to the question; and there is a sacred respect for each voice in the circle and each member’s differences. In a sense, it’s a format where everyone in the group is working together, toward some solution or decision.

The dynamic of the talking circle contrasts with the belief that many philosophers hold according to which, when philosophers engage with each other, they are engaging in a battlefield of ideas or a marketplace of ideas, wherein we debate and criticize each other until the truth somehow rises to the top. The talking circle also contrasts sharply with debate formats and some lecture formats in which there is usually a single speaker, followed by a question and answer period. In such cases, the lecturer is grilled on their views, counterexamples are raised and, if the lecturer is really good, they can defend their views from attack.

There are a few other ways that we can think about talking circles. One important idea that I try to explore is how difference and variability are considered significant aspects of the natural world. Indeed, many of the treaties in Canada were agreed to by Indigenous communities on the basis of the belief that their cultural differences and practices would be respected. In my paper on sexuality, I apply these insights to questions about good sex. I argue that many philosophical insights can contribute an answer to this question, but a common mistake is to assume that all good sexual acts and practices have something in common or are reducible to some common feature or set of features.

Much like what I’ve said about love, while monistic and universalistic ethical positions seem to be pervasive in contemporary philosophical literature, perhaps we should rethink whether these positions should be applied to the domain of sexuality, especially given the vast array of human differences that need to be taken into account. In my view, we should begin by having a vast and broad view about what features count as good sex, and the onus of proof otherwise should be on those who want to exclude and discount other sexual modes of performance. The result would be a larger set of sexual acts and practices that count as good sex and thus a larger set that would be respected. This polycentric view on sex would, in my view, avoid colonial moralistic stances on Indigenous sexualities, such as those that I’ve previously mentioned.         

In addition to your research for the dissertation, you also serve as an Indigenous research assistant to the Office of the Provost at McGill. Please describe this work for our readers and listeners. What are your responsibilities in this position and what outcome are expected to follow from it?

The position is offered every year to an Indigenous student who will provide research support to the Office’s various initiatives. This year, we’ve been attempting to address the many calls to action detailed in the 2017 Report of the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Education. One of the recommendations of the Report was that Indigenous academics should be actively recruited. So, I’ve been giving my support and expertise to various job searches that are underway this year. We’ve had several hires since 2018 that go toward building a sustainable and supportive community of Indigenous faculty, staff, and students. These new hires will introduce Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous knowledge to programs and classes offered throughout McGill University. Thus far, McGill has hired Indigenous scholars in tenure-track positions in Anthropology, Art History, Communications Studies, History and Classics, Education, and Law. We will also conduct a job search in Global Health and Family Medicine that, hopefully, will begin in January.

I’ve helped the search committees navigate issues around identity, helped implement training for staff on Indigenous issues, have researched venues in which to advertise positions, and researched potential individuals who might fit the job searches. My responsibilities and duties are broad and flexible, so they can also go beyond that. Recently, I’ve assisted with some of the site visits of potential candidates. I’m hoping that the outcome will be that McGill continues the momentum that we’ve started, as well as continues to address the calls to action in the 2017 Task Force Report. 

I would also like to see philosophy departments across Canada take a more central role in decolonizing their institutions.  

What would you like to see philosophy departments do to expand and improve the process of reconciliation in Canadian philosophy and Canadian universities and colleges more generally?

I think that there are a number of things that Canadian philosophy departments and Canadian universities more generally can do to improve the process of reconciliation. Several universities have already formed or are in the process of forming task forces to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action. As I’ve indicated, one thing that needs to be done is to increase the presence of Indigenous people at universities by hiring Indigenous professors in departments. It’s noteworthy that the general population of Indigenous people in Canada is about 4.3%; yet, the representation of Indigenous people in most Canadian universities is much lower than this figure and is in fact abysmal. At McGill University, for example, about 0.4% of tenured positions are held by Indigenous people. At Canadian universities in general, about 1.4% of profs are Indigenous.

It’s tempting to frame this issue as entirely about equity, but there are additional layers that need to be considered. In Canada’s settler-colonial history, there were systematic efforts by the Canadian government to prevent Indigenous community members from educating their own populations.

Consider earlier renditions of The Gradual Civilization Act, which removed Indian status from Indigenous people who got university degrees, in an effort to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples into Canadian society. To the best of my knowledge, only one person actually “enfranchised” in this way, which is a good indication of how little enthusiasm Aboriginal Peoples had toward assimilating. Additionally, residential schools were designed to strip any influence of parents, elders, and community members in teaching and raising their children in their own cultures. In a sense, this practice was basically an effort to remove Indigenous Peoples from the educational process.

The Government of Canada was a major force in implementing policies of assimilation, but educational institutions were also complicit in them. Philosophers and other academics often provided the ideological frameworks of such policies, assisting in the implementation of colonialism. For example, the Albertan philosopher James MacEachran was responsible for giving the philosophical justification for Alberta’s sterilization act in the mid twentieth century. MacEachran specialized in so-called “race psychology” and was even known to teach courses on this topic when he was on the philosophy faculty at the University of Alberta. Unsurprisingly, if you look at the population of people who were sterilized under the act, a large percentage of these people were Indigenous women. In my view, an apt response to the disparities in universities and to the troubling history of the relationship between educational institutions and Indigenous peoples is to hire Indigenous academics.

In fact, most departments in Canadian universities are responding to the TRC calls to action by hiring Indigenous academics. Job postings that explicitly indicate a preference for Indigenous academics with communal ties have begun to appear in the fields of political science, anthropology, history, medicine, social work, sociology and psychology. It’s rather embarrassing that philosophy departments haven’t followed suit. In my view, this failure to recruit Indigenous philosophers is one way in which Canadian philosophy departments are perpetuating colonial institutions.

More content that engages with Indigenous thinkers and Indigenous issues needs to be included in course offerings. I don’t recall reading a single Indigenous thinker when I did my undergraduate degree and graduate degrees. Further, most of the people that I encountered were unfamiliar with Canadian colonization. The closest thing that approached engaging with Indigenous issues was reading some philosopher’s off-hand remarks about Indigenous people. Usually these remarks were whitewashed, rationalized as remarks made by a philosopher situated in a historical and cultural context in which most people held disparaging views about Indigenous people, with the implication that some of the given philosopher’s views were worthy of engagement and salvageable. There was little reflection on how these remarks fit within the philosopher’s views, nor any appreciation for how such views are usually perfectly consistent with settler colonialism.

There’s an increasing number of talented Indigenous students who are interested in taking philosophy and perhaps even majoring in it. As a mentor to Indigenous students, I know that many of these students decide to abandon philosophy because philosophy departments typically don’t offer Indigenous content. These students want to study for degrees that enable them to actually learn about themselves. Indigenous content is offered in a range of other programs and disciplines, including political science, anthropology, history, literature, education, and linguistics. Philosophy departments are falling behind in this respect.

Of course, much more can be said about this issue, but I’ll leave it at that. 

Ray, your future work will combine Native Studies and philosophy to investigate how philosophers, academics in general, and institutions and their policies and practices frustrate or prevent the participation of Indigenous people. Please describe this work, how it resonates with your own experiences as a disabled Métis and Cree man in academic philosophy, and why you want to do it.

As you can probably tell, this project is in the very early stages, so I can’t comment on too many specifics. What I can say is that this project was loosely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s article “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The New York Review of Books in February 1967. In this article, Chomsky distinguishes between intellectuals who are subservient to institutions of power and intellectuals who actually challenge the institutions in which they exist, criticizing the former and arguing that intellectuals are responsible for the latter. Chomsky persuasively suggests that it is significant that certain events provoke so little response in the intellectual community, given the privileged positions that we occupy. As he notes, we sit in good positions to

expose the lies of governments, to analyze the actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. … For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.

At the time that he made these remarks, Chomsky was challenging the intellectual climate and intellectuals who defended the atrocities in Vietnam or failed to shine a critical light on them.

I think that a similar inquiry can be made about the intellectual climate in response to colonization. After I recently read Chomsky’s article again, I began to wonder what philosophers and intellectuals were saying and writing about while residential schools were in operation and as settler colonialism took place around them. Did they have something to say about the events that were happening within and to Indigenous communities? Did they write about Aboriginal Peoples? If so, how did they write about them? Did they perpetuate colonial stereotypes? Or did they critique them? Did they defend what was going on in the schools and to Indigenous communities more generally? Did they attempt to understand Indigenous issues that occurred in their day? Or did they ignore them?

My focus is largely on philosophers and other academics; however, they do not exist as discrete entities, divorced from the world around them. They have existed within a larger context among their peers, within institutions, and within a political climate that had certain governmental policies designed to control and dominate Aboriginal Peoples. At present, I’m in the research gathering stage for this project. I’m looking at philosophers, past and present; so far, the results have been interesting. A lot of philosophers defended colonialism.

John Stuart Mill, for example, defended colonialism on the basis that Aboriginal People lacked the basic capacities to be free and self-governing citizens. We often lionize Mill for his defense of freedom, but rarely is it asked, “Freedom for who?” Based on what Mill actually wrote, it doesn’t seem to me that he thought that Aboriginal Peoples were included in his visions of freedom. Bertrand Russell is another intellectual who we often think was progressive on issues of war, pacifism, and a host of other issues in his time. Yet, in his 1915 article on “The Ethics of War,” he wrote that colonialism was permissible on utilitarian grounds and that conquest was justified if the side with a more advanced civilization could put the land to better use. The implication of this view, as you might guess, is that colonialism in Canada and the United States is justifiable.    

I also want to investigate epistemic injustice, which in one respect refers to injustices centered around what people don’t know. Many academics and philosophers are largely uninformed about Aboriginal issues and Aboriginal Peoples. How many academics know on whose land their institution sits? How many of them know which Aboriginal groups reside in neighboring communities around their institutions? How many know about what went on in residential schools and boarding schools? This lack of knowledge can perpetuate colonialism and colonial institutions; so, I think it’s important to ask these sorts of questions.

My hope is that this project will inspire established and up-and-coming non-Indigenous philosophers to take a step back and reflect on both their own relationships to Aboriginal Peoples and the relationships to Aboriginal Peoples of the institutions in which they work.

Ray, would you like to raise any other issues, add to remarks that you’ve made in this interview, or recommend some resources to our listeners and readers?

Aside from what I’ve already mentioned, I’ll recommend a few papers and reports that I’ve alluded to in this interview.

[Description of photo below: Ray from the chest up. He seems to be leaning forward, is wearing a sleeveless shirt, sunglasses, and brimmed hat and has a floral tattoo on his upper right arm and shoulder]

First, I think that every Canadian should read and reflect on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report. Related to this, I also recommend McGill’s Provost’s Task Force On Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education Final Report. This Report was done in response to the TRC. As I’ve noted, many universities across Canada are creating similar documents. It would be wise for philosophers in Canadian institutions to take note of how their institutions are responding to the TRC.

Second, during the past year, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls published its final report and calls for justice. I think it’s worthwhile for any Canadian scholar to read this document.

Third, I recommend a paper called “Devil with the Face of an Angel: Physical and Moral Descriptions of Aboriginal People by Missionary Emile Petitot” by Murielle Nagy in the book Indigenous Bodies. Nagy describes how the missionary Emile Petitot’s ethnographies were hardly objective observations of reality, but rather were infused with normative descriptions of Aboriginal people’s bodies and sexualities.

Fourth, I’d like to recommend Chomsky’s article “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

Finally, the APA usually has an annual newsletter on Native American and Indigenous Philosophy that is worth looking through.

I think that about sums it up. If any philosophers out there have any interesting quotes by notable philosophers that relate to Indigenous issues or Aboriginal Peoples, I’d love to know about them. As I said, I’m currently in the research and gathering stage of my aforementioned project. So, any references of this kind would be helpful.

Shelley, thanks for engaging me in this interesting discussion and for asking me to participate once again. As with my previous interview, this interview has been a thought-provoking project for me in its own right.

Ray, thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed again. Your remarks throughout this interview are very instructive and urgent. I hope that Canadian philosophy departments will give them serious consideration.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Ray Aldred’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

___________________________________________

Please join me here again on Wednesday, January 15th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-eighth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

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