Philosophy and Structural Gaslighting About Disability

Philosophers generally do not regard critical examination of disability as suitable to research and teaching in social metaphysics and social epistemology; nor do they, generally, appreciate the critical importance of philosophy of disability but rather remain resolute that philosophical inquiry about disability is appropriately and adequately conducted in the established subfield of bioethics. Indeed, a growing number of bioethicists seem to devote considerable effort to the task of reconfiguring bioethics in ways that safeguard their own disciplinary, professional, and institutional jurisdiction over philosophical claims about disability.

Thus, I have aimed to show how the naturalizing and individualizing assumptions upon which these practices of confirmation bias rely are inextricably entwined with the conceptual-analytical inquiries that philosophers pursue and the judgements that they make about faculty searches and hiring practices, journal submissions, curricula, conference lineups, and tenure and promotion. In recent years, that is, my research has been designed to undermine a cluster of assumptions about the relation between biology and society that remain embedded in philosophical discourses, naturalizing and re-biologizing disability and its alleged foundation, impairment. In various publications, I have argued that social metaphysics and epistemology of impairment and disability must consider how claims that naturalize these ostensibly “biological” phenomena emerge; in what contexts these claims are mobilized and advanced; and for what social, economic, institutional, and political purposes.

The naturalization of an individualized and medicalized conception of disability in philosophical and popular discourses about nursing homes is a form of structural gaslighting. As Nora Berenstain has remarked, philosophers partake in structural gaslighting when they invoke epistemologies and ideologies of domination that actively and routinely disappear and obscure the actual causes, mechanisms, and effects of oppression (Berenstain, forthcoming). I have argued that the epistemologies and ontologies of domination within philosophy that persistently naturalize disability repeatedly sabotage attempts to improve the situation and status of disabled philosophers, in part because these epistemologies and ontologies facilitate the reconstitution within both the discipline and profession of deeply entrenched prejudices according to which disabled people are defective, unreliable, and suboptimal.

Against the individualized and medicalized conception of disability, which is reconstituted by and through this form of structural gaslighting, I maintain that disability is a complex matrix of power relations, an apparatus of power, in Foucault’s sense. The structural gaslighting about nursing homes, which the individualized and medicalized conception of disability bolsters, is one strategy of this apparatus of disability. The exclusion of disabled people from the profession of philosophy and other positions of epistemic authority is another strategy of this apparatus. As Foucault explained it, an apparatus is an ensemble of discourses, institutions, scientific statements, laws, administrative measures, and philosophical propositions mobilized in response to a perceived social need in a particular historical moment (Foucault, 1980, 194). The perceived social requirement to which the apparatus of disability responds in this historical moment is biopolitical normalization.

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