Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Nathan Moore

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-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.

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 the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Nathan Moore. Nathan recently completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Western University in Canada, specializing in philosophy of physics. His current interests are in social epistemology and philosophy of disability, particularly models of disability, neurodiversity, cognition, attitudinal barriers, epistemic injustice, and epistemologies of domination.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Nathan! You grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, and began your university education in physics and biology. After doing a B.Sc. in physics at Acadia University and a M.Sc. at University of Toronto, you returned to Acadia to do a B.A. in philosophy, eventually taking a Ph.D. in philosophy of physics from Western University. Please describe your earlier work in the sciences and subsequent transition to philosophy, as well as your rationale for this transition.

Thank you, Shelley! I’m grateful and honoured to have the opportunity to talk to you about my experiences.

When I was growing up my family spent a lot of time at a local zoo. As I got older, I began to volunteer there and, when I went off to university, my initial plan had been to become a veterinarian. I had enjoyed both pre-calculus and physics in high school and so choose to take introductory calculus along with the introductory calculus-based physics courses. That turned out to be fortunate, as by the end of my second year, in which I took more physics courses, I decided to change majors. I did briefly consider taking philosophy as a second major but decided to go with biology instead since biophysics seemed interesting. I had the opportunity to spend a summer examining the possible use of methods from statistical physics in protein modeling. By the time that I had to decide on my thesis topic, however, I was fully committed to theoretical high-energy physics. My thesis was on the “strange” content of nucleons (protons and neutrons). More specifically, on the continuous process of strange-antistrange quark pair production and annihilation in nucleons.

I was exposed to some philosophy during my B.Sc., having taken courses in philosophy of religion and epistemology. My epistemology instructor, Stephen Maitzen, turned out to be somewhat knowledgeable about philosophy of physics, so I had conversations with him on the topic. Still, I chose to continue studying physics and went on to the University of Toronto for graduate studies. At the end of my first year, I had been planning to do a summer research project on magnetic monopoles (essentially microscopic magnets with only one pole) in the early universe. However, the ableism that I had experienced all my life—although I didn’t recognize it as ableism at the time—compelled me to take a medical leave of absence at the end of my first year. During my leave of absence, I began reading more work in philosophy of physics and eventually came to realize that the sorts of questions in which I was primarily interested were philosophical questions.

Because of my prior interest in philosophy, I decided to do a B.A. instead of moving directly into graduate studies in philosophy. Because Acadia had no focus on philosophy of science and I had developed a fondness for analytic metaphysics, my thesis was on the problem of vagueness. Having acquired (what I deemed to be) an essential background in philosophy and a broader view of philosophical issues, I moved on to graduate studies in philosophy of physics at Western. My dissertation engaged with both analytic metaphysical accounts of individuality and mainstream philosophy of physics work on the individuality of quantum particles, ultimately arguing, against the “received view,” that quantum particles are individuals.

Nathan, you have indicated that you recently developed an interest in philosophy of disability. What aspects of this relatively new subfield engage you? What are your plans for work in philosophy of disability? What can we expect from you?

I have a number of interests in philosophy of disability, as well as in feminist philosophy more broadly. In line with my general interest in metaphysics, I have interests with respect to models of disability, neurodiversity, and cognition/intelligence.

One question I’m very interested in is “What is disability?” I’m interested in the particular details of precisely how it is constructed and how power relations are involved. Is it purely a social construct, or is it partly, or even entirely, constituted by power relations? Does biology play a unique role with respect to the social construction of disability? Or is the role of biology no different than its role in, say, the social construction of sex? How can we change the nature of disability by changing social attitudes or relations of power? And precisely what changes would be desirable? Does the mutability of the category (the fact that people can become disabled) have implications for the answers to these questions?

A more specific version of the same question of particular interest to me is “What is neurodivergence?” and the related question “What is neurodiversity?” What new questions arise when we move from defining “disability” generally to defining particular subgroups of disability? What is the significance of the fact that disabilities like autism are immutable? Does the fact that a disability like autism is generally considered mutable—e.g. the (false) ideas that autism can be caused by vaccines or can be cured by ingesting bleach or undergoing chelation—make a difference to its construction?

[Description of photo below: Nathan sits on a couch with a thoughtful look on his face. He is smiling slightly and wears wire-rimmed glasses. A pillow covered in patterned fabric rests on the couch to his right.]

With respect to cognition, I’m interested both in the metaphysical question of what cognition is and the question of the extent to which we should value cognition as a moral-making attribute. On the metaphysical side, I have concerns that our notions of “cognition” and “intelligence” are problematic and need to be reexamined in the light of (realistic) accounts of cognition affecting disabilities. On the value side, I am very concerned with the use of (unrealistic) accounts of intellectual disabilities in both arguments against speciesism and arguments that disability is inherently bad owing to reduced quality of life.

My primary area of interest, however, is now epistemology. I am currently working on three, very rough, ideas for papers involving the relation between epistemic injustices, epistemologies of domination, and disability. Ultimately, I think that differences between disability and other systems of oppression have implications both in terms of how epistemic injustice arises and in terms of the sorts of resistances involved in maintained domination. More specifically, I think that there can be different motivations underlying testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice, and willful hermeneutical ignorance, as well as some different sorts of stakes or reasons for people in power to maintain their epistemic domination with respect to disability.

You describe yourself as a “budding disability and neurodiversity activist.” What does this phrase mean to you and what actions follow from it?

The sort of activism that I’m primarily interested in, as well as most suited for, is a kind of academic activism. Philosophers have made significant inroads into the realm of moral gatekeepers that was once the sole domain of religious leaders. As such, not only can the writings of philosophers on various moral issues carry significant weight but also their choices of issues to address or ignore.

The marginalization of disability within the discipline of philosophy is a significant issue in terms of the maintenance of systemic ableism throughout society and the forms that it takes. Even more so when we have both (i) influential philosophers whose writings on, or references to, disability are laden with ableist assumptions and stereotypes and (ii) philosophers, influential or not, who, by (tacitly) defending a medical model of disability or (explicitly) defending the view that disability is inherently bad, falsely make these positions appear as reasonable positions for a reasonable and (allegedly) informed person to hold.

I believe that good (read: feminist and intersectional) philosophy of disability is essential to combating ableism and improving the lives of disabled people. I also believe that many vital issues that are increasingly addressed in philosophy of disability—for example, issues related to epistemic injustice and/or epistemologies of domination—tend not to be addressed in disability studies. So, part of what I meant when I used that phrase is that I am beginning to embark on a journey to pursue a variety of academic activism. An activism that, while disability focused, is nonetheless intersectional; informed by feminist insights, as well as insights from critical race theory, gender and sexuality studies, and their subfields, and work from outside the academy. Consequently I, for the most part, don’t view the sort of disability or neurodiversity activism that I primarily have in mind as distinct from my interests and goals in pursuing philosophy of disability.

However, I am also, out of necessity, concerned with more “standard” forms of activism. Unemployment rates among autistics are absurdly high, even in the disability community, with as many as 85% percent of employable autistics chronically un- or under-employed. This results from conscious ableist biases that are still considered socially acceptable. Guidelines for how to behave in an interview, for example, read like a guide on how to act neurotypical. Consequently, these biases aren’t hidden but are rather biases that are neither recognized as biases nor as ableist.

Those of us on the spectrum have a lot of difficulty forming relationships, including friendships. What’s going on here is significantly less clear than in the case of unemployment. Certainly, unconscious habits are involved that treat our linguistic habits and body language in a negative way. More detailed information regarding specific habits involved and how they might be addressed is largely unavailable. It’s also very unclear why some autistics, like me, have significantly more difficulty with relationships than other autistics.

So, ultimately, my interest in standard activism follows—for the sake of my financial, personal, and mental well-being—from a need to address a common issue facing the autistic community and larger neurodivergent community. I believe that I can, ultimately, make my most valuable contributions with a more academic and abstract approach.

How has your approach to research shifted since you began to identify as “autistic”?

There’s been three major changes, related to research, since I began to identify as autistic. The first change was in how I conceptualize certain issues. I only began to identify as autistic when I was well into my Ph.D. A big part of why it took so long was that it had never occurred to me that my experiences, which I spent a great deal of time thinking about, could involve oppression. Able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, white men aren’t supposed to be oppressed. My realization that I’m autistic and that a lot of what I’ve experienced comes from ableism has, for example, affected my understanding of ableism, sexism, and racism. An “able-bodied”—but neurodivergent—cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, white man challenges white male supremacy. It’s not merely the interaction of epistemologies of domination with ableism that has prevented me from understanding my experiences for so long, but also a combination of sexism and racism. White male supremacy has just as much interest in suppressing knowledge of “defective” white men as ableism does itself. Consequently, white saviorism, for example, isn’t just about race but also about ability.

The upshot of this, in terms of research, is my greater appreciation for just how important intersectionality is. While I believe there is some productive research that I can do that largely limits my focus to disability alone, I also believe that there are serious limits to the scope of that research. Focusing too narrowly on disability (or gender) doesn’t merely produce gaps in knowledge; it also produces defective “knowledge”—defective “knowledge” for whose production we can, and I think should, hold people accountable in some instances. There is no reasonable excuse for me or other people to limit the scope of our research to one axis, or even only a few axes, of oppression.

Epistemologies of domination are not all or nothing when it comes it to educating oneself about the experiences of others. One can be very active in maintaining one’s ignorance even while educating oneself about some particular areas. Indeed, knowing something about racism, for example, can necessitate paying a certain amount of attention to it simply in order to maintain one’s psychological comfort, since to ignore it completely may become a source of guilt. Someone who is informed about racism but not about disability, for example, and who reads about racism to avoid guilt would likely continue to ignore disability. Someone who recognizes their responsibility to educate themselves about the experiences of others would not limit their self-education in this way.

The point is that even, for example, white feminist philosophers who pay some attention to race, may be as resistant to learning about the experiences of others as someone who thinks there’s no systemic racism. The difference can sometimes be, and I think often is, that the white feminist philosophers know too much about racism to be able to both ignore it and maintain their psychological comfort. Part of that comfort comes from congratulating themselves on their anti-racism while failing to realize that they still, as much as is possible, resist learning about the experiences of others.

Or, to put it another way, they are, as much as is possible given their current state of knowledge, maximizing the epistemic injustice that they do. I believe this self-congratulatory and self-interested thinking is the likely explanation for the significant lack of intersectionality in the majority of works in white feminist philosophy. It’s also ironic that these philosophers aren’t even practicing anti-racism given that their focus on race is both motivated and limited by the defensive mechanisms that maintain epistemologies of domination.

The second major change in my research since I began to identify as autistic is a change of focus from philosophy of physics to philosophy of disability and feminist philosophy. Not only is philosophy of disability useful and important to me as a disabled philosopher, but I find it so much more interesting and rewarding than the work that I have done in the past. As interesting as I find philosophy of physics, I would never have pursued this field of research if I had encountered philosophy of disability and/or feminist philosophy earlier.

With this new change in research focus comes a change in approach. In my study of philosophy of physics, I never thought about issues of gender or race, etc. I realize now that even in that domain, this is a mistake. I should have been attentive to viewpoints on my topics of interest that were marginalized due to the social identities of the people who espoused these viewpoints rather than due to some intrinsic lack value.

Nevertheless, I also think that research on issues related to oppression requires more than just paying attention to philosophical works by members of a variety of marginalized groups. I don’t think that attention to this work is sufficient to develop the hermeneutical resources necessary to properly understand, appreciate, and engage with that philosophical material. I think identification of the full range of hermeneutical resources used in the understanding of a particular issue is extremely difficult, if not impossible to pin down. I suspect that’s partly why it can be so difficult to explain experiences to other people even when they’re willing to listen carefully. I have no idea what hermeneutical resources I’m tacitly relying on when trying to explain an experience even if I’m aware of some particularly important resources that I am in a position to explain.

Consequently, I think that both the production of adequate scholarly work in philosophy of disability and the practice of good citizenship require that one read a wide variety of works written by members of a variety of oppressed groups. I therefore won’t limit myself to reading works selected on the basis of my research interests but will devote some of my spare time to reading other works. Doing so will not only help me acquire necessary hermeneutical resources that I might not otherwise acquire, it will help me find works relevant to my research interests that would have otherwise escaped my notice.

Nathan, you have mentioned to me that the primary issue with respect to inaccessibility and ableism that you have encountered is social exclusion. Please explain how you have felt excluded and why, as well as what philosophers can do to alleviate this form of exclusion in the future.

The root of the issue is a lack of acceptance for neurodivergent, specifically autistic, ways of being. Pinpointing specific issues has been difficult. This difficulty is due in part to the fact that research on social exclusion of autistics tends to focus on determining what autistic traits are “responsible”—that is, the traits people are responding to—rather than on details of how/why people respond in a particular way. It’s also difficult to pinpoint specific issues because autism is a spectrum with significant variety in the traits that any given autistic displays and how these traits present themselves. But the basic issue is a mismatch between my autistic communication style and neurotypical communication styles, that is, a situation that requires others to meet me halfway instead of, as the autistic community has frequently complained about, expecting us to do “99%” of the communicative work.

On the one hand, there is the anxiety associated with saying the wrong thing or saying something in the wrong way and the signs of disapproval that this can elicit. This sort of situation and the anxiety associated with it can result in self-censorship and even in what Kristie Dotson calls testimonial smothering. On the other hand, when I do manage to participate my contributions can often be dismissed or discounted. This seems to result from a sort of unconscious discomfort with my mode of expression. My facial expression, tone of voice, vocal inflections, body language, and word choice can all be subtly “off”—that is, subtly violate neurotypical social norms of communication. An unconscious feeling that there’s something off about my communication can entail a similar feeling that there’s something off about what I’m saying in addition to how I’m saying it.

Even worse is that it’s not that uncommon for people to tune me out completely in the way that people in a public setting tune out nearby conversations. The result is that people often treat as empty the space that I occupy in a social situation. For example, they make eye contact with everyone else while their gaze merely passes over me or they fail to hear (literally) my contributions. This treatment is most noticeable when I’m trying to socialize with people who are all, for example, standing around chatting at a conference during a break. Often when a group of people are talking while standing, how they stand in relation to each other depends on the size of the group. A group of four people might be standing at the four corners of a rough square. If one person leaves, then the others temporarily remain standing where they are so that they appear to be standing at three corners of a square, with the fourth corner empty. If no one else comes to fill the space, they tend to move in closer to form a rough equilateral triangle.

I’ve been in situations, many times, in which I’m one of the four people standing roughly in a square formation and the other three people move inwards to form a rough equilateral triangle without my leaving. I’ve also had a (small) number of people bump into me while doing this. One normally expects that when two people are participants in the same conversation, they shouldn’t be bumping into each other unless an unusual thing occurs, such as one of them losing their balance while shifting position. This sort of interaction has been an element of my experience that people seem most resistant to accept, hence why I’m trying to precisely describe an instance that can’t be easily explained away.

Changing any of these behavior patterns means changing deeply ingrained social habits. The only advice that I can give about changing them is to try to remain consciously aware of unconscious habits if they’ve been pointed out to you, aware of barriers that some people may face to socializing, and aware of how much effort is realistically required to change unconscious habits. In the case of the above patterns in which people respond inappropriately to me and my contributions in various ways, a conscious effort to respond appropriately would presumably be required. And it may take a long time for any given person to change before such conscious effort would no longer be needed. In the case of my anxiety, there is actually a fairly standard practice that would be helpful. When someone is perceived as shy, it’s relatively common for other people to deliberately try to engage them by regularly asking them directly if they have any thoughts on what’s being discussed. This practice tends not to be extended to me. I assume that there are ableist reasons for this discrepancy which are associated with the subtle difference between my behaviour and the behaviour of someone who is shy.

The consequences of my exclusion include that I have been denied access to teaching-related training that could have improved my C.V., access to philosophical discussions (and epistemic friction) outside the classroom, and access to networking opportunities. My worsening mental health due to extreme isolation greatly restricted my ability to pursue academically and professionally enriching activities beyond merely satisfying program requirements. The subtle, and not so subtle, microaggressions that I faced in social interactions also meant that there was a mental health cost to participation in various activities even when I had the energy to do so. All three of the access issues that I mentioned negatively impact my ability to find work in philosophy where my “individual merits” may be notably less impressive than the merits of other philosophers who did not face such restrictions. The second issue limits the extent to which I can improve my situation. How can I produce quality scholarship to bolster my C.V. without appropriate epistemic friction and feedback and furthermore would such bolstering ultimately do any good?

Many people are extremely ignorant of just how harmful the effects of ostracism can be. To give some idea, I’d like to point out that research suggests that ostracism is an extremely effective means of generating complex PTSD. Suicidal ideation is already common among autistics, even before the end of secondary school. It began for me when I was twelve. My experience at Western, which was notably worse than my experience at Acadia or University of Toronto, has significantly increased by anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. I am currently still in London and have significant concerns about my well-being if I leave. I have virtually no support system in London, but what I do have is better than nothing. Starting over in a new location may be a very bad idea depending on my experience with potential new co-workers—I would consider relocating only because of employment.

I am extremely concerned about my future well-being and extremely fearful that my future well-being unavoidably hinges on philosophy departments making significant changes to increase diversity in the near future. Such change is something that I am almost entirely convinced will not happen given how many decades many departments have been “committed to” increasing diversity while still failing to make any significant and meaningful steps toward doing so, especially refusing to hire people who  work in philosophy of disability and similar areas. Such positions would, far more often than not, be filled by members of the relevant group. Commitment to open contests for employment positions can’t explain the lack of diversity that we continue to see in philosophy when there is an obvious approach available that increases diversity both with respect to who is hired and with respect to what sort of scholarly work is pursued.

Nathan, would you like to say anything else about something that we’ve discussed in this interview or recommend some books, or articles, videos, or music that pertain (or not) to something that you mentioned over the course of the interview?

I’d like to say a little about another issue that I had to deal with in academia; an issue whose potential implications for a career in philosophy have been of great concern to me. Analytic metaphysics has something of a bad reputation and philosophy of physics is one area where this is particularly prevalent. As I pursued a combination of philosophy of physics and analytic metaphysics, I noticed a relationship between how I psychologically react to instances of ableism and how I react to the dismissal of analytic metaphysics and my use of it. I found that such attitudes, both overt and subtle, tended to compound the damaging psychological effects of the ableism that I experienced in a way that other sources of stress do not.

The marginalization—usually subtle but sometimes overt—that I experienced as a philosopher of physics whose work is informed by analytic metaphysics was too similar to my experience of marginalization as an autistic. This marginalization has led to me to decide not to pursue philosophy of physics any further. I’m unsure of how harmful it is to my chances of establishing a career in philosophy that I decided to leave behind my primary area of specialization, although I am sure that it is the right decision for mental well-being, especially given that any future work I pursued in philosophy of physics would also be informed by feminist epistemology which, I expect, would exacerbate the situation.

Turning to recommendations, I think a lot of what I would recommend isn’t specifically disability related. My top two book recommendations are Shannon Sullivan’s Revealing Whiteness and José Medina’s The Epistemology of Resistance. I think that a lot of what is said in both books applies to disability, sometimes with modification. In addition, I think that these books tackle both the basic issue at the heart of my experience and why people can reasonably be held accountable for that issue. The primary issue, I believe, is a failure to appreciate the effort that is required to change habits and a failure to appreciate how one is accountable for a failure to make appropriate efforts to change ones’ harmful habits. I also recommend Nora Berenstain’s recent article “White Feminist Gaslighting;” which is yet another reminder of how mainstream white feminist philosophy neglects diversity.

Nathan, thank you very much for providing this incredibly interesting interview. I hope that philosophers in positions of professional and institutional privilege will seriously consider your remarks about the exclusionary character of both interpersonal interaction and professional recognition in philosophy at present.

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

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Please join me at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on Wednesday, November 18th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the sixty-ninth 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. The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPY here.

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