On Twitter recently, I wrote that although Jason Stanley and I share some commonalities, there are differences between us, an observation that he seems to have appreciated.
One of the differences between us, I noted, is that I’m dangerous for philosophy and he’s not. (As one nondisabled feminist philosopher put it to me years ago, “You’ve [I’ve] got a big mouth.”) For example, although Stanley writes op-eds in a variety of high-profile venues, does TV appearances, and tweets about issues that concern academic freedom, he has yet to take on and seems not to pay attention to how philosophers who do bioethics, namely, bioethicists, increasingly condition and shape philosophy in the service of neoliberalism, steadily putting constraints (i.e., producing limits) on academic freedom in order to do so. Power is, after all, productive rather than merely repressive.
Were Stanley to have attended my online presentation to the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 2 conference on Thursday, he would have watched me advance and substantiate claims that I make in the previous paragraph; thus, he might have felt compelled, if only reluctantly, to begin to work in solidarity with disabled philosophers whose positions of marginalization and exclusion from the profession of philosophy (and society more generally) are increasingly due to the gatekeeping of bioethicists who wish to retain and even expand their dominance over what gets said about disability in philosophy (in public policy, socal practice, and so on).
Indeed, the effectiveness of this gatekeeping and complicity with it throughout the profession can be identified in a variety of diversity and inclusiveness reports from nondisabled philosophers who express either unwarranted satisfaction and optimism with the current situation for disabled philosophers or scepticism about claims that I make according to which disabled philosophers are “underrepresented” in philosophy.
As a service to Stanley, therefore, I have posted below the text of my presentation, “Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics.” The presentation is a draft of a longer paper on the topic. A video of the presentation (like videos of all the presentations at the conference) will appear on YouTube soon.
During my session at the conference, I displayed portions of the text on slides to increase the accessibility of the session. On the last slide, I included a brief video. That video appears here after the text of the presentation. Additional posts about the amazing Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 2 conference that took place over the past week will appear on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY soon.
Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics
Shelley Lynn Tremain
Thank you for that kind introduction, Talia. I’m very grateful for your presence at this conference and for your participation in this session.
As Talia said, my name is Shelley Tremain. My pronouns are she/they, I’m a white settler with short hair, and I’m wearing large black glasses and long earrings. I’m joining you today from the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer my contributions to this conference with respect for, and in solidarity with, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states.
My presentation today comprises a paper that I will read and slides that display some of the remarks that I read. The slides closely follow what I will say, are quite plain, with contrasting background and text, and do not contain images. The last slide includes a brief captioned video.
In this paper, I will draw upon both Kyle Whyte’s work on epistemologies of crisis and Naomi Klein’s writing about disaster capitalism to elaborate my claim that bioethics is a neoliberal technology of government. Whyte (2020) uses the term epistemologies of crisis to refer to colonialist narratives and ways of knowing that characterize certain situations and states of affairs as unprecedented and urgent while ignoring the history of colonization to do so. Klein (2007) uses the term disaster capitalism to describe elements of neoliberalism that variously produce, exploit, and aggravate economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in ways that expand the reach of unregulated economic markets.
My aim is to combine both Whyte’s insights about epistemologies of crisis and Klein’s remarks about disaster capitalism with Michel Foucault’s approach to inquiry in order to argue that bioethics is an instrument and mechanism of neoliberal eugenics. As an instrument and mechanism of neoliberalism, bioethics, I maintain, facilitates normalization of populations in ways that make them governable, manageable, and cost effective. To motivate my argument, I introduce the term disaster ableism to refer to strategies and practices that produce, exploit, and aggravate perceived and actual economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in ways that advance eugenic goals.
I want to begin this discussion of how the field of bioethics contributes to the production of disaster ableism by explaining my assumptions about the metaphysical status of disability and its constitution in philosophy, especially with respect to the arguments that I advance in my book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Key arguments of the book are designed to identify the formative roles that various domains of philosophy play in the political, social, and material constitution of disability and its naturalized foundation, impairment. The central thesis of the book is this: the conception of disability that currently predominates in philosophy, according to which disability is a naturally disadvantageous human attribute, personal characteristic, or property of subjects, is inextricably entwined with the exclusion of disabled people from professional philosophy and the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability from the discipline.
Against the idea that disability is a natural human attribute, personal characteristic, or individuated property of certain people, I have argued that disability should be understood as an apparatus of power, in Foucault’s sense, that is, should be understood as an ensemble of discourses, institutions, scientific statements, laws, administrative measures, and so on, directed at a perceived social requirement deemed urgent in a given historical moment. The apparatus of disability is, in other words, a historically specific and dispersed system of force relations that produces and configures practices towards certain strategic political ends, including the performative production of impairment as the prediscursive foundation of recognizably social disability. I maintain that in this historical moment the urgent requirement to which the apparatus of disability responds is biopolitical normalization of populations and individual subjects.
Claims according to which disability is a personal characteristic or property of individuals naturalize a culturally and historically specific phenomenon, rendering disability an ahistorical and universal fact of the matter rather than a contingent artifact of social relations. Alternatively, my argument that disability is an apparatus of power can address how states of affairs with respect to disability, states of affairs that bioethicists cast as personal misfortunes, rely upon performative claims about complexity, originality, and urgency that typify what Whyte describes as the colonial presentism of epistemologies of crisis.
In the fifth chapter of my book, the chapter entitled “Bioethics as a Technology of Government,” I assert that bioethics has emerged as an institutionalized mechanism for resolution of the problem that disability poses for biopower and the neoliberal management of societies. I argue, furthermore, that the eugenic impetus of bioethics, an impetus according to which the appropriate responses to disability are prevention, correction, and elimination, contributes considerably to the hostile environment that disabled people confront in philosophy, reproducing our exclusion from the profession while reinforcing the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability from the discipline.
Bioethicists, many of whom are extremely protective of their lucrative subfield and its interests, have created a veritable mystique around the bioethics project. For example, most bioethicists continue to depict infamous medical and scientific abuses as disturbing relics of days gone by, that is, as disruptions in the history of an otherwise noble endeavour that strives to ensure that methodologies and practices in biomedicine and biomedical science uphold the highest ethical standards.
Even the critiques of bioethics that feminist bioethicists and so-called disability bioethicists articulate implicitly (and, at times, explicitly) authorize the bioethics agenda by assuming the self-understandings and self-image that the subfield of bioethics represents; hence, the direction and scope of these critiques are, for the most part, limited to arguments against a particular biomedical practice or the position of a particular bioethicist, leaving the historical conditions of possibility for the overall enterprise of bioethics unexamined, unchallenged, and effectively intact.
My antipathy with the subfield of bioethics constitutes a distinct departure from these other critiques of it. For my argument is that the subfield of bioethics, including feminist bioethics and disability bioethics, is a neoliberal technology of biopower whose increasing institutionalization and legitimation in the university, in the discipline of philosophy, and in public policy conceal the integral role that this field of inquiry plays in biopolitical strategies of normalization and the government of populations and individuals. In short, the field of bioethics is and has always been biopolitical, a premier arena for the adjudication of biopower’s capacity to make live and let die, as Foucault put it. Indeed, as a technology of racism against the abnormal (to use Foucault’s insight), bioethics is a modern form of race science.
Let me underscore that most philosophers regard bioethics as the appropriate domain in philosophy for considerations about disability, as the continuing lack of job opportunities in philosophy of disability and the simultaneous proliferation of jobs in bioethics and cognate fields indicate. In so-called Canada, for example, philosophers and bioethicists have played a fundamental role in the creation of a culture of eugenics within the discipline of philosophy itself and in the Canadian milieu at large, both influencing the development and promulgation of the ableist legislation that I will discuss momentarily and ensuring that disabled specialists in philosophy of disability do not enter the ranks of professional philosophy in Canada.
Indeed, a growing number of bioethicists, both in Canada and abroad, dedicate considerable effort to the task of reconfiguring bioethics in ways that safeguard their own disciplinary, professional, and institutional jurisdiction over philosophical claims about disability. I want to point out, therefore, that bioethics operates as an area of philosophy whose guiding assumptions and discursive practices are tremendous obstacles to both acknowledgement that the questions which the apparatus of disability raises are genuinely philosophical and recognition that disabled philosophers who investigate these questions are credible philosophers and viable colleagues. Put directly, disabled philosophers of disability confront a wave of epistemic injustice and ridicule if they criticize bioethics too loudly and do so in ways that contest the consolidation and status of the subfield itself.
In short, bioethicists act as gatekeepers for philosophy, shielding the profession from an influx of disabled people and guarding the discipline from the incursion of philosophy of disability. Of course, exceptions to this exclusion—exemplified by practitioners of so-called disability bioethics—are admissible and serve to disguise and legitimize the subfield of bioethics, typifying the polymorphic character of neoliberalism from which bioethics has emerged and enabling philosophy to proceed under the guise of political neutrality, objectivity, and disinterest. Indeed, the allegedly transformative area of inquiry called “disability bioethics” actually enhances mainstream bioethics from which it appears to distinguish itself, sustaining the field of bioethics in general and enabling bioethics to enlarge its influence by refashioning itself in the practice of autocritique.
In contrast, philosophy of disability is a categorically insurgent discourse which neither intersects with bioethics nor is derivative of it; that is, budding philosophers of disability should conceive their work as oppositional to bioethics and as a form of resistance to its eugenic impetus and medicalizing gaze, both of which phenomena increasingly implicate philosophy in the government of disabled people’s lives, while purportedly illuminating and informing their putatively self-actualizing choices.
Insofar as bioethics is an instrument and mechanism of neoliberalism, which aims to normalize populations in ways that make them cost effective and governable, an understanding of the operations of neoliberalism, in a broader sense, can help us identify and understand the power relations that animate bioethics and facilitate the proliferation of its governmental strategies. If we wish to learn how the episteme of neoliberalism produces values, norms, and practices that capitalize on disasters and crises, we should look to the analysis that Klein develops in her landmark 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
In The Shock Doctrine, Klein sets out to show how capitalism variously produces and exploits disasters and crises as a means to radically change economies and governments. For Klein, the wizard of this social movement was Chicago-school economist Milton Friedman. It was Friedman who wrote the instruction manual for the contemporary mobile global economy, an economy whose mobility steadily outstrips geopolitical borders through policies of deregulation and a race to the bottom with respect to workers’ wages and other benefits and protections. For example, as Klein explains, Friedman used Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 to facilitate the privatization of the city’s public education system. Three months after the levees broke, Friedman published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that hailed the disaster as an occasion to usher in public policy that would further the interests of free-market capitalism (Klein 2007, 5). As Friedman put it at the time:
Most New Orleans schools are in ruins … as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system. (Friedman in Klein 2007, 5)
Friedman’s “radical” idea was that the American government should distribute vouchers to families that they could in turn spend at state-subsidized private institutions—”charter schools,” as they are called—many of which are run for profit. Friedman emphasized that this elemental change in the way that education in the United States is financed should be regarded as a “permanent reform” rather than a temporary measure (Klein 2007, 5). For Friedman, Klein explains, the idea that the state would run the school system “reeked of socialism.” In Friedman’s right-libertarian view, the sole functions of the state were, in his words, “to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce contracts, to foster competitive markets” (Friedman, in Klein 2007, 5).
Less than two years after the levees were breached, privately-run charter schools had almost entirely replaced the New Orleans public school system, the contract with the New Orleans teacher’s union had been effectively shredded, and the union’s 4700 members had been fired. For Klein, this dismantling of the New Orleans public school system post-Katrina exemplifies “disaster capitalism,” which she defines as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” (Klein 2007, 5).
In this regard, Klein points to Friedman’s influential essay in which he articulated the core tenet of disaster capitalism thus:
only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. (Friedman, in Klein 2007, 5)
This “shock doctrine,” as Klein refers to it, has been instrumental to the expansion of free-market capitalism globally and the neoliberal shakedown of elected socialist governments throughout Central and South America, union busting in the United States, betrayal of Solidarity in Poland, ideological pillaging of the African National Congress in South Africa, and installation, the world over, of autocracies and other fascist regimes sympathetic to unfettered capitalism.
It is especially pertinent to the argument of my paper that Klein evocatively shows how disaster capitalism exploits disasters and crises to mold social values, norms, expectations, and explanations in ways that promote neoliberal social and political agendas amongst academics, the media, NGOs, and populations at large, as well as the ways that it exploits these events in order to profoundly change governments and economies themselves.
I contend that all levels of government in so-called Canada, as well as various academics, journalists, think tanks, corporations, and foundations have seized upon the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportune occasion to engage in (what I call) “disaster ableism,” that is, have exploited the pandemic and the circumstances that surround it to cultivate and advance norms, values, and beliefs that promote ableist and eugenic agendas and goals. In particular, the current Liberal government and the bioethicists to whom Canadian politicians regularly defer and appeal employed disaster ableism to usher into law legislation—namely, Bill C-7—that significantly expands neo-eugenics in Canada.
During a global pandemic, that is, when the residents of Canada were losing their loved ones, their dwellings, and their incomes due to COVID-19; were living in situations of fear, misinformation, and confusion; and were increasingly distracted and isolated, the Canadian federal government bypassed adequate public consultation, usurped international treaties, ignored the objections of Indigenous community leaders, manipulated parliamentary procedure, and made a mockery of disabled experts invited to participate in its legislative proceedings on Bill C-7, in order to ensure passage of legislation that would make sweeping changes to existing Canadian laws on medically assisted suicide.
In other words, the same neoliberal government which, throughout the pandemic, has consistently failed to provide financial assistance and other social supports to disabled people found a malevolent way to (in the words of Friedman) “permanently reform” distribution to disabled people, namely, by providing them with easier access to premature death rather than providing them with the means to live their lives.
During the last months of 2020 and the first months of 2021, I wrote numerous blog posts at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY to inform the blog’s growing international readership about these events in Canada and to explain the links between these events, the disproportionate influence of bioethics in Canadian philosophy, and the eugenic culture in Canadian philosophy that this sway has produced.
Early in 2021, furthermore, I conjoined these efforts with the efforts of other disabled academics, activists, and policy researchers across Canada. We were loud and persistent, determined to demonstrate how neoliberal arguments about personal autonomy and quality of life with respect to medically assisted suicide for disabled people, and only disabled people, obscure and reinforce the apparatuses of disability, racism, colonialism, classism, and ableism that produced the arguments in the first place.
Not surprisingly, my blog posts about Bill C-7 and medically assisted suicide (MAiD, for short) met with condescension and derision from bioethicists, especially from the editors of The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (IJFAB, for short), who evidently think that bioethics journals should enjoy liberties not afforded to philosophy blogs. In a set of hostile interventions, that is, the IJFAB editors variously accused me of violating their academic freedom because, in one blog post, I wrote that the journal had implicitly promoted MAiD by publishing an invited article on the topic authored by Jocelyn Downie, the most prominent proponent of medically assisted suicide in Canada.
First, three of the journal’s editors (one of whom identifies as a disability bioethicist) badgered me on a Facebook post that I shared, repeatedly demanding that I remove the blog post or retract the remarks that I made about the journal. Then, after I implicitly refused to comply with these demands, one of the editors wrote a post on IJFAB’s own blog, appealing to the fiction of neutrality that the journal allegedly upholds and, again, accusing me of failing to respect both the journal’s publishing policy and academic freedom insofar as I refused to retract my indisputably publishable remarks.
Finally, at least for now, the editors issued a Call for Expressions of Interest for a special issue on academic freedom that linked to the BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY post in question. The Call explicitly reprimanded me, accused me of attacking the journal, and referred to my blog post as the motivation for the special issue. Rather tellingly, furthermore, the journal followed the example of the right-wing libertarian Journal of Controversial Ideas by advising prospective authors that, for the purposes of the issue on academic freedom, they would be permitted to publish their putatively transgressive ideas anonymously to avoid the sort of recrimination that I had displayed.
Canadian bioethicists, law professors, politicians, and some very privileged white disabled people claimed that Bill C-7 promises greater equality for disabled people by further enshrining their rights to autonomy and self-determination; however, poor, racialized, Indigenous, trans, and queer disabled people (amongst others) recognized that Bill C-7 constituted a threat to their collective existence, in addition to the threats that the legislation posed to their personal safety, sense of security, sense of belonging, and self-respect.
While Canadian bioethicists, law professors, and politicians elicited pathos with poignant speeches about disabled people who required immediate deliverance from the egregious suffering that their lives would impose if Bill C-7 were not passed, disabled activists, academics, and their allies pointed out that poverty; systemic ableism and racism; lack of affordable, accessible housing; and settler colonialism are among the factors that constitute unlivable lives for disabled people in so-called Canada.
Although Canadian bioethicists, law professors, and politicians tendentiously claim that Bill C-7 was a unique corrective to past legislative mistakes and, in addition, that arguments to the contrary amount to fallacious slippery slope reasoning, disabled people in Canada persistently argue that Bill C-7 was part of a long and treacherous Canadian history of eugenic policies and practices directed at disabled people and Indigenous people (among others) that the incremental normalization of the policies and practices depoliticizes and erases.
Indeed, the arguments that Canadian bioethicists, law professors, and politicians advance about Bill C-7 and medically assisted suicide in general are typical of the colonialist presentism that, as Whyte notes, is a characteristic feature of epistemologies of crisis. Recall that Whyte uses the term epistemologies of crisis to refer to colonialist narratives and ways of knowing that characterize certain situations or states of affairs as unprecedented and urgent, ignoring histories of colonization and traditional teachings of Indigenous communities to do so.
Historically, Whyte notes, crises have often been used as both a justification for colonization and a tool with which to obfuscate it. As Whyte (2020, 52) explains, sometimes perpetrators of colonialism imagine that their wrongful practices and actions are defensible because the practices and actions are responses to a given crisis, whether perceived or actual, that is, the perpetrators assume that suspension of certain concerns about justice and morality is justified in response to a crisis.
To illustrate this assertion, Whyte offers as an example the way that Americans in the first half of the twentieth century constructed dams that flooded the Seneca and Lakota peoples. The Americans engaged in these acts, Whyte notes, because they believed that the United States needed energy and irrigation to lessen the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War (Whyte 2020, 52). Whyte is concerned to point out, however, that the belief according to which colonial oppression is allegedly defensible due to crises is not a relic of the distant past but rather occurs now too.
As Whyte puts it (and I quote at length),
Today, people perpetrate colonialism in the name of responding to environmental crises – climate change being one prominent case. Responses to scientifically understand and mitigate climate change can harm or threaten Indigenous peoples. From scientific reports that provincialise Indigenous knowledge systems to wind power projects that desecrate Indigenous lands, there is no reason to believe that colonialism today is something other than an evolved practice of a familiar form of power. (Whyte 2020, 51-52)
By focussing on climate change, in particular, and environmental destruction, in general, Whyte has elaborated the practices of knowing that enable an understanding of how and why crises are used to mask colonial power. Epistemologies of crisis, Whyte writes, involve knowing the world such that a certain present is experienced as new.
As Whyte explains (again, I quote at length),
A crisis epistemology, in the context of settler colonialism, might look something like this. A crisis is believed to be happening, whether real, genuine, or perceived. The crisis may be articulated as related to many problems, including health, economic well-being, environmental sustainability, cultural integrity, and religious salvation. But what makes some state of affairs of the world crisis-oriented is the automatic assumption of imminence. By imminence, I mean the sense that something horribly harmful or inequitable is impending or pressing on the present conditions people understand themselves to be living in. There is a complexity or originality to the imminent events which suggests the need to immediately become solutions-oriented in a way believed to differ from how solutions were designed and enacted previously. (Whyte 2020, 52)
In other words, crisis epistemologies are presentist in their narrative orientation. A narrative is presentist, Whyte explains, if it assumes a certain conception of the unfolding of time as means to the achievement of power or the protection of privilege. In particular, presentist orientations favour experiences of time that presume unprecedentedness and urgency. That is, presentism is an exercise of colonial power that effaces the historical realities and conditions of this colonial power. As Whyte notes, Indigenous Studies scholars have given considerable attention to the temporal assumptions on which settler colonial power relies, critically exposing the liberal assumptions about the primacy of individual autonomy and the settler state that are embedded in national origin stories (Whyte 2020, 53).
In this regard, Whyte refers to Audra Simpson who, noting that the ‘settler colonial present’ is one of ‘purported newness,’ writes that the settler colonial present is “revealed as the fiction of the presumed neutrality of time itself, demonstrating the dominance of the present by some over others, and the unequal power to define what matters, who matters, what pasts are alive and when they die” (Simpson 2017: 21, in Whyte 2020). In this way, Whyte points out, one becomes so preoccupied with the present crisis as new that one questions neither one’s own perspective nor the social origins from which the perspective may derive (Whyte 2020, 54-55). In short, the sense of imminence that accompanies presentism leads people to obscure or minimize how their actions relate to the persistence of colonialism, capitalism, ableism, racism, and other forms of power (57).
Drawing on Whyte’s insights, my argument is that the events, justifications, and rationale surrounding the creation and passage of Bill C-7 have been framed within a presentist narrative. That is, by framing Bill C-7 as a unique and urgent new procedural corrective, Canadian bioethicists, law professors, journalists, and politicians have, again, reconfigured and obfuscated the incremental normalization of eugenic practices in precisely the way that Whyte describes, according to the presentist orientation of an epistemology of crisis.
In the context of Bill C-7 and of MAiD in general, furthermore, this presentist orientation positions the notions of personal autonomy and quality of life as existing outside of any temporal location, as timeless and universal, and in doing so, conceals the historically contingent and culturally specific character of these politically motivated ideals, as well as the way that these constructs emerged from and reproduce the liberal settler state itself. Indeed, both the incremental normalization of eugenic bioethical practices and the apparatus of disability from which the strategies of this mechanism derive have their origins in colonialism and the liberal settler state.
[Descritption of video below: Malcolm X delivering an address.]
Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Vintage Books.
Simpson, Audra. 2017. The Ruse of Consent and the Autonomy of “Refusal”: Cases From Indigenous North America and Australia. Postcolonial Studies 20: 18-33.
Tremain, Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Whyte, Kyle. 2020. Against Crisis Epistemology. In The Routledge Handbook of Critical Indigenous Studies. Brendan Hokowhitu, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Linda Tuhiwai, Chris Andersen, and Steve Larkin, eds. London: Routledge.