Hirji and the Naturalization of Oppression

Features of the methodology of analytic philosophy that, according to Tina Fernandes Botts, render it inadequate for work in critical philosophical work on race and racism can likewise be recognized in analytic philosophy of disability. My argument is that these features of analytic philosophy render it inadequate for the articulation of a conception of disability and indeed a social ontology of disability that aim to hasten the radical structural and institutional transformation required to significantly change the circumstances of disabled people’s lives. Although philosophy of disability that utilizes methodologies of analytic philosophy is designed to improve understanding of disability within philosophy and society more generally, the limitations of the methodologies and the ontological assumptions upon which the work in analytic philosophy of disability relies restrict the change that this work could provoke. Hence, the importance of the forthcoming The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability which provides a range of approaches to philosophical inquiry of disability.

Indeed, the methodological tools of analytic philosophy depoliticize and decontextualize philosophy of disability and hence cannot, by themselves, deliver a robust account of the historicist and performative relations of social power that constitute the apparatus of disability. In some of my current work, I indicate how methodological tools of analytic philosophy contribute in unique ways to the social harms that this apparatus of power comprises and generates. The analytic philosopher’s penchant for conceptual distinctions is a good starting point for this discussion. In order to carve out the domain of analytic ethics, analytic philosophers (including feminist analytic philosophers) have institutionalized the naturalization and individualization of disability by distinguishing what is prediscursive, natural, biologically determined, and politically neutral (and hence not morally praiseworthy or blameworthy) from what is the product of individual action, contingent, and politically invested (and hence phenomena for which one may be culpable, held responsible, or victimized).

Traditionally, analytic philosophers have subsumed the phenomena that (the apparatus of) disability comprises under the rubric of the former, where the naturalization of disability through the aforementioned distinction may be overt or subtle, may be structural to an argument that is itself neither directly or primarily related to disability, or used to exemplify an argument that is itself neither directly nor primarily related to disability. Sukaina Hirji’s (2021) article “Oppressive Double Binds” provides a vivid recent example of the use of this distinction as a motivational assumption to both structure and illustrate a philosophical argument not primarily concerned with disability.

The apparatus of disability is first naturalized in Section II of Hirji’s article in order to define what constitutes a politically relevant double bind and what is not a politically significant double bind, that is, what constitutes an oppressive double bind or dilemma with respect to decision making and what does not. In the context of this distinction, Hirji takes the psychiatric diagnosis of “schizophrenia” to be a prediscursive, transhistorical, and politically neutral scientific category and hence deems so-called schizophrenic symptoms as irrelevant to “oppressive double binds.” In another place in Hirji’s article, they naturalize and medicalize the apparatus of disability in this way by distinguishing “forms of pathological behaviour” (Hirji 2021, 659) from other phenomena that philosophers readily associate with social power relations: namely, coercion and manipulation.

In both these contexts, this theoretical move–that is, Hirji’s naturalization, medicalization, and individualization of disability–operates as a form of structural gaslighting to obscure the political character of phenomena that they take to be politically neutral, prior to culture, universal, and timeless. Yet the politically potent nature of these phenomena has been amply elaborated through the perspectives and developments articulated in growing bodies of testimony and research in philosophy of disability, mad studies, disability theory, and discrit studies that challenge the very designation of “schizophrenia” and psychiatric classifications more generally, identifying them as medicalizing, essentializing, and oppressive, especially with respect to disabled, racialized, trans, incarcerated, and poor populations (which are by no means mutually exclusive groups).

In short, the conceptual distinctions that analytic feminist philosophers make are counterproductive and, moreover, oppressive when they serve to reinforce the exclusion from consideration of marginalized subjects whom feminist philosophy has hitherto ignored and ought to address and redress. Indeed, I contend that feminist (and other) philosophers ought to understand their philosophical practice as a temporally situated kind of writing (Rorty 2008) rather than as their quest for unencumbered truth and clarity whose attainment will be facilitated by allegedly objective and value-neutral conceptual distinctions with which philosophers march onward regardless of who and what crosses their path and why.

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