Feminist Philosophers, The Last of Us, and What Solidarity Requires

As you might have inferred from the speakers lists of the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conferences, from the endurance of the Dialogues on Disability series, and from the table of contents for the forthcoming The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability, I am surrounded by a cadre of disabled and nondisabled philosophers of disability–all of whom identify as feminists–who (among their other notable characteristics) have sharp materialist political analyses of disability.

In such circumstances, I tend, at times, to be optimistic, that is, at times, I seem to almost forget that philosophy is deeply ableist and that most nondisabled feminist philosophers and disabled feminist philosophers who pass as nondisabled are deeply invested in the maintenance and reinforcement of the current institutional and professional arrangements with respect the exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability. They don’t want us in their departments and they don’t want the knowledge that we produce to unravel the arguments that they have advanced, to jeopardize the epistemic authority and professional status that they have at long last attained, or to compromise the perception that they have cultivated according to which they are the politicized vanguard of philosophy. Bioethics has created a growing culture of eugenics in philosophy–especially in Canadian philosophy–and feminist philosophers increasingly serve as one of the generators that power it.

Recent events have been stark reminders of how feminist philosophers have grievously limited my career and continue to do so by refusing to acknowledge my expertise with respect to the apparatus of disability. Nondisabled feminist philosophers don’t apologize to me, or ask me for additional information, or otherwise engage in behaviour that would indicate accountability when I point out how their professional practices reproduce ableism and ableist exclusion of disabled philosophers. Praise or gratitude from nondisabled philosophers for my efforts is usually offered begrudgingly or they cast the efforts themselves as supplementary to, or an extension of, their own more (in)credible work. The most recent acceptance letter that I received from a feminist philosophy journal thanked me for my “good” paper.

Yesterday, I intervened on a Facebook post whose author and more than half a dozen other Canadian feminist philosophers glorified an especially egregious episode of the HBO series The Last of Us. I say “especially egregious episode” because the series in its entirety is founded on the ableist premise that only “normal” people should live and juxtaposes these normal people with other beings who, although once normal people, have become monsters, with recurring ableist and ageist tropes strategically interspersed throughout episodes that make up the series.

The episode in question veers dramatically from the central “plot” of the series to spin an auxiliary narrative about how disabled people’s lives are not worth living that supports the overall ableist motivational assumptions of the series. The emotional manipulation of this auxiliary plot revolves around the ableist conviction that it is incredibly tragic and poignant, yet completely understandable, that disabled people would want to (wait for it) end their lives.

In a cultural and historical context in which governments in a growing number of jurisdictions internationally are enshrining into law proposed neoliberal eugenic legislation with respect to euthanasia and medically assisted suicide, nondisabled feminist philosophers should act in political solidarity with disabled feminist philosophers (and disabled people in general) by refusing to participate in this neoliberal regime of eugenics rather than promote its social construction in cinematic representation and other contexts. A lesson to derive: liberal feminist philosophy, with its supposed refurbishing of notions of autonomy and self-determination, was always already designed only for socially privileged nondisabled white women.

Anyone with a developed political analysis of the apparatus of disability or even a modicum of familiarity with disabled people’s day-to-day lives will recognize the extent to which the episode of the HBO series misrepresents disabled people and the circumstances of their lives in order to manipulate its audience: The nondisabled man, whose disabled partner chooses/wants to kill himself, built a fortress (with a heavily armed bunker) to protect himself from the monsters but can’t retrofit his large house so that he doesn’t have to carry his partner up a flight of stairs to their bedroom? The nondisabled partner, who has demonstrably pillaged industries and businesses across his deserted city to acquire what he needs to build his stash of weapons and ammunition and a great wine cellar, can’t find an electric wheelchair anywhere in town and thus is “burdened” with his disabled partner’s coming and goings? The show’s director and producers couldn’t find a disabled actor to play the role of the disabled partner?

Last week, I once again applied for a job outside of philosophy. Although non-philosophy departments are generally suspicious of philosophers and, thus, averse to hiring us, I think that I have a good chance with this one. The posting for the position included remarks about how the department was cognizant that life events often entail that many people do not have seamless, uninterrupted career paths; hence, applicants should feel free to explain such circumstances in their cover letters.

In the past, I have not acted upon this suggestion. I think that with respect to philosophy jobs (especially in Canada), this sort of suggestion is almost certainly directed at only nondisabled women who took time out of their careers to have children. With respect to disabled philosophers and Canadian philosophy departments, in particular, I think that the suggestion should not be taken any more seriously than the typical statements about how department X is “strongly committed to diversity and welcomes applications from groups historically underrepresented in philosophy and the university.” (No philosophy department in Canada has hired a disabled philosopher who produces critical work on disability.)

But, I took the suggestion seriously this time and acted upon it, given the job for which I was applying and in particular the composition of the employer’s faculty. Thus, the last sentence of the first paragraph of my cover letter was this: “Structural ableism in philosophy has barred me from stable employment.”

I was recently asked to present on a panel entitled “Reproductive Justice and Feminist Liberatory Aims” at the Hypatia 40th Anniversary Conference in September. Neither the email invitation to present that I received, nor the CFP for the conference, nor the conference website includes any information about accessibility or any indication that other disabled feminist philosophers were also invited to present at the conference.

In my reply to the Hypatia editor, therefore, I indicated that I would be happy to present via Zoom, explaining the virtues of online conference options, noting my commitment to the Online Accessibility Pledge, and pointing out that no information about accessibility for the Hypatia conference had been made available. After some friendly back-and-forth discussion, the editor agreed to take my request to the conference organizing committee.

If the Hypatia editor replies to me that the 40th Anniversary conference will now include online options and that I can indeed present on Zoom, I will likely formulate my presentation around this set of circumstances: namely, how nondisabled feminist philosophers still do not understand what solidarity with disabled feminist philosophers should motivate them to do.

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