Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Breaking the Barrier Between Us and Others

By Chelsea A. Jack

Disability scholars aim to socially deconstruct naturalized, or seemingly inevitable and fundamental, understandings of what it means to be able-bodied or disabled.  As is the case with much postmodern writing, disability scholars forward their ideas with a general suspicion toward claims of knowledge fortified by dichotomous relationships, e.g. male/female, nature/culture, disabled/abled. However, this is not to say that actual differences do not exist among different groups of people. It is only to say that the barriers between “us” and “them” are never quite as solid as they appear, and that questioning those barriers allows for reimagined relations among community members.

Here, with disability scholarship as my primary example, I draw on the writings of three feminist scholars across different academic disciplines to show how a self-reflexive style can show the vulnerable relationship between the self and other. Such stylistic choices in favor of self-reflexivity betray the academic mantle of omniscience, or objectivity, that characterize arguments removed from the first person. Further, these choices can encourage reimagined relations with those we might understand as other.

When philosopher Eva Kittay has written against ideal theory in bioethics, she has made a strategically feminist move in her criticism of such theory and its proponents, specifically philosophers Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan: she self-reveals. For example, when she criticized Singer’s and McMahan’s theories concerning necessary cognitive and psychological criteria for the status of moral personhood, Kittay reveals that her own daughter, Sesha, was diagnosed as severely to profoundly retarded. Kittay shares that her own daughter might be counted among those whom McMahan has stipulated as undeserving of justice or life. Kittay purposes the developmental experiences of her own daughter as counterpoints to Singer and McMahan’s arguments that deny severely disabled and congenitally severely mentally retarded (CSMR) persons the status of moral personhood.    

In her own reflections on feminist ethnography, anthropologist Ruth Behar has contemplated the implications of acknowledging the place of “I” in the representations of others. In The Vulnerable Observer, Behar suggests that it makes scholars nervous to “forsake the mantle of omniscience” in favor of revealing personal stories into what we have been taught to think of as the analysis of impersonal social facts (1996:12). Both Behar and Kittay approach their own feminist scholarship with an appreciation for humility. Humility, for Kittay, requires both resisting the impulse to impose your own values on others and acknowledging what you do not know (2009:229). As Kittay writes about her own daughter Sesha, she admits, “What cognitive capacities Sesha possesses I simply do not know, nor do others. And it is hubris to presume” (2009:229). By utilizing a narrative from her own life, Kittay not only values humility as a maxim of ethical theorizing but her argument here is feminist for its ability to respond to the theme of vulnerability and marginality underlying subject-object formation.

When Kittay revealed her own relationship to disability, she created a space for conversation about “the tenuous nature of selfhood,” to borrow phrasing from feminist scholar Karen O’Connell (2005:219). In O’Connell’s analysis of the Romany term for the Holocaust – a term that translates to “the devouring” – she argues that attempts to expel unwanted people (i.e. the disabled, women, Jews) are never successful, since total expulsion is a myth. The existence of the self requires attempts to expel unclean and improper elements (218). In this sense, the constitution of threats to the self represents an exigency for the latter. The self, then, is a very fragile thing. This realization then becomes critical in the analysis of violence toward otherness, whether manifested against disabled people, people of color, or women.

How might self-revealing break down entrenched notions of “we” versus “them”? In what way do hypothetical analogies in ideal theory – such as Singer’s between cognitively impaired people and chimpanzees – reinforce epistemic structures of hierarchy and domination, where moral knowledge rests on obscuring the situated-ness of the author herself – situation meaning the circumstances that formulate our identity, i.e. race, class, gender – and the disturbing absence of disabled people in this theorizing? I personally admire those, such as Behar and Kittay, who betray the academic mantle of omniscience in order to advocate humility and recognize the vulnerability of the self.

Works Cited

Behar, Ruth. 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kittay, Eva. 2009. “Ideal theory bioethics and the exclusion of people with severe cognitive disabilities.” In Naturalized Bioethics: Toward Responsible Knowing and Practice, edited by H. Lindemann, 218 – 37. Cambridge.

O’Connell, Karen. 2005. “The devouring: Genetics, abjection, and the limits of Law.” In Ethics of the Body: Postconventional Challenges, edited by Margrit Shildrick and Roxanne Mykitiuk, 217 – 34. MIT. 

Chelsea is a Research Assistant at The Hastings Center. She graduated with highest distinction from the University of Virginia, where she received a B.A. in political and social thought and anthropology with a minor in bioethics. Her research interests include medical and legal anthropology, political and social theory, bioethics, and contemporary feminist thought. 

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