Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Disability-Discourse As Moralizing

I have said that the discourse of "disability" needs to give way to a discourse of "different enablement." This would be a discourse that embraces the ineradicably prostheticized rather than natural character of proper human bodies and lifeways in all their splendid and proliferating variety. It would also be a discourse that recognizes the ways in which morphological variations that appear to disable humans who incarnate them from the perspective of certain values will often appear instead to enable humans from different value-perspectives.

The special difficulty of such a viewpoint, of course, is that it might seem too easily to translate into a kind of bland relativism masquerading as "tolerance" that becomes an alibi for the complacent acceptance of abuse or neglect, or provides an abstract rationale for what really amounts to an indifference to avoidable suffering or to the difficult demands of ambivalent cries for help from our peers.

I have proposed that a commitment to consent (in a specific construal I call substantiated rather than vacuous consent, propped up by firm social commitments to universally available trustworthy information, lifelong education, professional advice, basic guaranteed income, universal healthcare, and so on to ensure that legible performances of consent are always both as informed and nonduressed as may be) helps adjudicate these difficulties. And I have proposed specifically that such a consensual criterion would have been a better guide by far than the crabbed moralism of "normality" (or "basic health" functioning as a stealthy terminological and discursive substitute for such "normality") in coping with the quandaries posed by homosexuality in 1950s America, say, and a good guide for coping with the apparent quandaries posed by the occasional affirmation of desirable deafness, by widespread mild autism, by intersex bodies, and so on today.

This is a perspective that affords me the ability to celebrate differences that I would not seek to incarnate as part of my own personal practices of self-creation for now, and to champion tolerance for some differences that I fail to understand or even actively disapprove so long as these differences do not impair the scene of legible consent. But I must insist that this is not in the least a position of relativism and neither does it disable my capacity to argue forcefully for my own vision of a social justice underwritten by standards of general welfare and representation that solicit the formal universal affirmation of ethical norms.

Needless to say, not everyone agrees with me. "Do I think deafness is a disability? I sure do," remarked one recent critic, as if to deny such a thing is the most absurd idea on earth. I know just what my interlocutor means, but I think it pays to look at this declaration much more closely.

When one declares "deafness" to constitute a clear-cut disability, one might mean by this assertion something like the declaration: "I would rather be hearing than not." If one really means to signal the latter declaration, then I agree that there is nothing objectionable in such preferences at all (any more than precisely contrary preferences would be), and neither is there anything necessarily damaging to democracy in voicing such preferences.

Consider the key difference between an evangelical Christian who thinks it is quite a shame that an atheist (like me) will probably go to hell for his repudiation of faith, as opposed to an evangelical Christian who thinks an atheist should not be allowed to testify under oath in a Court of Law because of his repudiation of faith. I can grasp the force of this distinction while fully affirming the value or truth of atheism or, to the contrary, any number of faith perspectives. This is the inaugural insight of secularism, not of relativism.

Now, one of the key problems with "disability" discourse for me is that it tends to speak in the technoscientific language of medicine. Warranted scientific beliefs satisfy criteria that make them good candidates for at any rate provisional consensus given the current state of knowlege. In this they differ deeply from moral beliefs which tend to be testify to one's membership in particular communities distinguished from each another through their definitive differences with other communities.

I worry about what happens when moral beliefs that testify in fact to one's membership or not in moral communities, take up the superficial forms of scientific claims that solicit rational consensus. The solicitation of such consensus tends to provide a rationale for and thereby presage nonconsensual public interventions in the name of general welfare once we move into the political arena.

Again, I am not denying that there is a place for moral identification and disidentification in the normative life of human beings -- far from it. But I think we need to be much more conscious than we sometimes seem to be about the different forms of warrant and obligation proper to scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political belief.

These forms of belief are interdependent but remain crucially irreducible to one another. And in an era of rapid, disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle such as our own, freighted with the highest imaginable stakes, there will inevitably be confusions about which mode of belief is in play or speaks best to the demands of particular technodevelopmental situations. The crisis of "disability" discourse in this fraught technoscientific moment of emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine is just one key example among countless (and multiplying) others. The worst possible move at such a time would be to give in to the temptation to fixate on any single mode of belief as the meta-rational category under which all other modes are subsumed and so confront the era of global disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle with dangerously false clarity: At once, blind to most of what is actually possible and important in the world and yet unshakably convinced that one is all-seeing. Whether one chooses to be a priestly mouthpiece for science (reductionism), morality (fundamentalism), aesthetics (fascism), ethics (totalitarianism), or politics (nihilism), what is lost in such monocular construals of rationality is the democratizing discipline of a rationality attuned to the different demands of all of these modes, and hence to the different demands of the actually diverse stakeholders to the historical moment of struggle in which we find ourselves and from which we must somehow manage to build that bit of the road together that an open future obliges us to do.

1 comment:

AnneC said...

a discourse that recognizes the ways in which morphological variations that appear to disable humans who incarnate them from the perspective of certain values will often appear instead to enable humans from different value-perspectives.

I'm certainly interested in participating in such a discourse. One of the things that comes up quite frequently in autism or general "disability" or diversity-themed discussions I participate in is that of my being put in a position to defend the validity of my existence and consciousness as a person on the autism spectrum. Or perhaps more accurately, my existence and consciousness as a person. Many autistic people tend to see autism as something akin to maleness or femaleness: something that is pervasive, unignorable, constraining, and enabling all at once.

Along these lines, I remember a classmate in high school saying to me, quite succinctly:

"Men are better than women because we [men] can write our names in the snow."

Many states of being commonly referred to as "disabilities" (and recently I've come across writings suggesting that such things as adolescence and introversion are, perhaps, pathologies in need of remediation), but it is vital to, in each case, consider very carefully whether the so-called disability is not simply a case of nonstandard or variant existence. Going back to the male-female example, it is clear that a constraint is not necessarily a loss or tragedy -- and the existence of transgendered persons demonstrates that being in one position does not necessarily render a person incapable of considering and even selecting a different position, with different associated abilities.

In the autistic community, the situation is similar: many of us would not choose to undergo treatment that would change our sensory-perceptual characteristics even if that would mean we became more comfortable in social situations, because according to our value system, the abilities we have are indeed plentifully enabling. My sister is a "flaming neurotypical", and I don't want her life any more than she wants mine -- each of us is constrained, enabled, and individual. And as she might choose to get an expensive haircut or a tan, I might choose to augment myself with a set of noise-cancelling headphones or a subscription to an interesting newsletter.

Hopefully I've not gone too far off topic here or missed the point of your post, but I really am looking to engage in discussion on these matters and I'm rather intrigued to have found someone who seems to "get it" in ways I don't often encounter.