Ableism and eugenics across political philosophies, indifferent eugenics under neoliberal capitalism, and the only alternative
I've been thinking about how the logics of ableism and eugenics are what I see as the "last frontier" of what I want people to understand and undo in their lives, because this is one of the patterns I consistently see in people across the political spectrum.
It shows up when otherwise progressive (abled, usually white) people will prioritize their environmentalist views as being more important than an accessibility requirement like plastic straws (or than certain cultural eating practices!), or when people make arguments about how disabled people (or trans people!) "take up a lot of resources" and we need to decide whether there's a "critical mass" of them in a community before we put in work to make something accessible for them, or when people insult other people whose opinions they disagree with with words like [slur for intellectually disabled people] (or ugly! or fat!), or when people will justify a higher level of death risk from a disease as long as it's "just the people who are already sick" (or just The Gays™!).
All of these are things I've seen progressive / liberal / leftist people do, and some are even disabled themselves. What unifies all of the main examples is ableism - the idea that there are some ideas or people or things that are more important than disabled people being able to live, or lead good lives or... just be considered as worthy of respect as abled people. The point I'm making with my parenthetical connections to gay people and the AIDS crisis, trans people, fatness, etc., is that I see all of these issues as interconnected and I see all of them using the same underlying logic: the logic of eugenics.
I deeply value consistency in my views, actions and belief systems, and when people can be comfortable using this kind of logic in some contexts or for some people even when they never would in other contexts, that makes me uncomfortable. And I get it, we're brought up on a steady cultural diet of ableism, transphobia, homophobia, fatphobia, capitalism, etc. so none of us is immune to absorbing and reapplying this type of logic - least of all me. But if our unlearning process is oblivious to the fact that we are still replicating and reinforcing harmful ideas regardless of who we do it to, then I think we're just not doing social justice right.
You can't say you value pluralism in human beings when you then slice and dice that pluralism and say some pluralisms are more valuable than others. Caring for humanity means caring for the same basic things for every person who comprises it.
Lots of people are pro-pluralism in theory, but run into problems again when you add capitalism to the mix. Then the argument becomes that they care for the same basic things for every person who comprises humanity, as long as it doesn't take too much effort (money). Capitalism makes people evaluate other people in terms of their cost and benefit to society, and cheaper means better. More productive means better.
My most recent example of this was a horrifying conversation with a friend who said that German statutory insurance covers PrEP (a highly effective HIV prevention drug) thanks to activism from gay men in Germany, but that it's very expensive and perhaps society shouldn't pay for gay men to safely have sex if it's that expensive. To someone like me this is already absurd but it's at least exponentially more absurd to hear a eugenicist argument from someone who has only had sex with gay men, and is trans and disabled. The irony of making the same arguments regularly weaponized against these groups was sadly lost on them.
While we were dissecting this, they found it confusing that I called their argument 'eugenicist'. According to them, Real Eugenics™ is killing and sterilizing people, stopping them and their "bad genes" from reproducing. They hadn't expressed a desire for gay men to die or not reproduce, so how could what they said be eugenicist?
I find their definition of eugenics too narrow. For one, it misses positive eugenics - encouraging (and sometimes even forcing) people with "desirable" traits to reproduce. Their definition is also too focused on a specific set of actions, whereas I prefer to work with a broader definition that can identify eugenicist thought before it turns into actions as dire as death and sterilization. If we are unwilling to label something as eugenicist before it turns into a full-blown Nazi-level coercive action against groups of people, we risk missing opportunities to stop it earlier. It's just like the importance of identifying genocidal rhetoric before it turns into full-blown genocide, e.g., what the Dangerous Speech Project tries to do.
So if we step back and try to formulate a more abstract definition of eugenics, it's the idea that there are desirable traits and undesirable traits, and that classifying people as desirable or undesirable based on this is grounds for how we should actively control or nudge or care about their life, death and reproduction.
I'd like to propose a third kind of eugenics that fits under this umbrella and thrives under capitalism: indifferent eugenics. Indifferent eugenics still classifies people as desirable or undesirable, and remains indifferent to the (quality of) life and death of "undesirable" people.
There are a number of examples of indifferent eugenics beyond my PrEP anecdote - Canada's Medical Assistance in Dying law and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in most countries come to mind. I strongly recommend the first two links in the further reading section for writing from disabled people about each of these issues, and both blogs discuss disability justice more broadly as well. Their writing has nuance and complexity and addresses important questions that are out of scope for my blog post, e.g., how autonomy around suicide is not incompatible with being against MAiD.
As before, these issues are primarily about disability and ableism, as they are examples of society devaluing disabled life and being indifferent to disabled death. Because of this I think it is important to centre disability and disabled voices in these conversations, but in the spirit of showing the interconnectedness of different struggles, it is also worth noting that people who are oppressed along axes other than ability are also often oppressed by these policies. For instance, Black and brown people have accounted for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths in the US - deaths met mostly with indifference. Similarly there have already been cases of people who are experiencing poverty using MAiD.
I asked my friend if they intended to just throw me away if I had another depressive episode and became "expensive" for society and useless to everyone, including them. They claim they wouldn't, which is inconsistent with the rest of what they said as applied to the generic Other. It's because they cannot be indifferent when it comes to someone they care about, and I do believe they care about me.
The way I see it, this is the only antidote to indifference: care. Radical care for the people around us, the people who are our community and society for multiple definitions of both. Society, in my view, exists to serve the people in it and we are - we have to be - accountable to one another in a bigger, collective sense. Mia Mingus frames this as "interdependence," an idea that "acknowledges that our survival is bound up together, that we are interconnected and what you do impacts others."
We have to hold fast to the idea that every person inherently has value and apply it tirelessly to the people who are consistently and systemically devalued in our societies, not just ourselves and not just our friends. We must value disabled life. We must value Black life. We must value trans life. We must particularly value life that exists at the intersections of many of these groups and we must invest in their lives and their joy, rather than investing in or being indifferent to their deaths.
It is also absolutely critical that we do not fall into the trap of applying our logic selectively. We cannot just care about our friends. We cannot only care about a group of people as long as they are "cheap" to care about or "easy" to care about. We cannot pull a Hans Asperger and divide ourselves up into "good" crips and "bad" crips. We cannot find eugenics horrifying only when it's on the scale of Nazi eugenics, but we should find it horrifying and unacceptable at every stage before that which shares the same logic. We simply cannot afford to be indifferent.
All of this is obviously completely incompatible with neoliberalism, which stresses individualism and austerity, and with capitalism, which I see as one of the driving forces that makes us see human beings as commensurable, fungible and replaceable in the first place, which is why those are systems that need to be dismantled in favour of others, for a society that includes people like me all the time. "Interdependence cannot exist in scarcity, competition, comparison, domination or greed. It flourishes in abundance, appreciating and honoring difference, collective care and collective access," according to Mia Mingus. As I have said throughout this post, I also see multiple kinds of oppression as being inseparably connected and that's why I believe that one violent system (e.g., ableism) cannot be meaningfully dismantled without addressing all the others.
The title of this post is a reference to a film where, incidentally, it is not violence or nihilism that saves the day, but rather kindness and radical care. One of the main characters, Waymond Wang, embodies a subversive masculinity that is vulnerable, communicative and caring, and the analysis of his character in this video essay about Everything Everywhere All At Once is definitely worth watching if you've watched the film.
I don't believe I can convince people who don't already value disabled life to start valuing it now after reading one blog post, nor convince people who aren't already aware of the problems with capitalism that capitalism has problems. But for those who know both things already, yet express inconsistency with your thoughts, words and actions where they come together: I hope you join me and Waymond and choose radical care.
- Death for Everyone. End the discrimination of non-disabled people in Canada! - Ms Sine Nomine (satirical post about MAiD in Canada - the author has several other excellent posts about MAiD, disability justice, autonomy, assisted dying, etc.)
- You Are Not Entitled To Our Deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence - Mia Mingus (post about being disabled and encountering ableism during the global pandemic - it is angry and beautiful and resonates with me deeply, and ends with suggestions for solidarity and interdependence)
- There is ableism somewhere at the heart of your oppression, no matter what your oppression might be. - Mel Baggs (this post makes the same argument I make in the first section of mine, but I only read it after I tweeted it months ago - it's deeply satisfying to think Mel Baggs and I had similar thoughts on this)