Blogs > Liberty and Power > This just in: Not Everyone Thinks Just Like Me Yet

Mar 7, 2005 6:32 pm


This just in: Not Everyone Thinks Just Like Me Yet



Lennard Davis, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, believes that the new Clint Eastwood movie"Million Dollar Baby" points out that we need to make a new addition to our growing list of “studies” at the universities: disability studies.

Read Davis’s article, if you have the stomach for it, and make of it what you will. But here are a few thoughts I have.

First, there is no such thing as a “disability scholar and activist.” This is because you cannot both be a scholar and an activist: to the extent you are an activist, you are no longer a scholar. And indeed this fact is demonstrated by Davis’s argument that we need “disabilities studies” departments so that we can reform—not educate—students. Indoctrination, whatever its other merits, does not constitute education. The latter is what a scholar does, the former is what an activist does.

Second, what a slander on people Davis’s article constitutes. Without knowing me, for example, he claims I cannot speak to a black, Asian, Hispanic, or disabled person without being conscious of the fact that that person is black, Asian, Hispanic, or disabled. What he really means is not just that I am aware of this fact about people, but that I let it negatively affect what I say, do, or believe about them. The continuing efforts of people like Davis to the contrary notwithstanding, however, I actually do my best not to let such things enter into my thoughts or behavior. And I bet I am not the only one.

Third, it strikes me as more than a little absurd to excoriate people for viewing others as members of this or that race or “protected class,” while simultaneously advocating the proliferation of academic disciplines and departments whose sole reason for existence is to trumpet, perpetuate, and set in stone these distinctions and divisions. I can’t help but think that if we didn’t have the incessant drumbeat of race-sex-class-(and now)-disability, people wouldn’t pay nearly as much attention to such things.

One of my six-year-old son’s best friends is a seven-year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome. My son doesn’t know the other boy has Down’s. He just thinks he’s silly and fun, kind of like my son, so they get along famously. One of my eight-year-old son’s best friends is an Asian boy who speaks with a bit of an accent and is good at something no one else in their class is, origami. My eight-year-old doesn’t realize the other boy is Asian. He just thinks he’s cool, and so they have great fun together. And one of my eleven-year-old daughter’s least favorite people is a Chinese girl who lives across the street from us. It isn’t that my daughter cares, or even hardly notices, that she’s Chinese; it’s that they just don’t get along. This kind of sorting according to interests and personalities is perfectly natural; like what happens in markets, this process tends to steer people towards behaviors and relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Alas, however, there are people who do not want that kind of innocent sorting. By the time children get to college (if not earlier), they want young people trained not to see people as individuals but to see them as representatives of specific classes or groups, complete with group characteristics, historical grievances, and special sensitivities to perceived slights. So my kids can’t just see another kid as funny or cool or irritating; they have to be a disabled funny kid, an Asian cool kid, a Chinese irritating kid. Similarly, I can’t view this student merely as a hard worker or that one as a slacker: I have to constantly remind myself that they are members of this or that race or protected class; I have to tell myself that there are many things that are not allowed to be said or done in the presence of such people, and all these prohibitions are class-specific, ever-changing, and beyond dispute; and I have to monitor my speech and actions accordingly. Not much of a chance for a friendly relationship under these circumstances!

So it isn’t just that Davis is advocating yet another political, and thus noneducational, training camp at universities. It isn’t just that he’s trying to justify his own work not by its scholarly or educational value but rather by shaming people who disagree with his view with moral posturing and sermonizing (if you disagree with him, you are immoral and evil). It’s that he is actually contributing mightily to the poisoning of the human relationships he claims to protect.

I don’t like having to view people according to their group identities. And I especially don’t like the claim that my children can’t continue viewing other kids as just individuals with their various unique characteristics. When will these social reformers just mind their own business and leave others alone?

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Roderick T. Long - 3/8/2005

Well, I would say Davis has correctly identified a problem but incorrectly identified the solution. I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't give all our attention to the latter and none to the former (or of course vice versa).


James Otteson - 3/8/2005

I don't think you're giving my criticisms a "fair rap," Roderick. You write, "Davis's point is that some groups are more likely to be judged detrimentally because of their group membership, and that the disabled are one such group." That seems true enough, but it hardly suffices to justify erecting a new academic discipline! Do we really need university departments with tenured professors to tell us "be nice to people, even those who are different from you"? And it still doesn't address my argument that the way people like Davis treat such facts of human social life will, if anything, deepen the divisions and exacerbate the antagonisms.


Roderick T. Long - 3/8/2005

While I disagree with a number of things in Davis's article (I don't think, for example, that Million Dollar Baby was assuming that euthanasia would be the right choice for any person in Maggie's condition, only that it was the right choice for her; I think pluralism is a reasonable position on this matter -- and of course I disagree with his support of coercive legislation), I don't think Jim's giving it quite a fair rap here. Consider the following excerpt from the article:

> most so-called "normal" people do not feel
> comfortable talking with a person using a
> wheelchair, a quadriplegic, a Deaf person, a
> blind person, a person with mental retardation
> or a person who has been treated for serious
> mental problems, someone who has cerebral palsy,
> who is spastic, and so on. That level of comfort
> one has with normals just isn't there. There will
> be the hesitancy about making eye contact, the
> desire to look with the simultaneous avoidance
> of looking.

Surely this is true, and it's surely a truth that we, who champion judging people as individuals rather than as members of a group, should care about. Davis's point is that some groups are more likely to be judged detrimentally because of their group membership, and that the disabled are one such group. Is it per se some sort of unjustifiable groupthink to make that pretty plausible point?


Roderick T. Long - 3/8/2005

Well, isn't the inference from "many leftists refuse to recognise people as individuals rather than as members of identity-constitutive groups" to "the Left refuses to recognise people as individuals rather than as members of identity-constitutive groups" itself an example of ... refusing to recognise leftists as individuals rather than as members of an identity-constitutive group?

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)


James Otteson - 3/7/2005

Thank you for your note. You're right that we're operating with different conceptions of activism. You're speaking of something like advocacy of the truth, or zealous pursuit of potentially enlightening avenues of study despite their controversy. Scholarship is not necessarily inconsistent with 'activism' of this sort.

By contrast, the kind of 'activism' I was addressing is the kind on display in Davis's article. It is not dispassionately investigating the truth and letting the evidence determine one's tentative judgments. It is not even an attempt to disseminate the results of one's investigations on the belief that society will thereby be better off. It is rather an attempt to browbeat people into adopting, subsidizing, or endorsing moral positions that are arrived at in advance of any actual study or investigation.

There is of course legitimate scholarly work to be done on, for example, the history of women, Asians, and Hispanics; the legal status of various disabilities and its consequences; the economic consequences of legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act; etc. Similarly, you write, "I do think that we are at the point where professionalized study of disabilities and abilities now and in the past would bear great fruit in our understandings of human society and capacities." I have no disagreement. But that is to be contrasted with what Davis seems to have in mind with "disabilities studies."


Jonathan Dresner - 3/7/2005

I disagree that one cannot be both a scholar and an activist: Good scholarship makes activism more effective and realistic, and good activism points at crucial unanswered questions which should be addressed by scholars. Good teaching (and scholarship) requires responsibility about balancing viewpoints and including all relevant evidence, but to doesn't preclude a conclusion that something is wrong and needs to be done.

Which is to say that your portrayal of "activists" is as essentialized and shallow as you deem their view of disabilities/disabled persons to be.

I don't, as it happens, really agree with the article's social aspects, but I do think that we are at the point where professionalized study of disabilities and abilities now and in the past would bear great fruit in our understandings of human society and capacities.


Aeon J. Skoble - 3/7/2005

Excellent post, Jim. Sadly, the answer to your concluding question "When will these social reformers just mind their own business and leave others alone?" is: not for a long time yet. This is, IMO, one of the major sticking points for any rapprochement between classical liberalism/libertarianism and the left of the sort that our colleague Roderick aspires to - the seeming inability of the left to see people as individuals rather than as members of identity-constitutive groups. Roderick, care to weigh in? You have made many good points in this regard, but what about this point?

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