Elizabeth Barnes is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. She works in metaphysics, social and feminist philosophy, and ethics, and is especially interested in the the places where these subjects overlap. Right now she’s finishing up a book on disability (The Minority Body) and thinking a lot about the metaphysics of social structure.
Confessions of a Bitter Cripple
I didn’t expect to feel so angry. A few years ago, having established a certain amount of professional security, I decided to start doing more work on social and feminist philosophy – especially philosophical issues related to disability. I’d always done some work on the topic, but I considered doing lots of work on it a professional luxury that had to be earned. When I began to focus more of my research on disability, I expected plenty of things – a deeper sense of fulfillment from what I was doing, a fair amount of side eye from colleagues, worries that the topic was too niche to be of general interest – but I didn’t expect the emotional drain that the work would be. I feel angry – more than I could’ve anticipated and more than I often care to admit – when I write about disability. And I also, at times, feel so, so sad.
I have sat in philosophy seminars where it was asserted that I should be left to die on a desert island if the choice was between saving me and saving an arbitrary non-disabled person. I have been told it would be wrong for me to have my biological children because of my disability. I have been told that, while it isn’t bad for me to exist, it would’ve been better if my mother could’ve had a non-disabled child instead. I’ve even been told that it would’ve been better, had she known, for my mother to have an abortion and try again in hopes of conceiving a non-disabled child. I have been told that it is obvious that my life is less valuable when compared to the lives of arbitrary non-disabled people. And these things weren’t said as the conclusions of careful, extended argument. They were casual assertions. They were the kind of thing you skip over without pause because it’s the uncontroversial part of your talk.
Now, of course, no one has said these things to me specifically. They haven’t said “Hey, Elizabeth Barnes, this is what we think about you!” But they’ve said them about disabled people in general, and I’m a disabled person. Even just thinking about statements like these, as I write this, I feel so much – sadness, rage, and more than a little shame. It’s an odd thing, a hard thing, to try to take these emotions and turn them into interesting philosophy and careful arguments. My first reaction isn’t to sit down and come up with carefully crafted counterexamples for why the views I find so disgusting are false. My first reaction is to want to punch the people that say these things in the face. (Or maybe shut myself in my room and cry. Or maybe both. It depends on the day.) It’s a strange thing – an almost unnatural thing – to construct careful, analytically rigorous arguments for the value of your own life, or for the bare intelligibility of the claims made by an entire civil rights movement.
I’m now putting the very finishing touches on a book on disability, though, so that strange and unnatural thing is more or less what I’ve been doing for the last two years. My book is an attempt to show that the the kinds of things that often get said about disability within the Disability Rights Movement – that disability is a valuable part of human diversity, that disability is a social identity that disabled people should claim and be proud of, that many of the most significant harms of being disabled are social harms – have clear philosophical defenses and aren’t nearly as counterintuitive as many philosophers seem to assume. Writing this book has been one of the most eye-opening professional experiences of my life. The beginning of the process was also the period in my life when I had to transition from being mostly invisibly disabled to being mostly visibly disabled. So the last two years have been an incredible learning curve, to say the least.
One of the most difficult things I’ve encountered is that, while I feel so angry and so sad about the subject matter, I have to work hard – especially now that I am visibly disabled – to not seem that way. A few ironic jokes are fine. But real anger and sadness? That has to be kept hidden away. And that’s because one of the biggest challenges to having my work on disability taken seriously is the worry that I am too ‘personally invested’ in the topic. And seeming emotional can only amplify those worries. Don’t get me wrong, I think those worries are absurd. I am personally invested in the topic of disability. Of course I am. But the last time I checked, most non-disabled people are also rather personally invested in the topic. That is, non- disabled people are personally invested in being non-disabled just as much as I am personally invested in being disabled. Disability – or lack thereof – is something everyone takes personally. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, or something that impedes good philosophy. But the simple fact is that my work will be seen as personal in a way that Peter Singer’s or Jeff McMahan’s won’t.
The other pitfall in expressing emotion – especially negative emotions like anger or sadness – when talking about disability – again, especially if you are visibly disabled – is that people always misinterpret you, no matter how explicit you are. You are read as a ‘bitter cripple’ or a ‘sad cripple’. And of course you’d be angry or sad – look at what happened to you! (Readers should please picture me rolling my eyes deeply at this point.) It’s a surprisingly difficult thing – sometimes it’s an impossible thing – to explain to people that you are not angry and sad about your disability, you are angry and sad about what is being said about your disability or how you are being treated because of your disability. You can say that as loud, as often, and as clearly as you want – people will still interpret your anger and sadness as the natural result of the bad luck you’ve had in life. Again, hiding the anger and the sadness is the easier way to go.
But what I’ve been learning – in baby steps – is to try to channel my emotions into better philosophy. I’m trying to figure out how to use my anger and my sadness as motivation to make my work better, and I think – at least sometimes – that it’s working. (Obligatory shout-out here to Audre Lorde and Alison Jaggar on the value of outlaw emotions.) Sally Haslanger once told me to trust my anger. That was some of the best advice anyone’s ever given me. I’m trying to learn how to take my anger and use it as motivation to keep writing, especially on those days when the thought of using philosophical arguments to push back against the status quo feels somewhere between overwhelming and pointless. And while feeling this way can be exhausting – in a way that writing about, say, metaphysical indeterminacy never was – it can also make the end result deeply special and meaningful in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated.