Peter Singer: The Milo of Philosophers

Thanks to Louise for alerting me to the Journal of Practical Ethics doing a glossy Q&A with Peter Singer. Singer is a bigot. Philosophy embraces him as a titan of the field, letting his ableism slide merrily by under the glamor of robust debate. Yes, yes, #NotAllPhilosophers

At any rate, this is a long “20-questions” feature with Singer, and I, too, have some questions.

Singer says, among other things, this incredibly damaging response (there’s more in the whole article, but I want to zoom in here):

I was assuming that there are other couples who are unable to have their own child, and who would be happy to adopt a child with Down syndrome. If that is the situation, I don’t see why it is selfish to enable a couple to have a child they want to have, and for my wife and myself to conceive another child, who would be very unlikely to have Down syndrome, and so would give us the child we want to have. For me, the knowledge that my child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop. 

“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability. But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.

Unpack: 1) He wouldn’t love a child less intelligent than he is. 2) He wouldn’t be able to have good conversations (Berube took this apart a decade ago). 3) Disabled people are like dogs and pigs (using ableism to attack specieism).

I may do some longer writing around this essay and its problems, but my real concern isn’t with Singer, but with Philosophy. I think of Singer like Milo, saying inflammatory things for attention, protesting “free speech” when called out on his hate or when people advocate to no-platform him.

Imagine if Singer – which he surely would have in another era – was using his academic status to push for race science. Can’t you imagine him using this argument, based on assumptions of black inferiority, to work for animal rights using racism? I mean, the suffragists famously demanded white women get the vote because black men did. Would race science exile Singer from the halls of respectability?

My son’s full humanity is not a position that is worthy debate, any more than my full humanity as a Jew is. Some positions do not deserve platforms.

Perhaps this is not a person who merits your keynotes, features in the press, adulation in the profession. No matter how edgy he is.

URGENT: Tell Education to Keep Publicizing Civil Rights Data

The U.S. Department of Education collects and publicizes vitally important data on civil rights in U.S. Schools. It fuels both policy and journalism. Without good data, we can’t tell the big stories and we can’t make good decisions. I’m asking you to provide a clear brief comment about why it’s important, to let the Department of Education know this program matters. It’s not a panic situation. It’s not a BREAKING THREAT AHHH! But it is important.

For example, here’s last week’s piece from NBC News on “kids in cuffs.” Behind that story, the Civil Rights Data from Education.

Due in part to tragic school shootings like the Columbine massacre, police and security officers are now a regular presence at schools. But the handcuffing of Kalyb Wiley-Primm is one of many incidents across the country that have led to calls to examine the role that police play in schools, and change how discipline is meted out — particularly to minority students and students with disabilities.

Read it. And here’s a thread of numerous other stories I’ve written on the same topic over the years, all dependent on data collection.

Right now there’s a call for comment about changing the way that the information is collected and disseminated. People in the know have suggested it would be a good time to go to and offer a thoughtful, but brief, comment.

There’s no evidence that Secretary DeVos wants to stop collecting and disseminating this data (I have a request in for comment), but it would be useful to make it clear that any attempt to do so in the future will be noticed and met with resistance. Just take a few minutes and say something like (in your own words):

“The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) provides much-needed transparency and information on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools, including for students with disabilities and those from other marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds. This data helps the U.S. Department of Education achieve its mission of ensuring access to equal educational opportunity for all students. Secretary DeVos should please preserve, expand, and publicly share the results of the CRDC.”

Then you enter some information, if you want, and you’re done! Select “individual” or “academic” or whatever.

Here’s another example of comment.

Unspeakable Acts: Annals of American Fascism

Americans have always been willing to put on uniforms and perform unspeakable acts. The Trail of Tears, those who hunted down slaves, internment, participation in lynching, ignoring lynching, policing minority communities, etc. Americans have always been willing.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is a useful way to consider these acts of evil, but we can’t deploy her brilliant commentary as a way to alienate the U.S.A. from that evil, to deem it a thing of Nazis, of others. America does have Nazis (they like to yell at me for being Jewish), but the #CultOfCompliance is as American as it gets. So reading Arendt is very useful, so long as you read her next to James Baldwin. Or DuBois. Or follow the native writers on #NoDAPL. Or … there’s a lot to read.

When the Muslim Ban went into effect, Chris Edelson, a professor at American University, wrote for the Baltimore Sun a piece on the “inhumane acts” carried out by ordinary Americans.

A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.
At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.
At Kennedy Airport, still other federal employees detained and handcuffed a 65-year-old woman traveling from Qatar to visit her son, who is a U.S. citizen and serviceman stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. The woman was held for more than 33 hours, according to the New York Times, and denied use of a wheelchair.
The men and women who work for the federal government completed these and other tasks and then returned to their families, where perhaps they had dinner and read stories to their children before bedtime.

Since then, immigration raids have revealed new depths to which Americans in uniforms are more than willing to casually go. Here’s two more unspeakable acts. Notice the disability context in the first, the violence in the second. Multiple marginalizations magnify vulnerability.

Americans have always been willing to do this. Their targets are expanding. And the president and Attorney General are providing the fuel to intensify such cruelty, performed with banal thoughtlessness, in the name of compliance.

There’s Nothing Medieval about Trump

Columnists keep wanting to distance us moderns from Trump, but he’s as modern as it gets. 

GUEST POST by Eric Weiskott
In an interview
for The Guardian last week,
philosopher Daniel Dennett was asked whether “deep thinking” is what’s needed
in the current political climate. He responded:

Yes. From everybody. The real
danger that’s facing us is we’ve lost respect for truth and facts. People have
discovered that it’s much easier to destroy reputations for credibility than it
is to maintain them. It doesn’t matter how good your facts are, somebody else
can spread the rumour that you’re fake news. We’re entering a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that
we’ve not experienced since the middle ages.
These are the words of someone totally unacquainted with the
Middle Ages. It’s not just that the picture of the medieval period as an endless
cycle of ignorance and repression is wrong (it is), but the picture itself is a
modern one. It’s an effect of the Enlightenment and secularization, which
retrospectively created premodernity. Ironically, by describing American
politics as a regression to a medieval past, Dennett is reifying the very
ideology that created ‘the Middle Ages’ in the first place. There’s no there
there—no real confrontation with the past and no meaningful comparison.
Dennett isn’t alone. Lou Mastriani writes
for that “Donald Trump has taken us back to medieval times.” David
Brooks thinks
the Trump administration “is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern
nation-state. It’s more ‘The Madness of King George’ than ‘The Missiles of
October.’” (Note: George III reigned in the nineteenth century!) Katty Kay opines for the BBC that
Trump’s White House “acts like some medieval court.” Louis René Beres at Arutz Sheva, describing
Trump’s presidency as “forged in an atmosphere of determined unreason and
anti-thought,” identifies it with the prediction of what he terms “resurrected
medieval darkness” in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” And this is just
from the past week.
These statements are historically ignorant. They’re also a
window onto modern liberal subjects’ sense of the world.
The real payoff of assigning
current politics to the distant past is to protect the notion of a just
society, ruled by reason. The notion of a society ruled by reason stands in
need of protecting because, well, it keeps bumping up against reality. Indeed,
this notion has always been a fantasy, a way of papering over the violence and
imperialism of modernity.

You don’t get Hume without the transatlantic
slave trade. You don’t get Kant without the Holocaust. The just and rational world
projected by Enlightenment philosophers turned out to be a space of whiteness
called “Europe,” cloaked in universalism. Enlightenment has winners and losers
across the world in 2017.

None of this is to say that the various ideas and practices
we now call the Enlightenment were a
bad thing. Historicism teaches us that transhistorical judgments are problematic,
in any case, since there exists no position outside history from which to judge.
The crucial point is that the Enlightenment inculcated new forms of hegemony even
as it promised new forms of liberation
. If you are sure enlightenment has been
good to you, that is because you live in the historical alleyways opened up by
enlightenment. You are the product of enlightenment and its beneficiary. One of
the minor exports of Enlightenment thought was the idea of the Middle Ages, the
negative mirror image of secularist modernity.
A quote in black and white: If you are sure enlightenment has been good to you, that is because you live in the historical alleyways opened up by enlightenment

So when Dennett makes an offhand reference to “the middle
ages,” all that historical baggage is packed in yet goes unacknowledged. He
means, approximately, ‘a period of epistemological murk and uncertainty that
we’ve not experienced since what I imagine my rationalist, secularist self would
feel in the Middle Ages.’ So stated, the sentiment is obviously devoid of
historical content. Ultimately, Dennett’s appeal is an appeal to whiteness, scientism,
secularism, and related ideological formations. Any of my colleagues in
medieval studies will recognize this rhetorical move. It’s the same move that
made Anglo-Saxons and West Africans appear primitive to nineteenth-century
white Europeans. (Notice how modernity transects both space and time.) Medievalists
have learned to disarm this line of reasoning by asking, “‘Primitive’ to whom?
On what grounds? For whose benefit? At whose expense?” The idea that Trump is
making America medieval again deserves to be greeted with the same skepticism,
and for the same reason.
Dennett’s historical attitude is bound up with his own
reflexive disdain for religious belief and religious institutions, a habit of
thought characteristic of secularist modernity. (Every medievalist has been
asked by a friend or family member, “How can you study such a religious period?”) Tellingly, Dennett remarks
that “the rise of theocracy in America” is one of the few threats that can spur
him to political activism. He admits to resenting politics in general, because
“I simply must take time out from what I’d really like to be doing to think
about the political near future.” Needless to say, the luxury of escaping
politics is only afforded to those with substantial privilege and
security. Dennett’s comments on organized religion suggest what’s at stake for
him when he does choose to drop the pretense that his work is apolitical. Like Stephen
, Dennett is invested in anti-religious polemic, in vindicating
secularization as absolute social progress.

Like racial slavery, the scientific method, ISIS, the
automobile, and phenomenology, Trumpism is an irreducibly modern response to
modern conditions. Trump isn’t taking us back to the Middle Ages because
history only points in one direction. We can learn much from the violence of
the past, but not by wishing away the violence of the present.

Eric Weiskott teaches medieval English poetry at Boston College; he’s working on a book about the division of the past into medieval and modern periods.

Milo and the University of Chicago Medievalists

There’s been a lot of coverage (in my little slice of the world) of a medievalist at the University of Chicago who has been writing quite outrageous things about Milo the Professional Bigot. There’s more to say about Milo, but lots of folks are already saying it. Here’s my thread on the context surrounding Fulton.

I am pretty much an absolutist when it comes to protecting “extramural utterances,” like tweets and blog posts, by academics. We’ve got to protect the right of academics like Fulton to compare Milo to Jesus (really!!!) without threatening their jobs. That said, it troubled me to see someone using their academic status to craft a nonsensical defense of Milo as a Christian visionary.

Julie Orlemanski, a brilliant medievalist (in English) at the University of Chicago, sent a letter on Sunday, February 19 (so post-Maher but before the pedophilia scandal went viral) criticizing a publication decision by Sightings, a University of Chicago Divinity School online publication focusing on “religion in public life from an academic perspective.” Sightings published an essay by Fulton, “Why Milo Scares Students,” praising his truth-telling and Christian virtue.

Orlemanski emphasizes that this essay is not  extramural, but is rather a university publication with a set of standards, and publishing this material there has consequences.

I re-post the letter here, in full, with permission:

Letter to Dean of the Divinity School, to the Director of the Martin E Marty Center, and to the editor of Sightings:

I am writing as a colleague in the English department disturbed by the decision to publish Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s article on Mr. Milo Yiannopoulos, as the Divinity School’s “Sightings” platform did on February 16, 2017 (now partially republished on Breitbart with the lede “An article published by the University of Chicago’s Divinity School….”) My objections are twofold. First, the piece falls short of the editorial standards laid out on the “Sightings” website; it fails to live up to the basic tenets of academic integrity that make our university a meaningful intellectual community. Second, the manner of publication shows no sensitivity to the inflammatory content of the article and the effects of this content on the university committee.

On this second point: It is a statement of fact that Mr. Yiannopoulos expresses xenophobic, racist, and transphobic ideas and carries out discursive violence by doxing (intimidating individuals by dumping personal information into the public domain) his critics as well as persons he identifies as undocumented immigrants or trans. The Anti-Defamation League refers to him as “a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, transphobic troll

Faced with publishing an article in support of Mr. Yiannopoulos, what are the responsibilities of a University of Chicago platform? 
My claim is that it – is that you – have a responsibility to the university community of current students, faculty, and alumni and to our broader political world to reflect on the likely effects of publication. There are not only two options here. This is not a stark decision between so-called “free speech” and censorship. For instance: observing the controversial and obviously offensive nature of the contents (an offensiveness thematized in the article itself), those responsible for this publication might have decided to solicit a couple of other faculty members’ responses to Mr. Yiannopoulos, or to our campus climate in the current political moment; these articles might have been framed with an editorial introduction, to aid the university community in grappling with your decision to publish the piece. Instead, as a junior faculty member who works in medieval studies at this university, I have spent more than a dozen hours since the article’s publication three days ago responding to appalled graduate students, faculty at other institutions, and faculty here. Speaking personally, I feel angry and disappointed that “Sightings” did not take up any of this intellectual, institutional, and affective labor in advance and instead left it to me and others.

I would add that I invested time last week reading the 2016 Climate Report and the recent report of the Diversity Advisory Council so as to participate in one of the “Campus Conversations” about diversity, inclusion, and equity. 

I assume you have read the report, so you know that among respondents who identify as Black, 40% perceive the overall institutional climate as racist, and among respondents who identify as transgenderqueer-agender, 41% perceive the overall institutional climate as sexist. 
These numbers show that, already, the university is not a space of free and equitable access to “speech.” If, as Provost Diermeier wrote on January 24, “The University of Chicago is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive campus that enables individuals of all backgrounds to thrive,” then “Sightings” and the Divinity School have an obligation to work to ameliorate the university’s racist and sexist climate. This may mean changing policies and practices so as better to balance commitments to antiracism and antisexism with intellectual inquiry. As it is, I find it an unpleasant irony following the “Campus Conversation” to find the university’s imprimatur on an article in support of a racist transphobe and to spend hours dealing with the fall-out from that.

My first point above – that Professor Fulton Brown’s article fails to live up to the basic tenets of academic integrity that make our university a meaningful intellectual community – seems to me straightforward. The “Sightings” mission statement asserts that you publish “rigorous analysis of, and research-based opinions about, religion in the news.” The article does not meet this standard. To justify her account of who Milo Yiannopoulos is and what he stands for, she refers her readers to articles from Breitbart. But Mr. Yiannopoulos is a senior editor at Breitbart, and Professor Fulton Brown herself is listed as an author there; the site itself (as I’m sure you’re aware) is known for far-right opinion and commentary; it is not a credible source. The logic and historical basis for her claims regarding Christianity and the university are also poor. Given the straightforwardly inflammatory content of the article, “Sightings” might have insisted on a high standard of argumentation and evidentiary support, and I am disappointed that they did not. Instead, my colleagues and I are compelled to spend our time producing “more free speech” pointing out basic failures of journalistic and intellectual discourse.

To reiterate: I am writing with a sense of profound disappointment and frustration regarding how Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s piece was published. It is my hope that “Sightings,” the Divinity School, and the university as a whole will act differently next time, by taking action to balance commitments to antiracism and antisexism with the values of intellectual exchange.

Thank you in advance for your response.

Right Wing Attacks on Academia Continue: Iowa Law Mandates Political Affiliation

Amidst all the furor over Milo and UC Berkeley, in which non-students staged an action to shut down a speech, the GOP keeps doing its thing – using money and access to power to try and overthrow public universities. I wrote about this most recently here for Pacific Standard and on the blog.

Latest examples:

The law in question has been proposed in Iowa, requiring “political balance” among professors. It comes shortly after another bill ending tenure was proposed.

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.
“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.”

Three notes:

1) Using coercive power of the states to force ideology into public universities is the standard conservative move.

2) The couching of in the frame of “diversity” is relatively new (last 5 years or so). Of course they are actually opposed to diversity in all other contexts.

3) Legislators propose all kinds of ridiculous bills for the sake of political posturing, but such proposals don’t happen in a vacuum. It may not make it through Iowa. It might not make it through the courts if  it was passed. But it will in some states. ALEC and the like help draft these bills and pass them around. This is a garbage law, and unworkable. But any hint of forcing people to declare party affiliation for hiring is a totalitarian move.

Meanwhile, I’m sure the high visibility writers with all the diversity of Chait, Haidt, Kristof, and Soave are super focused to see how the next big threat to free speech is coming from Oberlin students.

UPDATE: Also NC. I smell ALEC’s legislation-writing folks at work.

Disability and M. Night. Shyamalan (SPOILERS)

In the wake of Split, disability rights folks have been grumpy about the ways that the show depicts
Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personality Disorder). It’s one of the most stigmatized, and broadly misunderstood, disabilities, especially in the context of creating fictional killers.

But Kim Sauder, one of my favorite writers on disability and culture, went first on a tweet storm and then a blog post on M. Night Shyamalan’s consistent use disability as a shortcut to “bad.”

Split is actually (as it is revealed in the end) a sort of sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Unbreakable is another film that relies on a disabled villain. Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that causes brittle bones. Price is inspired to villainy by comic books (Isn’t Shyamalan Meta he creates a superhero universe where the villains are inspired by comic books *sigh*). He makes it very clear that his disability is a catalyst for his villainy. He reasons that if he is so fragile then there must be someone is as impervious to injury as Price is prone to it (because logic I guess). He goes around causing disasters with mass casualties until he finds his opposite. He discovers David Dunn (Bruce Willis) after Dunn is the sole survivor of a train wreck.

Disability is so linked to villainy in Unbreakable that the hero is literally impervious to injury. He can never become disabled.

By linking Split and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has essentially created a superhero universe in which disability is synonymous with evil.

Shyamalan’s use of disability is not limited to these two films. It is also a theme in his biggest success The Sixth Sense (1999). The initial meeting between Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is set up as Crowe being Cole’s psychiatrist. But fear, not Haley Joel Osment is not another Shyamalan supervillain. He is not mad. He can actually really see ghosts. The film does not, however, avoid the insinuation that mad is bad. In the scene where Cole finds the evidence that a child–who had presumably died of some unknown prolonged illness–had been murdered by her mother through long-term poisoning. The film subtly suggests that the mother has Munchausen’s by Proxy and was carrying out the prolonged poisoning not for the direct goal of killing the girl but rather for the attention having a sick child provided her.


Euphemisms Spread Stigma – Study on “Special Needs”

My son’s love of music is known across the multi-verse, specifically Hamilton and the band Flogging Molly (though yesterday he chose and danced to Alan Jackson’s, “5:00 somewhere”).  But before those were his favorites, he spent years delighted by the music of Laurie Berkner. She’s on twitter, sometimes we briefly exchange a few words, and I saw her calling for “special needs” kids for a video the other day, leading to this.

This was on my mind as I read about a new study by Morton Ann Gernsbacher (et al.) on:
“Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism (open access link to the full article). The article takes a long-held assessment by activists and scholars alike that “special” isn’t helpful, despite its popularity, and tries to form a quantitative analysis.

In a blog post on the study, Gernsbacher writes:

In addition to its negative connotations, we argued special needs is imprecise; it can refer to groups as unrelated as minority and bi-racial children in the realm of child adoption; middle-age adults and persons without personal transportation in the realm of disaster preparedness; and pregnant women and people with nut allergies in the realm of airline travel).

Special needs also connotes segregation. Most special programs (e.g., Special Olympics and special education) segregate persons with disabilities from persons without disabilities. Special needs also implies special rights. In our research article, we pointed to an OpEd in The Chronicle of Higher Education that misconstrues legally mandated disability rights as special rights, as well as similar misconstruals observed in common vernacular.

We concluded that special needs has become a dysphemism, similar to lame (e.g., a lame idea), crippled, blind (e.g., blind to evidence), and deaf (e.g., deaf to reason). Our research did not explore whether non-disabled people’s use of special needs is intentional (although some instances clearly imply negative intentionality). Perhaps, as Simi Linton suggests, non-disabled people’s ambivalence about disability rather than sharp repulsion underlies their use of the term special needs. Regardless of speakers’ and writers’ motivation, our research recommends not using the euphemism special needs and instead using the non-euphemized term disability.

So: People associate it with negative things, it’s imprecise, it connotes segregation, and it’s used as an insult.

How to Write Inclusive Job Descriptions

STEP 1: UNDERSTAND ESSENTIAL JOB FUNCTIONS The essential functions of a job are not synonymous with all the functions of that job. A disabled person’s inability to perform a nonessential function is not a valid basis for disqualifying that person from employment. It is important that essential functions be defined and job descriptions be prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants. A description written later will not be considered as evidence of essential functions in the case of a discrimination charge.

Context: Every faculty job add at Holy Cross. a school in Notre Dame, IN, comes with the current statement:

Physical Demands

  • Repetitive movement of hands and fingers – typing and/or writing; occasional standing, walking, stooping, kneeling or crouching; reaching with hands and arms; talking and hearing.
  • Ability to lift and carry up to 20 lbs.

Despite the EEOC “NOTE,” this statement is arguably discriminatory. So I wrote about it for Pacific Standard. HCC spoke to me on the phone, asked for written questions, and then told me they had a lawyer at the ready. Instead of engaging with how they might pursue a more just work environment, they are ready, I fear, to fight.

But I hope they think hard about how a disabled applicant would read those phrases. And I hope they read the work I’ve done on this before. Because no professor in face is required to walk. And no professor in fact is required to hear. Hands and arms – optional. Normal, sure, but that’s the point. Norms discriminate. Moreover, writing an inclusive job description doesn’t seem that hard to me, but does require more than a cut/paste CYA mentality. And according to experts, this stuff won’t really CYA if there’s a job claim. 



I have written about this kind of clause before. It’s common – especially the “lift 20/25 pounds” clause – and needs to stop. I focus on Higher Ed, but it’s also an issue in the tech and non-profit worlds, to name two.

In the meantime, if you are disabled and wish to apply for a job with these clauses, you can contact the EEOC website and file a charge.

And if you see a job ad like this, you can either call them yourself and show them my work, or contact me and I’ll do it for you.