Ramsay, dogwhistles, and the “West”

I studied a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. I graduate next week with first class Honours in History. I’d like to share some thoughts on the Ramsay Centre and their proposed “Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation”.

The Australian claims that “Western civilisation [is] a lost cause at public universities”.

Pockets of excellence remain in the humanities in public universities but overall they are on an ideological path of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they are getting worse. Their university administrations will certainly never reform them…

[T]he Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation… had offered huge donations to set up a degree based on the great books.

Such courses are common in the US. But in Australia only the small Campion College runs such a great-books-based program to an accredited degree level.

Campion College is a Catholic liberal arts college in Sydney, whose goal is “to nurture future students in the liberal arts who will, by the quality of their education and the maturity of their religious faith, be able to live out a mission of leadership and service to society and the Church”. They are, they say, “independent” but “faithfully aligned to the teachings of the Catholic Church”.

Campion runs an annual essay competition to attempt to seduce enrolments out of high school students; in 2010 I won the first of these. I’m not sure I was what they were expecting. I was 17, very small, very energetic, and ragingly queer. They tried to sell the school to me regardless. Bless their socks, but I was desperately uncomfortable. It was all very white and very straight. I don’t think I met a single staff member who wasn’t an elderly white man. It felt like they were pushing an agenda while trying very hard to look like they were not pushing an agenda. The essay competition was attached to a monetary prize; you’d best believe I took the money and ran.

I wanted to study literature and history, but the kind of curriculum that Campion College offered was oddly narrow in a way that is difficult to articulate. They were interested in a particular kind of literature; a particular version of history. It felt sheltered.

All of this said, the curriculum at the University of Sydney wasn’t actually much better than what was offered by Campion College. I was most interested in ancient history and mythology, but the only areas covered by USyd’s Ancient History units were Greece and Rome. There was nothing on ancient Mesopotamia or the Near East, nothing on ancient Egypt, Africa, China, Japan, India, or Mesoamerica. Some of the earliest written texts on this planet are from Ancient Sumer, but there was no opportunity to study Enheduanna (who praised the god Inanna for her ability to turn women into men and vice versa), or to study the Sumerian creation myth that explicitly includes intersex and disabled people. The oldest piece of epic literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I did study very briefly in a subject called “Greek and Roman Myth”, but there were no units of study dedicated wholly to any culture outside of Greece and Rome. There was nothing on ancient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, though they have the oldest continuous cultures in the world. In 2012, the year I began my undergraduate degree, the Koori Centre was defunded and shut down.

When conservatives speak about “the West”, about “Western civilisation” and “tradition”, about “the classics”, about “values” and “culture”, it is all very sharply coded. It sounds good on the surface; why shouldn’t we nurture art and the humanities? Well, alright, but let’s remember why they’re suffering in the first place: the Liberal government has announced plans to cut $2.2 billion in funding from universities. So let’s allow ourselves to be suspicious of their motives for a moment. Let’s ask why they might couch seemingly-innocuous phrases in alarmist rhetoric about falling civilisations and futurity.

Let’s consider the Ramsay Centre in the context of Pauline Hanson moving a motion in the Senate saying “it’s okay to be white”. The phrase is borrowed from white supremacist organisations. It is designed to seem innocuous, to act as a dogwhistle, only capable of being heard by its target audience. It is supposed to be irrefutable: if you recognise the white supremacist baggage attached to the phrase and try to reject it, then you’re proving their point.

The “West” itself is a nebulous concept. It includes Greece and Rome, but not Carthage or Egypt; it includes Jerusalem, but not Uruk. Even the Ramsay Centre doesn’t feel the need to define exactly what they mean by Western civilisation. Their proposed curriculum is startlingly unambitious. Homer, Sappho, Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare: it looks exactly like the contents of my undergraduate degree. Still no Gilgamesh or Enheduanna, though much of Graeco-Roman myth and culture is inherited from Sumer and Mesopotamia. (Compare the descent of Inanna with the myth of Persephone.) And nothing in languages other than English, though most of the named foundational texts were written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. The West, whatever it is, is apparently strictly Anglophonic.

None of the content of the proposed course is particularly neglected by the existing University of Sydney curriculum. These are the current core units of study for Ancient History at USyd:

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What, then, is so at risk of neglect or decline? What exactly is at stake here? Yes, all of these are worthy of study, but are they the only areas worthy of study? I can’t say that I can characterise much of my undergraduate education as especially leftist or radical; if the university is producing radical leftists then it is certainly not by design.

Returning to the piece in the Australian, Greg Sheridan places Christianity at the heart of the “West”.

The West, uniquely, developed experimental science because of its theological views of nature. God was sacred and nature was natural. Nature didn’t embody warring or capricious demons. It was good, as Genesis had proclaimed. And it embodied order, as a reflection of divine order. The desire to discover the secrets of that order led to experimental science.

By their own timeline it doesn’t make much sense. Christianity began in the first century BCE; the civilisation of Ancient Greece is generally regarded as emerging in the eighth century BCE and ending in the second century BCE, when it was invaded by Ancient Rome. If Christianity is at the heart of the West, then the West cannot include Ancient Greece, and yet it does. The Ancient Greeks thought that the origin of the world began with night and chaos, and their gods were not holy and righteous but petty and selfish. Nature was random and strange, full of whirling possibilities. If there was a perfect order, it was in the vastness of everything, the huge beauty of the unknown, all of it working in weird harmony.

Proponents of the Ramsay Centre seem to think that everything admirable about the classics is at risk of being spoiled by feminism and “cultural Marxism”. How boring, to point out cultural metanarratives of inequity. How frustrating and facile, to project bigotry across these great works of brilliant men, to bring sexism and racism into it (since, of course, they mustn’t have been there already).

And yet if we are to invoke people like Aristotle and Plato as the grand forefathers of Western civilisation, if we are speaking about nature and order, then we must come to grips with what that means. Aristotle believed that slavery itself was natural; that women were naturally inferior to men; that disabled infants should be murdered at birth. Plato, too, thought that certain inequities were natural.

In my undergraduate study we never examined Plato or Aristotle especially deeply for sexism or ableism; they are simply inescapably those things already. As a disabled person it is impossible to read Aristotle and feel comfortable with his asserting “let there be a law that no deformed child shall live”. And it is not only these older texts that should be subjected to a critical lens. Marx, too, is painfully racist and ableist: as a disabled person it is impossible to read Marx and feel comfortable with his references to “crippled monstrosities”. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon the lot of them, but we should at least take their grand truths with a grain of salt.

Of course none of this was ever touched upon in my classes. If feminism has ruined university education then it has done a very half-hearted job of it. A while ago I took a European Studies class where one of the prescribed texts was The Marquise of O, after which the tutorial avidly discussed whether a violent gangrape was really rape if she fell in love with him afterwards. The text after that was The Sorrows of Young Werther – a book which gives its name to the “Werther effect”, referring to copycat suicides, since its publication induced a spate of them. No content warnings, of course, and no option to skip those texts – hah! Snowflakes! Etc.

Are we neglecting the history and literature of Western civilisation? Well, no, not really. In fact I think we could comfortably neglect it a little more, and benefit from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article out in Junkee on Stephen Hawking

I wrote an article for Junkee about Stephen Hawking and the media reception of his death. You can read it here.

Excerpt:

Stephen Hawking died two days ago. He was an extraordinary and uncommon academic, a scientist with a deep sense of artistry and a wicked sense of humour. And he was a bright fire in the lonely sky of disabled academia.

I am not a scientist. But I am a wheelchair-using academic, and I have a lot of feelings about space; my thesis has “cosmogonies” in the title. Hawking’s work was a joy and his presence in the world was a comforting reminder that people like me belong in academia just as much as any abled person does.

So it is disappointing, and deeply hurtful, to see how abled people are handling the news of Hawking’s death.

Many abled people have created artistic depictions where Hawking’s spirit is seen standing or walking away from his wheelchair. Leaving aside the fact that Hawking was a staunch atheist who described the idea of an afterlife as a “fairy story”, this fundamentally misunderstands the function of a wheelchair in a disabled person’s life.

Hawking is not “finally free” of his wheelchair now that he is dead. His wheelchair is the thing that gave him freedom during his life. The only time he ever envisioned himself mystically floating away into a sparkly cosmos, it was with his chair: go ahead and watch his cover of Monty Python’s ‘Galaxy Song’ if you want to see for yourself.

Read the full article on Junkee here.

 

 

 

HELL ON WHEELS

I wrote an article recently for Honi Soit about mobility accessibility, wheelchair users & our history at the University of Sydney, my beloved but dreadfully inaccessible uni.

You can read it here or on Honi Soit’s website.

I love my wheelchair. My wheels are rad as hell. My ride is a stylish manual MOGO Infinity with Round Betty wheels and a purple and green frame. The seat and backrest are specially fitted to my spine. Before I got my chair I was, for the most part, stuck at home. My joints dislocate daily, and while walking on dislocated hips is not impossible, it’s extraordinarily painful. There’s a reason my hospital patient records all have “high fall risk” at the top. But now that I’m not overexerting, trying to make my wobbly Jenga tower of a skeleton walk under its own power, I can go out dancing in my wheelchair and stay out for hours.

This said, making it through the world as a wheelchair user is exhausting. And please don’t misinterpret what I mean here: my wheelchair is a blessing. I used to stagger around on crutches and canes that dislocated my wrists and elbows if I used them for more than a few minutes, and leaving the house was such a tiring feat that I nearly absent failed my last undergraduate unit even though I was getting consistent HDs.

The problem is not the chair itself. The problem is that the paving stones on my street are broken to shit. The problem is that the four closest train stations to me are all inaccessible. The problem is that pushing myself uphill dislocates my shoulders, and power wheel attachments cost $9000. The problem is that I couldn’t access one of my honours seminars and my professor advised me to drop out rather than dealing with the lack of access.

In short, it’s not me, it’s USyd.

In five years of ambulatory study, I saw only two wheelchair users on campus. In my sixth year I have seen four more, mostly in the Assistive Technology Lab. I don’t know of any current staff members who are wheelchair users.

This is not statistically proportional. In Australia, 20 per cent of the population is disabled. The figure is 50 per cent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Of course, not every disabled person is a wheelchair user. But enough of us are that our absence at the University is disquieting.

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Image: Jacob Baldwin, a white man in a red jacket, grinning wildly as he zooms past some trees on his red motorised wheelchair. Photo taken during the Ability Trek journey around Australia: 16,500 kilometres by motorised wheelchair from 1992 to 1996. Jacob Baldwin collection, National Museum of Australia.

USyd admitted their first female students in 1885: Mary Elizabeth Brown and Isola Florence Thompson. Our first self-identifying Aboriginal students were admitted in 1965: Charlie Perkins and Gary Williams. I don’t know who our first disabled student was.

According to the university’s archives, the first record that exists of a wheelchair-using student is Jacob Baldwin, who commenced study in 1975. Baldwin had cerebral palsy, which continues to affect one  in 500 Australians. In his application to study rehabilitation counselling at Cumberland College, he wrote:

“My qualifications to embark on such a course are almost nil, but the most important factor is that I feel very strongly, partly because of my own disability, about the unsatisfactory situation facing the handicapped people of today. A lot more has to be done by the able-bodied and the knowledgeable handicapped people in the community. Disabled people are human and more has to be done to introduce them into the ‘normal’ society and I, personally, wish to be in a position to help toward their acceptance and their general betterment.”

Cumberland College was not wheelchair accessible at the time. Baldwin had to wait outside the lecture theatre for other students to carry him and his wheelchair up the stairs. He was a skilled writer, but wrote by laboriously picking out letters on a typewriter one-handed. This prevented him from taking notes during classes, so he taped his lectures and his stepfather transcribed them. He later went on to become a founding member of People With Disability Australia, and was an early proponent of the ideas that laid the foundation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The global disability rights movement had been rumbling underground for nearly a century at this point. When we are taught about Helen Keller in school, it is usually in the form of what the late and great comedian and writer Stella Young called “inspiration porn”: Keller is made out to be a helpless, animalistic youth, tragically prevented from communication by her deafblindness, and charitably aided by her teacher Anne Sullivan who taught her Braille and sign language. And yet Keller lived to 87 and became an outspoken suffragist and radical socialist.

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[Image: HELEN KELLER CHEERS ACTORS’ STRIKE PICKETS. A newspaper clipping of Helen Keller joining the picket line at a protest of her own biopic.]

In 1949 she visited Sydney and founded the Gordon Davis House Youth Hostel in Stanmore. There were other disabled organisations constellated around the university grounds, but most of them were institutional in nature: the Weemala Home for Incurables; the Spastic Centre, now the Cerebral Palsy Association; the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, founded in 1880, now the Sydney College of the Arts; and the New South Wales Deaf Dumb and Blind Institution, now the Institute Building, having been bought by USyd in 1961.

By the 1960s, disability activism had blossomed into a radical public movement in the United States. Like many other social causes, it began in student activism, namely at the University of California, Berkeley, where Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads smashed their own curb cuts out of concrete, and at Gallaudet University, where Deaf students barricaded the campus with upturned buses in protest at the appointment of another hearing president. It wasn’t until the late 70s that disability activism came to the forefront in Australia. Joan Hume had graduated from USyd in 1969 as an abled student, then after breaking her neck in 1971, returned for postgraduate study as a wheelchair user. She wrote that in the 70s, “Universities, post-secondary training colleges and other forms of higher education actively discouraged enrolment of students with disabilities”.

Kath Duncan attended the University of Sydney from 1979 to 1980. For the most part she did not use her wheelchair on campus: “I stumped around more in those days than I do now,” she says. “Unless it’s changed heaps, it was abysmal for physical access.”

Of course USyd is hardly unique in this respect, then or now. Tertiary education in general is inaccessible on many fronts: poverty, rurality, Indigeneity, and disability are only some of the many factors that may keep otherwise eager students from enrolling in university. Sydney, specifically, is an accessibility hellpit. When visiting Melbourne I was flabbergasted by the functional public transport, the proliferation of decent curb cuts, and the generally higher commitment to meeting basic accessibility standards. In Melbourne, wheelchair users are frequent and unremarkable pedestrians. In Sydney, the sight of another wheelchair user is rare and kind of exciting.

I am a year younger than the Disability Discrimination Act (1992)(DDA), but the DDA is known to many in the disabled community as a “toothless tiger”. Unlike every other anti-discrimination law in Australia, the DDA has a clause for “reasonable exceptions”. This means that if a building, organisation, employer, or individual can prove that not discriminating against disabled people is too difficult, too expensive, or a cause of “unjustifiable hardship”, they are granted an exception to the law. Essentially this means that inaccessibility is the norm and disabled people are expected to sue if we want to access our environment on equal terms. Appealing to the DDA is rarely fruitful: more often than not claims are struck down and the complainant is forced to pay legal fees on top of that.

USyd violates the DDA in hundreds of ways everyday, but it’s impossible to file discrimination suits for every building on campus. For one thing, it would be even harder for disabled students to finish their degrees in between all the lawsuits, and for another thing, the courthouses are also inaccessible.

“I definitely limit my time at USyd due to its inaccessibility,” says Gabriel. “If I do have to go to USyd for whatever reason, I will opt to leave my wheelchair at home and instead use a cane or crutches because if I am using those, stairs and cobblestones are only a difficulty, rather than an impossibility.”

“I tried to get the lift upstairs to Manning Bar and spent a good 20 minutes waiting for the correct key to open the door, before being told that the security guard couldn’t find the correct key and I would have to take the stairs. That one instance of taking the stairs meant that I could not stand for at least the next three hours.”

“The stairs are a nightmare,” Saz agrees, stating that the University as a whole is “alienating as fuck”.

Accessible building codes have only been legally mandated since 2010, and it shows again and again:

“Of course we’re accessible, but we don’t have a lift or anything. We can carry you up the stairs though!”

“Yes we are wheelchair accessible, but you need to call up one of our staff members to unlock the goods and services entrance.”

“The performance is accessible, but the seats are built in so you will need to wheel in first and park your chair on the edge of the stage.”

“We are wheelchair accessible but there are several steps at the entrance.”

“We are accessible but not wheelchair accessible.”

“Yes we are accessible but we will need you to get out of your chair.”

“We want to be accessible but the building is heritage listed so we can’t install ramps.”

HELLONWHEELS

[Image: my own art, a digital collage of a street sign that says NO ACCESS with an arrow pointing to the right, beneath the traditional wheelchair symbol (the International Symbol of Access). Over the old symbol is a partially transparent glam punk rainbow version of the Accessible Icon Project’s self-propelling wheelchair symbol, with a spiky skull head and neon flames flaring out from the wheels.]

Noa Zulman, one of the current SRC Disabilities Office Bearers, says that “dealing day-to-day with disability in a professional environment becomes an all-consuming task”. Noa is determined, but her outlook is bleak. “As passionate about disability advocacy as I am, I really don’t think I could go into it professionally. It’s so draining and a constant demand.”

Still, even in a world where accessibility is the exception rather than the norm, USyd lags embarrassingly far behind when it comes to accessible infrastructure. It’s not for lack of goodwill. Well, actually, it is sometimes. This year, my professor refused to move his lectures to a wheelchair accessible building, despite having been informed about my access requirements before the start of semester. He had assumed I’d dropped out, because I hadn’t shown up to the room I couldn’t get into.

Ricky Buchanan graduated from La Trobe in 1998 and says little has changed since then. “People today are still fighting for exactly the same stuff we were fighting for twenty years ago” Buchanan says. “The technology has changed a bit, but the actual problems are basically the same: lecturers who don’t want to actually grant the accommodations that the disability services says you’re eligible for; disability services not understanding what’s actually needed; people feeling like accessibility is just ‘too hard’ and why should they change things for just one person.”

In theory, the University’s Disability Services should pick up the slack, but students are often left unimpressed.

“Like, sure, if you have a centrally timetabled classroom that doesn’t meet your requirements they might be able to help,” Anna explains. “But if you have two tutes back to back on opposite sides of campus, you’re shit out of luck.”

Elsa has similar qualms. “If you need something that wasn’t on the very short list of accommodations offered, it’s pretty much too bad,” she says. “Without the unit coordinator’s support, Disability Services’ abilities are severely limited. It’s exhausting and disheartening feeling like you constantly have to fight for accessibility. And it’s very isolating too.”

Jax Jacki Brown started studying at USyd in 2007, but left after a semester because the conditions were so dreadful. She visited recently for a guest panel during Disability Inclusion Week and told me that access is still “pretty poor”.

“People still routinely individualise disability as a personal problem and not systemic issue of rights and access and a fight against discrimination,” she says.

Many buildings do not have wheelchair accessible entrances, or wheelchair accessible amenities. Some buildings do not have elevators. There are several hydraulic wheelchair ramps, but they are usually either locked or broken, and nobody ever seems to know who keeps the key or how to contact them.

But these are not the only issues to contend with.

“The campus is huge and a nightmare navigating and cobblestones deserve to burn in hell,” says Flynn. “My bendy ankles hate cobblestones, especially since all the ones at USyd are on hills,” adds Sam. “I’ve twisted my ankles on them countless times.”

Other students agree: “murder on my ankles”, “lovely to look at, hell to ride over”, and “the bane of my life” are choice phrases. Evander tells me that “any form of bumps or cobbles were frustrating. I’d be carrying a hot soup for my lunch in one hand or on my knee and any bumps meant I got scalded a lot.”

Even the cobblestones, however, could be salvageable. “One of my favourite bits of inclusive design that I’ve seen was in the gågade (pedestrian-only city centre) in Copenhagen. The entire area is, of course, cobbled, but along each side of the street, they’ve placed a pair of tracks of smooth tiles, for wheelchair users to travel comfortably,” says Alex Haagaard, a writer and disability rights activist.

Online study is one option for students, but not an ideal one. “It’s really lonely doing online study,” says Hester-Henrietta. “A wheelchair means freedom, it means I can get out and do stuff, but online study cuts my contact from people. Chronic illness and disability meant that I lost a lot of friends or lost the opportunity to make friends in my teenage years as I had to drop out of high school, and I thought university would mean I’d be able to make friends, but because I can’t get around campus, I can’t make any now.”

For staff members, the situation isn’t much better. Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, a lecturer in Aboriginal education, is one of only eight blind and low vision academics in Australia. She estimates that she spends about 25 extra hours a week making up for inaccessibility. Turnitin and Grade Centre are both inaccessible for screen reading software, and PDF documents are “sheer hell”. And, unfailingly, the cobblestones. In order to avoid them, Sheelagh’s guide dog Nina insists on taking her on a roundabout route through the Law buildings.

The committee tasked with establishing a university in Sydney in the 1840s declared that they intended to create “a University which shall be accessible to all classes”. Later, in 1876, Dr Charles Badham claimed in his Commemoration Day address that the University of Sydney was “no inaccessible shrine for the glorification of a few”. And yet for the most part, this promised accessibility has failed to manifest.

The University of Sydney’s Disability Action Plan 2013-2018 aims to “incorporate the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities in all policies and planning” and to “provide an accessible built environment to everyone”. The plan also commits to developing a “best practice accessible environment” that is “not only based on meeting legislative requirements”.Such a sentiment is admirable, but falls a little flat considering that we don’t currently meet legislative requirements either. Perhaps the most promising aspect of the current Disability Action Plan is that it acknowledges that “we still have more to achieve in access and inclusion”, and acknowledges that accessibility is “both our legislative and moral duty”.

I love my university, but I cannot in good conscience recommend it to fellow disabled students. Hopefully this won’t always be the case. There are good people here. We are making our way forward, slowly and stutteringly, but we are getting there.

Still, if I end up losing it and taking a jackhammer to Eastern Avenue, Ed Roberts style, at least now you know why.

 

Euthanasia, eugenics, & the legitimation of ableism in the progressive left

A week after the Sagamihara massacre, Q&A gave a platform to pro-euthanasia eugenicist/”ethicist” Peter Singer, an academic of Princeton University and the University of Melbourne.

Disabled activists Kath Duncan and Jax Jacki Brown were not invited to speak as authorities, but instead challenged Singer on his position from the audience.

In response to being challenged on his views about euthanasia and eugenics, Singer said

It is the parents and doctors making a decision in consultation. It is not some crazy guy going into a unit and killing people.

Of course, Satoshi Uematsu was not “crazy” – in fact months before the murders he was released from a two-week involuntary stay in a mental ward because his doctors found that he was entirely neurotypical and not experiencing any kind of mental illness. He sole “diagnosis” – if it can even be called that – was mild marijuana use. The involuntary institutionalisation came about because he had approached a politician with a letter outlining his plans for mass murder.

Uematsu’s ideology was not informed by mental illness, nor was it without context. We cannot look to neurodivergence as an explanation for his crimes, but rather to ableism, to the devaluing of disabled lives, to the view that disabled people are a burden on their families.

In his letter to Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima in February 2016 Uematsu wrote that

Thinking about the tired faces of guardians, the dull eyes of caregivers working at the facility, I am not able to contain myself, and so I decided to take action today for the sake of Japan and the world.
My reasoning is that I may be able to revitalise the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III.
I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.
I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery. [emphasis added]

In his book Practical Ethics Singer writes

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

Singer claims that this quote has been stripped of context; his attempt to clarify that context, however, is almost worse. His website’s FAQ explains his position as follows:

You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person”… Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time… So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely. [emphasis added]

What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?

Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it.  And that’s a good thing, of course.  We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child.  Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.

In summary: killing non-disabled newborns is unacceptable because a parent somewhere would want them. Killing disabled newborns is acceptable because they are unwanted.

Frequently in the initial edition of Practical Ethics, Singer used the phrase “defective infant” to refer to disability. Singer’s own mild myopia is not grounds enough for him to consider himself “defective”, apparently because shortsightedness is not “significant” enough to affect quality of life. (He appears consistently unaware of the social model of disability.) Singer saves the epithets of “defective”, “low quality of life”, & “less than human” for conditions such as spina bifida, hydrocephalus, Down Syndrome, and brain haemorrhage.

These conditions are often screened for in pregnancy, resulting in would-be parents aborting otherwise-wanted foetuses. In Iceland nearly 100% of foetuses with Down Syndrome are aborted. In Western Australia the figure is 93%. Prospective parents are frequently encouraged to abort and denied access to information about the condition.

Of course anyone can abort a pregnancy for any reason, and nobody is obligated to complete a pregnancy to term. The fact that 45% of disabled people in Australia live in poverty is evidence enough to the fact that we are not given good infrastructural supports or assurance of adequate healthcare, so raising a disabled child can be difficult and expensive. (This does not generally apply in the case of intersex variations, another frequent target of selective abortion, where surgical interventions are often justified by bigotry rather than medical necessity.) Placing restrictions on individual reproductive freedom is not a solution to the problem of selective abortion, because the problem is not individual but societal.

The widespread expectation that parents will abort intersex or disabled foetuses betrays a chilling disdain for intersex and disabled lives.

Parents who choose to have children don’t get to decide if their child is disabled or not. It’s not up to them whether their child grows up to show signs of depression, anxiety, psychosis, connective tissue disorder, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, cancer, fibromyalgia, dyslexia, chronic illness, rheumatoid arthritis, or whether they experience injuries leading to amputation or paralysis or the use of mobility aids. It’s also not up to parents whether their child grows up to be trans, or queer, or a sports fan, or an academic, or a eugenicist.

Unfortunately it’s also not up to disabled children whether the family they are born into is supportive or not. And with disability being widely represented as a burden and a misfortune, abled parents are encouraged to think of disabled children as an unfortunate and unexpected tragedy.

Rather than addressing problems of infrastructure, accessibility, and healthcare, we are encouraged to think of disability itself as the problem. Which leads to disabled people being the problem. And in a capitalist culture pushing the narrative of false scarcity, this leads to disabled people taking away resources from abled people.

Peter Singer has gone on record stating that “I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.”

Abled people cannot determine the quality of life of disabled people.

The expense of medical treatments for disabled people does not make them any less necessary than medical treatments for abled people (which are no less expensive).

Interestingly, despite the claims he has made publicly about the moral use of wealth, Singer goes against his own ideology in his personal life: his mother has late-stage Alzheimer’s, and lives in expensive private nursing care provided by Singer. Perhaps “defective” disabled lives are only worth living when they are people that Singer knows and cares about. He is defensive about this perceived lack of consistency in his advocacy:

What is it that I am doing in relation to my mother that I should be doing differently in accordance with my philosophy? Am I supposed to be killing her? For one thing, I would end up in jail. She gets some pleasure from life, the pleasures of eating – rather simple pleasures. Why should she not continue to have those? Because it costs money to look after her! Yes, but there are other things. I am not living in dire poverty and giving everything to people who are starving to death.

In an ideal world, if I could legally… if there was a way, without punishment or whatever, of painlessly ending my mother’s life and then transferring the resources used to look after her to people who would otherwise die from malnutrition, of which there are many, I would say, yes, that would be a better thing to do. But that is not the situation either I or my mother are in.

Another passage in Practical Ethics states that

It may still be objected that to replace either a foetus or a new-born infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so. [emphasis added]

It’s difficult to deny that Peter Singer and Satoshi Uematsu have similar feelings with regard to euthanasia, economy, and the value of disabled lives.

Singer is frequently cited as a moral hero of veganism. He wrote his thesis on civil disobedience, published seminal scholarship on animal liberation, stood as a Greens candidate in the 1996 election, and is a political advocate for famine relief. He is a recipient of the Order of Australia. He is Jewish, but has faced significant opposition from German universities, where his scholarship has been identified as far too close to Nazi ideology for comfort. Although German protestors consisted of disabled activists and anarchists opposed to Singer’s advocacy of what sounded eerily similar to the Nazi doctrine of lebensunterwenlebens, or “life unworthy of life”, in his descriptions of these interactions Singer casts himself as the anti-Nazi voice of reason, comparing the shouts of Singer raus! – Singer out! – to historical chants of Juden raus! – referring to Jewish people.

Singer often characterises opposition to his stance as led by Christians, anti-choice groups, and right-wingers,  despite the fact that much of his opposition has consisted of disability rights organisations including Not Dead Yet. He is not unaware of the widespread disabled opposition to his eugenicist views; in fact he has frequently engaged with disabled rights activists on the subject, most notably Harriet McBryde-JohnsonStella Young also wrote about the problem of Peter Singer.

Singer’s opponents are not located solely in the right, much as he would like them to be. Despite the fact that many consider him to be a hero of left wing politics, Singer’s ableism makes the entirety of his politics and academia suspect.

Widespread opposition from disability rights groups, however, is not enough to discredit Singer in the eyes of other progressive movements, including the Greens, animal liberationists, and vegans. Nor is it enough to prevent his alma mater, the University of Melbourne, from praising his reputation, listing him as one of their “distinguished academics”, or keeping him on as a Laureate Professor of their School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. The lack of solidarity with disability rights groups and the eerie toleration of murderous ableism by the left is heartbreaking.

Academia is terribly far behind when it comes to disability studies, disability civil rights, and basic cultural awareness around the lives and experiences of disabled people. It’s horrifying to contemplate fellow students attending a guest lecture that advocates for my death, led by a man who thinks that my life is not worth living, and that my way of being in the world is warped and lesser.

As a disabled student, the quality of my life, and my right to live, are considered apt subjects for academic debates held by abled people. My existence is cited as an ethical dilemma. Disabled people make up 20% of the population in Australia (50% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities). Too many students are forced to sit through lectures and tutorials where our classmates are invited to question our right to existence, often without thinking about the likelihood of disabled people being present.

University environments in Australia and overseas are seeing a resurgence in eugenicist rhetoric touted as ethics, but now more than ever it is important that we recognise these views for what they are.

Singer is spreading hate speech, not scholarship.