How marked human variation dehumanizes

Let us take stock of where we are. In Section 11.3, I suggested that the mere designation and detection of eugenic traits itself, based as it is on the idea that people have differential levels of reproductive value, might be thought of as dehumanizing. 1 concluded that section, however, by returning to the countering thought that eugenics itself is essentially meliorative, contrasting in this respect with particular dehumanizing implementations of the core idea of eugenics. In Sections 11.4 and 11.5,1 explained why the standpoints of eugenics survivors and of those who strongly identify with those standpoints make that countering thought an uneasy one to maintain. In this section, I probe further into the relationship between eugenics and disability in order to advance this dialectic.

In Enforcing Normalcy, the disability theorist Leonard Davis argued that eugenics served as a crucible for the social construction of disability in the late 19th century (Davis 1995). While Davis’s claim has, rightly, been influential, the resulting constructivist view of disability provides only a limited answer to what 1 have called the puzzle of marked variation (Wilson 2018a: Ch.5).That puzzle raises questions, in part, about how we think about human variation, and addressing it allows for further reflection on the relationship between eugenics, disability, and dehumanization.

The puzzle is this: why is it that, amongst the infinite range of variation we find within human populations, we view some of it as mere variation—variation that hardly draws our attention— and some of it as marked variation, where marked variation becomes the basis for positive and negative evaluations, together with corresponding forms of social expression, such as laws, policies, and practices? In the context of eugenics, marked variation appears as eugenic traits. So the puzzle of marked variation here is to explain why we distinguish between eugenic traits and mere human variation in the ways in which we do.

The general answer 1 have argued for to the puzzle of marked variation blends together psychological and social dimensions to our perceptions of and responses to marked variation (see Haslam, this volume; Fiske, this volume). We are socio-cognitive beasts, with psychological tendencies to distinguish between those who are like us and those who are unlike us. Those dispositions operate on highly value-laden categorizations of other people, and their content is sensitive to specific social and scientific contexts. With the rise of eugenic thinking and its link to putatively meliorative practices in the late 19th century, those not like us came to be viewed as subnormal, particularly as intellectually and emotionally subnormal. This is a form of cognitively mediated normativity that marks oft disability in terms of subnormalcy. It is created, reinforced, and transmitted through individual, extended, and group-level cognition (see Kronfeldner, this volume).

Many of the values that underpin the constitutive categorizations of people participating in eugenic thinking are dehumanizing—some essentially so. To negatively value a eugenic trait sufficiently to justify the bodily intervention of compulsory sexual sterilization is to dehumanize those with that trait. Proponents of the expressivist objection would say that the same is true of traits such as Down syndrome, since results from screening and diagnostic tests that elevate awareness of the perceived chance of one’s fetus having Down syndrome are sufficient for the vast majority of pregnant women (or couples) to terminate an otherwise desirable pregnancy. In the first case it is the person sterilized who is treated as less than fully human; in the second case, it is people with Down syndrome, more generally. In both cases, a process beginning with the detection of marked variation in our species ends with the dehumanization of individuals or putative sorts of people with disabilities. If the psychological tendencies in play here run deep in human nature, as I think they do, this may suggest to some a pessimistic conclusion about our capacity to counter or even resist these forms of dehumanization (Garland-Thomson 2020). Selgelid’s “better future eugenics” is little more than wishful thinking.

One might well object to this pessimism as overstating or oversimplifying the relationship between marked variation (and so, disability) and dehumanization. Cognitively mediated normativity that operates through “like us” detectors may well be a part of our species’ psychological profile. Yet, the values on which it does so are themselves a function of historical contingencies. And those contingencies are subject to social progress and change. To illustrate, consider the cases of race or gender.

Both race and gender may serve as inputs to the same kind of“like us” detection mechanisms, and the response to those determined not to be like us may be differential (Kendig 2018). But it doesn’t follow that such detection and response to these kinds of marked variations are themselves dehumanizing. The detection of race and gender can be—indeed, have been in relatively recent history—socially scaffolded in positive ways. We have come to see these as neutral traits across many contexts in which they are detected, including contexts of employment, democratic participation, and community leadership. And in other contexts, such as athleticism or care, we have come to valorize those who, in the past, had been negatively valued by virtue of not being “like us.” Disability should be no different here.

Whether or not disability should be viewed together with race and gender in this way, the cases of race and gender are indeed instructive for understanding disability as marked variation that dehumanizes. For while there have been changes to the values underlying the perception of gendered and racialized differences that constitute advances and counters to some forms of devaluation, those changes are significantly more pronounced as ideals than as variables that govern our day-to-day perception and response of those differences. The cognitively mediated normativity that operates on racialized and gendered differences certainly need not be dehumanizing, and can even be rehumanizing. But, as a matter of fact, it often is dehumanizing, not just historically but in contemporary society.

When we turn to disability, the contrast between ideal and reality is even more striking. This is especially so when we consider the possibility of positively valuing what have been negative eugenic traits in the past and are still so in the present. It is logically possible that the detection of, say, intellectual disability as a form of marked variation could go hand in hand with valorization, rather than devaluation, as has happened in some ways with race and gender. For example, celebration, rather that approbation and fear, might accompany the discovery during pregnancy that one’s fetus had screened positively for Trisomy 21 and so one’s child was likely to have Down syndrome. Or a diagnosis of schizophrenia in one’s teenage son might bring smiles and sighs of relief.Yet, sadly, this possible world seems very distant from the world we live in.

Much like racialized and gendered differences, the actual ways in which such cognitively mediated normativity operates in the world we live in often create pathways of dehumanization. This is because racism, sexism, and ableism are all very real features of our social worlds. Even if we conceptualize the relevant psychological mechanisms here as value neutral, they operate on and reinforce the effects of dehumanizing evaluations of people who are not “like us.” In the case of disability, these dehumanizing evaluations continue to run surprisingly deep, as the valorization thought experiment above indicates. For this reason, the distinction between, if you like, eugenic theory and the practice or implementation of that theory is not sufficiently robust to make one optimistic about the prospects for Selgelid’s “better future eugenics.”

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