Understanding the persistence of eugenic dehumanization

Whether it is, ultimately, defensible to view practices like prenatal screening with selective termination (Section 11.5) or the kind of cognitively mediated normativity that I have postulated as underlying eugenic thinking (Section 11.6) as themselves dehumanizing for those who have been targets of eugenics or newgenics remain open issues. By contrast, eugenic sterilization, particularly involuntary eugenic sterilization, is a paradigm of a practice that is widely accepted as dehumanizing (Myerson et al. 1936; Reilly 2015). This is not simply because of its bodily invasiveness, but because of the negative changes that it brings to one’s overall life trajectory. One thing that stands in need of explanation is the persistence of this form of eugenic dehumanization beyond 1950, well after the atrocities of Nazi eugenics became well-known, and even as reproductive rights have come to gain wider acceptance as basic rights to which all individuals are entitled. As recounted in Section 11.2, in Alberta eugenic sterilization persisted until the 1970s, as it did in the Scandinavian countries and in a small number of American states.

Moreover, in more recent years a number of cases of sterilization with eugenic undertones have emerged (Women With Disabilities Australia 2013). This includes the sterilization of girls and women with intellectual disabilities in Australia in 2012, of African-American and Latina women in the Californian prison system in 2013, and of low-caste women in the province of Chhattisgarh in India where a long-standing practice of paid sterilization was brought to the wider public eye in 2014 after about twenty women died following their careless sterilization (Wilson 2018b). What is it that explains the staying power of this form of eugenic dehumanization, particularly given its recognition as a core practice in the dark past of eugenics?

An appeal to eugenics per se as an endorsable meliorative project seems particularly ill-suited to developing an answer to this question. More generally, the common tendency to search for an explanation here in terms of the positive attraction of powerful ideas should be resisted. Instead, one should move out from the realm of ideas to explore the social mechanics governing eugenic practices themselves in order to explain eugenic sterilizations staying power (see Smith, this volume).

I have suggested elsewhere (Wilson 2018a: Ch.8) that the first step here is to recognize at least some eugenic sterilization as manifesting wrongful accusation—accusation that doesn’t simply happen to get some details wrong about a particular case but that manifests a systematic set of errors that make mistaken categorization, institutionalization, and sterilization robustly supported outcomes. That was certainly the case in Alberta. But this idea of eugenics as wrongful accusation itself derives from taking the standpoint of eugenics survivors seriously, since it was an idea suggested, in nascent form, by one such survivor from Alberta, Ken Nelson (Whiting 1996).

The robustness here stems, in part, from the social dynamics governing what is sometimes called witnessing, whereby bystanders or “witnesses” are called on to side with either perpetrator or victim. The psychiatrist Judith Herman has developed a rich, three-agent model of the perpetration of, and resistance to, sexual crimes, particularly in her influential Trauma and Recovery (1992). 1 have argued that this model can be adapted (no doubt in ways that Herman herself would reject) to understand the social mechanics of eugenics as a form of wrongful accusation, and so too the persistence of dehumanizing eugenic practices, such as sexual sterilization.

The key here is to return to the distinction between what we might call eugenic ideology' or the eugenic ideal, on the one hand, and, on the other, how eugenics was implemented in at least some practices of sexual sterilization. In eugenic ideology, we can think of those with eugenic traits as perpetrators of a eugenic crime, the victims of which are normal citizens, and the bystanders or witnesses to which are advocates, such as community and political leaders. Given that conceptualization, what we see in cases of eugenics, in practice is an occupant-role shift, as depicted in Table 11.1, letting “the feebleminded” stand in for those with eugenic traits more generally.

Here the activity of eugenic allies or advocates becoming perpetrators looms large in the psychosocial dynamics in play. Called to act on behalf of the normal, allies or advocates come to play crucial causal roles in making those deemed “feebleminded” and ascribed other eugenic traits

Table 11.1 From eugenic ideology to eugenics in practice

Role: occupant in eugenic ideology

Occupant-role shift in eugenics in practice

perpetrator: the feebleminded victim: the normal bystander: ally or advocate

the feebleminded become victims the normal become bystanders advocates become perpetrators

into victims of a kind of eugenics crusade. Those roles direct the persistence of dehumanizing eugenic practices.

That persistence is typically conceptualized in terms of the resurgence of appealing eugenic ideas and ideals: unfettered social improvement, the excise of disease and disability, and increased human perfection. Insofar as such ideas play a role in the persistence of dehumanizing eugenic practices, however, they do so through the psychosocial dynamics expressed in this three-agent model featuring perpetrator, victim, and bystander. 1 have hypothesized that the corruption of the bystander or witnessing role is especially powerful in driving this dynamic in the history of eugenics and in its continuation in contemporary forms. If this is correct, then it identifies a dimension to the persistence of eugenic dehumanization that involves the complicity of “good citizens,” those who see themselves as acting for the promotion of the social good, in such dehumanization.

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