Interview with Elizabeth Barnes

An excellent interview with feminist philosopher Elizabeth Barnes, discussing (among other things) growing up as an evangelical in the Bible Belt; being disabled and discovering Disability Pride; the distinction between ‘core’ and ‘marginal’ pursuits in philosophy; women in philosophy; and work-life balance.  A small sample:

 

The social dimensions of disability are hard to identify, especially when you are growing up disabled in an environment that has a lot of negative social stigmas about disability. It’s easy for disability to just feel like your own private tragedy. And especially when, like I did, you have a condition that requires ongoing medical care, it’s easy chalk up all the difficulties you are experiencing to the fact that you are ‘sick’ – to blame everything on the biological condition of your body.

What I first encountered in disability studies was the idea that so much of what we struggle with as disabled people is social, not physical or medical. And so much of how we’re taught to think about ourselves as disabled people is determined by the opinions and stereotypes of non-disabled people – opinions and stereotypes which don’t really, when we get together and talk about it, reflect our lived experiences as disabled people. Learning about disability pride and thinking, for the first time, about the social dimensions of disability felt like having my view of the world turned upside down and shaken. It felt like having chains pulled off me that I hadn’t realized I’d been wearing. It felt like being given the ability to articulate feelings that I’d never been able to express before, even to myself. It was a deeply transformative experience that restructured the way I thought about myself, my body, and my place in the world.

When I started learning about disability pride, I finally dealt with the latent, entrenched feelings of shame and inadequacy that I had about my body. I learned, for the first time in my life, how to celebrate the ways that my body is different, rather than try to ‘overcome’ them or be successful ‘in spite of’ them. I can’t even begin to explain how much this improved my life, or the extent to which it was a fundamental change.

Oh, OK, one more small sample:

How do you think we can increase the diversity in philosophy, which is one of the least diverse disciplines?

I wish I knew! I suspect the answer is complicated and involves making concerted efforts along many different dimensions, from how we teach intro to how we handle grad admissions to how we approach hiring and promotion and everywhere in between. The problem is a deep and structural one, and there won’t be a quick or unilateral fix.

But I definitely think that we won’t solve the problem by keeping philosophy basically as it is, and just finding a friendlier, savvier way to market it. I think there are going to have to be changes in what we teach, in what we value, in what we consider ‘core’. I think Anita Allen was right, for example, when she said that it’s up philosophy to prove that it has something to offer Black women, rather than up to black women to prove they can fit into philosophy as it currently is. And I think the same thing goes for so many under-represented groups – people of color, disabled people, LGBT people. I also think that any genuine effort for diversity needs to be intersectional. I mean, I want philosophy to be a better place for women, but we won’t have come all that far if we end up making it a better place only for wealthy white cis non-disabled straight women.

But I’m cautiously optimistic. I think the very fact that we’re having these conversations – that we’re admitting that philosophy’s narrow demographics are something we should be concerned about, and that philosophy as a discipline might be at least partially to blame for them – is a good sign. Step one is admitting you have a problem.

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