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Fr. 665

August 31, 2015

As it stands, good references to identity will still have a considerable, perhaps even indispensable, role to play in constructive discourse. If these references demonstrate a willingness to engage with interlocutors and, more importantly, prime the discussion for further reason-giving on the basis of new information made available via the reference to identity, identity stands as one of discourse’s most important components. It would seem that Heath comes to much the same conclusion in a postscript to the original article when he notes of the term “ableism”:

As far as I’m concerned, there should be a complete moratorium on the use of [“ableism”], because it causes anyone who is not a left-wing academic to roll their eyes and stop listening. Why? Because no one uses the term in a morally neutral way, yet it is used in a way that presupposes a moral consensus that exists only among left-wing academics (i.e. capitalism is evil). So the message that it telegraphs is “I’m not interested in engaging with anyone outside my club.”

The term signals a certain tribalism on the part of the users, as well as their unwillingness to engage other interlocutors. Elements of identity, such as those strands of ableism relevant to a given identity and discussion, do not serve to close interlocutors off to one another but, instead, provide the stepping stones towards or jumping off points for meaningful exchange. Although Heath finds notions such as “ableism” beyond saving, he softens his position by joining two (implicit) restrictions on their use. The author arrives at the first of these through analysis of the terms’ rhetorical function:

What rubs many people the wrong way about the terms “ableism” and “classism” is that they are intended to function, rhetorically, just like the canonical terms “sexism” and “racism” — which is to say, as terms of pre-emptory moral condemnation (as in, they’re not intended to open up a conversation, but rather to close one down). The difference, however, is that with sexism and racism, there is very large range of cases in which everyone agrees that sex or race constitute irrelevant qualities of the person, and so differential treatment based on sex or race is clearly unacceptable. With ability, or class, on the other hand, one can imagine a number of circumstances in which it is an irrelevant quality of the person, but one can also imagine a great number of other circumstances in which it is a highly relevant quality of the person (particularly if “class” refers, not to class background, but to “how much money a person currently has”).

Accordingly, in the first of these restrictions, the details of a case must stand judge as to whether differential treatment on the basis of the quality in question proves relevant to the case. In some cases, it may prove so, yet, in others, no. Without digging into the concrete details of the situation, it is impossible to issue a blanket condemnation on the basis of such terms. (It remains to be seen whether the ban on other canonical terms proves as absolute or partial as interlocutors envision.) Indeed, it is precisely from the quality of condemnation and moral indignance that such terms must, as per Heath, distance themselves, lest they serve merely to put an end to discourse. For interlocutors are themselves less likely to engage in good faith when their moral bearing is deemed nonexistent from the outset.

With this observation, Heath comes to the second of his two restrictions:

And so whether a particular instance of differential treatment is acceptable or unacceptable usually hinges on the details of the case. As a result, whenever someone says “that’s classist!” or “that’s ableist!” it almost always provokes further questions, along the lines of “well what exactly do you mean by that?” In other words, a lot of people would need to hear more in order to make up their own minds about the case. And yet because this vocabulary implies categorical or pre-emptory condemnation, it seems to presuppose a moral consensus that, again, only exists among left-wing academics. I think that may be why people who are not part of that club react negatively to it.

This restriction, in particular, proves essential if we are to draw the positions nearer one another. Insofar as Heath suggests, perhaps in spite of himself, that identity terms can, to some extent, raise questions for others which may then be answered, these terms possess the latent potential to discharge their tribalist and moralizing tendencies. That said, this discharge cannot take place on its own: it must stem from both the willingness of all parties to engage and work on victim’s and interlocutor’s party to dismantle the term’s condemnatory quality. All in all, in tandem with the correctives proposed above, Heath’s postscript provides further tantalizing clues to a new discursive ethics.


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