Eugenics 2.0 – A Brief Primer

If you follow me on social media (Facebook and Twitter) you have probably seen me mention eugenics quite a bit lately. I wanted to make a quick post explaining a little bit about what eugenics is and why I think it is something we need to pay attention to once again.

First, eugenics literally means “good genes,” and is a, “set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” (see Wikipedia: Eugenics)

Social scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were beginning to interpret the past and, more importantly, the future of humanity biologically. Think Darwin, evolution, natural selection, etc. The belief was that the human stock could be improved by breeding out the bad genes, much like horses are bred for racing. This belief took two forms, a positive eugenics and a negative eugenics.

Positive eugenics encouraged people with favorable or superior qualities and traits to reproduce more. Negative eugenics discouraged people with unfavorable or inferior qualities and traits to reproduce more.

These beliefs are still around with us today, even though we shy away from calling it what it is (more on that later). 

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Transformation from Below

transformation from below

This is an edited version of a sermon I gave this past Sunday, at Pasadena Christian Church. The texts for the day were Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; and Matthew 17:1-9

A few years ago I worked in a group home for adults with severe disabilities. My main job was taking care of my brother. He requires 1:1 care 24/7 so I only worked with him when I when worked. However, I naturally spent time with and got to know the other people living in the house.

One man, Jay, was in his mid to late thirties. He was able to take care of himself (for the most part) with prompting and supervision. Jay is severely autistic – he is verbal, but usually only repeats words or phrases, he hums to himself almost constantly, and also engages in self-stimulating behavior, sometimes called stimming: he will flap his hands, rock back and forth, or clap his hands all day long.

While I was solely on staff to take care of my brother, and wasn’t fully briefed on his individual needs and goals, medications, or behavioral interventions, I did get to know Jay over the course of the years I worked there.

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Learning, Disability, and the Pursuit of Knowledge

learning disability

Can learning new information, facts, data, etc., really make us better people? Does pursing knowledge really help us make better decisions?

This is a question that has always fascinated me, and it seems to have taken on a new urgency given the state of things. Take, for instance, the justifiable and completely warranted outrage over Betsy DeVos. Her complete and utter lack of information or knowledge about anything related her job as Secretary of Education is incomprehensible. I value public education. To think that someone as unqualified as her will be able to have so much influence over education policy is a disgrace.

Or take the furor over “fake news,” and “alternative facts”, and “post-truth.” Fact-checking is the new baby animal picture on social media. A lot of us are obsessed with making sure we are well-informed, but even more importantly, that other people are well-informed. After all, you need all the information you can get to be able to make good decisions.

Or do you?

I am completely unqualified to talk about these epistemological issues, just to be clear. But my issue with the above is not that we should ignore facts, or refuse to educate ourselves, but that we believe that we can educate ourselves, and that by being informed, whether through schooling, fact-checking, or some other means, we can change our behaviors and make different choices that ultimately lead to better outcomes for ourselves, and the people we care about.

I don’t buy it. Here’s why. Continue reading “Learning, Disability, and the Pursuit of Knowledge” »

Martin Buber and Meryl Streep: What it Means to be Human

what it means to be human

One of my goals this year is to work on a paper to present at an academic conference. I have never done anything like this before, so I am suitably nervous about attempting it. Like last month, where I publicly worked out some of my ideas for a class presentation, I wanted to attempt to do the same this year with some ideas for a paper. This post represents my first reflections and thoughts. And as always, I would love to hear your feedback!

Last night, during the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep gave a speech that has been ruffling some feathers (to say the least). I don’t usually watch events like the Golden Globes, or Oscars, etc., but I did manage to see a video of her speech. Naturally, the mention of reporter Serge F. Kovaleski and Trump’s mocking of his disability grabbed my attention, as someone who writes about disability. I witnessed mixed reactions on Twitter to her speech. Some people with disabilities praised Streep for using her platform and celebrity to raise awareness about persons with disabilities. Others were less enthusiastic and condemned her for perpetuating a subtle form of ableism. Continue reading “Martin Buber and Meryl Streep: What it Means to be Human” »

Disability in Real Life

real life disability

This is about a very current, immediate, and real-life situation concerning my brother with disabilities.

It is very likely that I will need to travel back home this week to help take care of my brother. Don’t get me wrong, I am not upset about this potential. I miss my family and home dearly. But the circumstances surrounding my sudden and unexpected trip are infuriating.

Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.
– Henry David Thoreau

I am writing this while the iron is still very hot, so as to hopefully capture the passion I have for this issue.

I must admit, I don’t completely understand the complex policy and law surrounding care of people with disabilities. It is extremely difficult to understand, even having spent a lifetime dealing with it. Here are the options, as I understand them, for my brother’s living situation: Continue reading “Disability in Real Life” »

Disability in a Disenchanted World

modern disability

In my last post I shared some of the ways disability was understood in the pre-modern, enchanted world. In this post I want to pick up where I left off and describe how the understanding of disability has changed since the Reformation. Crucial to understanding the shift in social imaginary concerning disability is understanding the shift from an enchanted worldview to a disenchanted worldview.

Disenchantment has many aspects, but I want to draw attention to two. First is an inner and an outer dimension. The inner side of disenchantment involves replacing the porous self with the buffered self. This means that all thoughts and feelings are understood to exist solely in the mind, separate and distinct from the rest of the world, which is outside the mind. Second, as a result of this interiorization, a new vocabulary was developed to explain and describe this new interior world. In some sense, the previously enchanted world has now been moved inward.

This move from exterior to interior is extremely important for understanding how disability in general, and the treatment of people with disability in particular, changed over the last 500 years.

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Disability in an Enchanted World

disability enchanted world

Continuing from my last post, I wanted to mention how what we today call disability was understood at different moments in history, as well as how people with disabilities were treated.

To begin, I’ve given some accounts of the historical understandings of and responses to what we would today call disability. This overview is not meant to be exhaustive, but to locate important moments in the shifting social imaginary concerning disability.

Ancient World

Obviously, the medical advancements we have come to take for granted in the West did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome, and disease and injury was a common occurrence. What is important to note during this period is where the cause of this disorder was located – the gods. “In a world where diseases, injuries, malformation, and material misfortunes were often seen as signs of the ill will of the gods, scant public resources were allocated to disfigured citizens…” writes Almut Caspary in Disability in the Christian Tradition. Looking specifically at the treatment of newborns in Greece and Rome, Caspary points out that the generally high mortality rate for infants in this time aside, being born with a disability was a death sentence.

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The Future of Disability and the Church

future of disability

I will be presenting a TED-style talk on December 15th as part of my final project for our Church and Culture class. It is a free event and there will be other speakers. You can sign up here. The guidelines for choosing a topic are generous, so long as I utilize the texts and topics we’ve been discussing in some way. And while I have a general idea of what I want to talk about, the future of disability and the church, I’d like to use this space to publicly work through the details of my talk. After all, my degree will be in public theology.

Naturally, I want to focus my talk around issues facing persons with disabilities in relation to the church and the broader culture. I am inspired by Charles Taylor’s narrative approach in A Secular Age: his methodology is primarily narrative interspersed with analysis and theory. The point of this is to underscore the ways in which our pre-modern society was imagined shifted over time, so that it is now possible to have an exclusively secular view of the world, and further, that this is a viable option today.

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Forgiveness and Guts (Part 3)

forgiveness

To begin, it would be helpful to sum up parts one and two and recall the situation that prompted my public working-out of the election results.

Despite my temptation (and others) to completely disregard and reject outright any person or group who voted for Trump, I believe this is not only counterproductive (part of the reason many people have argued that the so-called white working class came out in droves for Trump on election day was precisely because they felt he was hearing their cries and listening to their concerns) but impossible considering that many in my family voted for Trump. The problem cannot simply be erased by ignoring those who disagree with me, or worse. The question I raised was this: how do I, knowing that the people I love and care for voted for someone like Trump, or more worryingly, voted for the policies he proposed, not only work to understand why they did so, but seek to transform the relationship so that we both become better people, citizens, family members, etc. in the process.

So there are two sides to this transformation, one on my side and one on the side of the other.

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