Discover more from Other Feminisms
Children, Women, and Other "Defective" Persons
Our narrow criteria for counting others as human
I’ll share highlights from your comments on magicians, hiding effort, and women’s work this coming Thursday. And, in June, I’ll be joining Gracy Olmstead and the authors of The Innovation Delusion for a discussion of their book. You can register here.
In my About page for Other Feminisms, I tried to lay out what could unite the relatively ideologically diverse members of this substack community. I wrote:
For most people, what drew them to this group was wanting to advocate for women as women. Often, our equality is premised on remaking ourselves to be more like the median man, whether that means changing our style of speaking to exclude apologies, changing our breastfeeding plans to keep up with work’s minimal accommodations, or changing our bodies to suppress fertility and destroy our children.
We say no, and that, instead, the world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way around. That means valuing interdependence and vulnerability, rather than idealizing autonomy.
In a recent essay for Aeon, Jana Mohr Lone, the director of the Center for Philosophy for Children, made the case for doing philosophy with children. And, in so doing, she struck against a philosophy of children that sees them as “defective adults.”
Even as childhood is idealised as an idyllic phase of life, children themselves have been cast as what psychologists and sociologists label ‘human becomings’ as opposed to human beings. Children are in the process of becoming fully human, but are not there yet. By contrast, adults are understood as complete human beings. As a result, we see children as ‘defective adults’, in the words of the cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik.
Why might this be? For one, Western culture prizes autonomy, which places children at a disadvantage. Young children, of course, can’t be fully autonomous; because of their youth, they have much to learn and multiple skills to develop before they can take full control over their lives. Because of this dependence—physical, financial and emotional—children are in a subordinate position, with their ideas and perspectives given little weight.
She goes on to say that children are natural philosophers: full of “why” questions about the world, willing to consider the everyday worthy of curiosity, and unashamed to be asking questions.
The fact that children are beginners at philosophy doesn’t mean that they’re not doing philosophy at all. […] Rather than teach philosophy, we try to do philosophy with children by creating spaces for them to explore the questions that interest them.
[After birth] the liberal order is a little more generous [to my daughter]. Her infancy, her toddlerhood, her childhood is a rounding error – just a brief, aberrant state before she is enumerated among the radically free.
Old age is dismissed similarly. When the aged reach a certain point of weakness and inability, some doctors and ethicists are as ready to deny personhood at the end of life as they were at the beginning. And the end of life is, once again, graciously excused as an exceptional time – there was a lot of autonomy in the middle, so the end can’t be held against the individual, or the theory.
It takes work to keep witnessing to the human dignity and worth of every life, at every level of dependence. I’d love to hear from you about moments where you made a little progress in making this case.
Where have you been counted out of the “fully human” because of your own need or for some other reason?
Where have you made a little progress getting someone else to widen their definitions of who counts and why?
One of my own stories is a small one: I was in the Washington D.C. Amtrak station when a young man in line with me complained irritably about a nearby, fussy baby. I took a second to keep my own temper, and then said to him, “Well, if parents couldn’t take their babies out in public, in case they fussed, they’d essentially be under home arrest for years.”
He paused and said he’d never thought of it that way.
I wasn’t really making the case for the baby’s own need to be in public, to observe the world, to get to say “whooosh” when the train moves. I was appealing to his understanding of the baby’s mother as a person. But still, I was grateful to be in the right place to say it, and that he really paused, like Lone’s small philosophy students, to consider the question anew.