Why I Oppose Eugenics
The importance of standing with women
Imagine that you call someone’s handicapped son an “idiot.” The father takes offense. You respond “well, it started out as a clinical term, so how am I saying anything rude or untrue?” This would of course be ridiculous. Words are arbitrary combinations of sounds that refer to ideas or things in the world. They have certain connotations. That is why calling someone “retarded” spurs a different reaction than calling them “mentally disabled,” or why “curvy” and “fat” can both refer to the same woman. Moreover, connotations can change over time. Idiot, imbecile, moron, and retarded all started out as more neutral descriptors, before becoming exclusively used as insults.
Earlier this year, Diana Fleischman wrote an article called “You’re probably a eugenicist.” She argues that most individuals support policies that are aimed at ensuring that children are not born with massive handicaps, like bans on incest. People also choose sperm donors and even partners based on what qualities they will pass on to their children. Therefore, “We are all eugenicists—but in selective, inconsistent, and often hypocritical ways.”
I think what smarter writers sometimes fail to understand is that political debates and cancellation efforts are often really, really stupid. People like Fleischman care about ideas, and it’s hard for her to imagine how many people just care about words. I remember a writer once arguing that, if “racism” means preferring your own kind, then he himself is racist, just like everyone else is. This argument assumes that people are seeking logical consistency, and if you reason them into a corner they’ll eventually wake up and say “wow, racism isn’t so bad!” In reality, people are more committed to standing against the word “racism” than any actual principle, and your job is to convince them that your views don’t fall into that category.
One can see the fact that people care about words more than ideas through a simple thought experiment. Imagine Politician A, who adopts every left-wing position on race but uses slurs to refer to black people. He’s running against Politician B, who wants to abolish affirmative action, go all out with stop and frisk, etc., but always refers to “my beloved African Americans” and talks about how wonderful they are and how much they contribute to the country. Which one do you think would be perceived as the worse person by society? Who would be seen as more “racist”? I think the answer is quite obvious.
When you hear the word “eugenics” in current discourse it is practically always an epithet. It doesn’t matter what the definition of the word used to be, or what you wish it means. The term is now similar to “racist.” In modern English, it refers to someone who is a bad person who wants to do bad things. Since I’m a good person who does good things, I can’t possibly be for eugenics. I’m in favor of things like health, intelligence, creating a better world, and a woman’s right to choose. Who could argue against that?
Fleischman anticipates this argument, and has a response,
You might be asking yourself- why use the term “eugenics” at all? Can’t you just call it something different?
Well, not really.
We are not going to stop hearing about eugenics. Every time someone tries to call it something different, the “e” word and its association with historic injustice and abuse is invoked to end the discussion before it can begin.
When someone says that screening embryos for genetic diseases, giving educated women incentives to have children (like free child care for college educated women), or offering subsidized abortions for women addicted to drugs is "eugenics" they are absolutely using the term correctly. If bioethicists stopped using terms with contested definitions there would only be confusing new terms that would lead to a euphemism treadmill. All of the following key terms (to name just a few) have contested definitions and using them can cause confusion: autonomy, bioethics, consent, euthanasia, freedom, harm, health, justice and person. In my view, the only way to have a reasonable conversation about reproductive issues is to educate people on the meaning of eugenics. This tactic arguably also promoted clarity in the debate about “euthanasia”.
I guess whether this makes sense or not depends on what your aims are. If your goal is to have debates with bioethicists with as little friction as possible, then you want words with clear and consistent definitions and not to bother with trying to reframe the discussion. But if you care about effecting change in the real world, you need to think strategically.
Despite Fleischman’s worries, getting a preferred policy on a “euphemism treadmill” is exactly what successful political movements do. We don’t support racial discrimination, just diversity and inclusion. I’m not for government telling private parties what to do, I’m for workers’ rights. And so on.
If you look at the abortion debate, each side seeks to highlight certain aspects of their own position and downplay others. Pro-choice advocates focus on the sanctity of a woman making her own medical decisions with her doctor, and want you to ignore the fact that the fetus starts looking a lot like a baby after several months. Pro-lifers want you to look at pictures of late-term abortions, and not think too deeply about the kind of medical surveillance state that would be required if one took their beliefs to their logical conclusion. Neither side is completely honest, and both feel that they can put their opponents on the defensive by forcing them to be more coherent in their beliefs. But logical consistency is for (some) philosophers, not political movements that want to have any hope of success. Roe stood for fifty years without having much in the way of logical consistency going for it, either in terms of ethics or the law, and it would still be here for perhaps another half century or more if in 2016 some tens of thousands of votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin went in the other direction (or a few hundred had flipped in Florida in 2000).
I’m of course not against trying to have good faith debates. But there is no reason honest discussions have to revolve around the meanings of words with overly positive or negative connotations. In fact, putting the focus on emotionally charged terms tends to hinder understanding. This is why the language used in settings like scientific articles and legal decisions aims to rely on more neutral and less vivid terms to discuss ideas. A judge describing a sexual encounter will say that two parties “had intercourse” rather than informing the world that “this guy totally boned this chick.” The point is to accurately provide information and arrive at truth with minimal distraction, not to titillate the reader. Once “eugenics” acquired its emotionally charged connotations, it stopped being a word worth discussing, and it is now only useful for those who want to prevent the advancement and adoption of certain technologies.
People increasingly have more and more choices about what kinds of children they have. If you let individuals decide for themselves, most will select health, intelligence, and beauty over sickness, stupidity, and ugliness. One only needs to stand on the well-accepted principle of individual choice for us to continue seeing advancements in this area.
Bioethicists can seethe about how this is “eugenics” and demand we have a debate with them about what that word means. I’d prefer that, to the extent that we have to address these people at all, the conversation revolve around why they prefer sickness to health, and how they live with themselves knowing that they are misogynists who want to tell women what to do.
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