If you’re a college professor and you want to get the attention of your students, especially on the first day of class, ask them to define a chair. (It doesn’t matter what the class is about, this works whether the subject is physics or post-modernism in literature.)
As philosophers will tell you, almost everything you say about “chair-ness” can be refuted. “It’s a piece of furniture for sitting.” So is a stool and a stool is not a chair. “It has a back.” So does a car seat and it’s not a chair.
The point is that good teaching requires contrarianism whether we’re talking about science or art. What’s wrong with what we’ve proposed? In the end we may conclude nothing is wrong but we will have engaged in rigorous thinking.
If all you want is confirmation bias—to imagine the world is precisely as you believe it to be, then a university education isn’t for you.
Trouble lies this way: professors who only know how to critique things may be themselves insufficiently contrarian, even as they think themselves, well, contrarian.
A few years back I heard an undergraduate announce that capitalism creates disability. It’s a compelling argument since the advent of the industrial revolution did in fact lead to the devaluation of disabled people. Unfit for life in the factories they were taken out of circulation if you will, assigned to asylums. Though this narrative is simplistic it’s not without merit.
No one taught this student to define a chair. Capitalism also produces amazing technologies that allow the disabled to thrive. (I’m blind and writing on a talking Mac computer.)
Capitalism has been horrible for all of us who hail from historically marginalized positions. In fact the marginalization is what makes colonialism and all forms of exploitation possible.
But defining a chair, one must ask, what about moral capitalism? Is capitalism static or does it evolve? If the latter is true then what’s your investment, your attraction, to believing that an economic system creates disability? As the writer Gore Vidal once said, politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch. Who was the professor who taught the student in question that capitalism is the manufacturer of cripples?
What questions should we ask? I’m an admirer of Sarah Ahmed’s book “Living a Feminist Life” and here’s something I like:
“To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.”
What’s a chair? What’s a good life? What’s a moral life?
Questions are crucial. But here’s a question for disability culture: what can we make? It’s not easy to answer but the moral universe demands we ask it.
Back to the chair and what it is. The disabled remain unemployed in staggering numbers even as the technology which should allow them to work with dignity is now widely available.
New economies need to embrace living questions.