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CHAPTER NINE Oppression’s Three New Faces Rethinking Iris Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” for Disability Theory ELIZABETH PURCELL Introduction Iris Marion Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” has become a staple in contemporary social and political philosophy. In her essay, she articulates and extends a Marxian account of oppression to include not only the exploitation facing women and racial minorities, but also to address four additional forms of oppression: marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. The purpose of the present essay is not to question what Young has succeeded in articulating, but rather, to add three new faces to her account. I am motivated to interrogate Young’s “Five Faces” because it does not seem to me that the problems facing people with disabilities are adequately addressed in what she argues in her essay. Because the spectrum of disability is so vast, ranging from physical impairment to cognitive disability, from impairments due to age to psychological illness and trauma, some “faces” of systemic oppression that people with disabilities face find no voice in Young’s work. In particular, it seems to me that there are three such forms, though one of them at least is experienced by other oppressed groups such as racial minorities and nonheterosexuals as well. The first of these faces is Stigma, which concerns an “undesired difference.” Persons with disabilities are stigmatized within a society. Stigma disvalues people with disabilities and does not grant them societal recognition, 185 186 Elizabeth Purcell or if it does, it mis-recognizes them through stereotypes and poor representation. One example of this stigmatization is the medical gaze, which, though trained to aid people, often slides into viewing the “disabled” body as a body “with broken parts.” A second face of oppression is Questioned Personhood. Currently, people with disabilities face educational and other forms of institutional oppression that question their status as persons at biological and psychological levels. For people with cognitive disability, for example, their personhood has come under scrutiny and has included a history of abuse and human experimentation. It is still not uncommon to find people, even academic philosophers, who routinely compare such people with nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees, dolphins, or household dogs, thereby intentionally stripping these people of human dignity and any human rights that might serve to protect them. Last, the third form is Societal Incapacity. This form of oppression concerns the social and environmental factors that give advantages to people with “able” bodies, such as constructing buildings in which the only fire exits are via a stairwell. This form does not ensure capacities for all of its citizens within a given society, and thus systemically oppresses those the society has disregarded. My hope is that these three new faces oppressing people with disabilities, namely Stigma, Questioned Personhood, and Societal Incapacity, strike one, at least intuitively, as serious and as deserving of more careful social reflection. I elaborate on them below. In the argument that follows, I need to demonstrate two points: first, that these three new faces are not accounted for with Young’s framework; and second, that they are in fact forms of oppression and not merely discriminatory incidents. The latter task requires that I demonstrate that each of these three new faces has systemic implications, while the former requires that I show how they slip through Young’s existing framework. In what follows, I begin with a more careful review of Young in order to assess to what extent each of her forms of oppression is capable of addressing these particular faces of oppression . Afterward, I turn to a more detailed account of these three new faces in order to show that they are in fact forms of oppression. It is my hope that by identifying these forms, new methods and plans of action can be developed for countering the particular forms of oppression that persons with disabilities face. The Five Faces of Oppression In order to address Young’s five faces of oppression adequately, I first treat each of them separately and then consider them as overlap- 187 Oppression’s Three New Faces ping forms of oppression. In “The Five Faces of Oppression,” Young reconsiders the term oppression in its systemic and structural forms rather than as the violence and injustice some people suffer because a tyrannical power “intends to keep them down” (1990a, pp. 40–41). Her account of the five faces illuminates how oppression makes up much of our social experience. Furthermore, she argues that oppression is a...


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