Ableism and Racism in Philosophy and Literature: Pandemic Edition

Grace Lapointe
6 min readJun 15, 2020

TW: COVID-19; ableism; racism; antsemitism; hate crimes; spoilers

I notice ableism, racism, sexism, and other intersecting forms of oppression in books constantly. The lockdown and other precautions last longer for me as a disabled person than for many non-disabled people. This means that I’m reading and writing a lot — especially catching up on classics and literature about pandemics and quarantines.

Part 1 of my analysis of ableism in philosophy and culture, from January 2020, is here.

Part 2 is a short description of utilitarianism, often used to devalue disabled lives.

Racism in Tolstoy

I recently read Anna Karenina. I loved it. All white characters, though, who had probably never seen a Black person. And they STILL jokingly described a white person covered in soot from the train as a Black person because of racism. From the Constance Garnett translation: “But I’m not a negro, I shall look like a human being when I wash.” (Note: I originally misremembered this as the n-word, which might not exist in Russian. What I actually remembered was the dehumanizing contrast of “negro” with a (white) “human being.” It’s being used almost as the n-word here.)

Of course, Europeans are often racist. I can’t believe anyone is claiming otherwise!

From Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes:

“Pulchrum Turpe; Delightfull Profitable; Unpleasant Unprofitable

The Latine Tongue has two words, whose significations approach to those of Good and Evill; but are not precisely the same; And those are Pulchrum and Turpe. Whereof the former signifies that, which by some apparent signes promiseth Good; and the later, that, which promiseth evill. But in our Tongue we have not so generall names to expresse them by. But for Pulchrum, we say in some things, Fayre; in other Beautifull, or Handsome, or Gallant, or Honourable, or Comely, or Amiable; and for Turpe, Foule, Deformed, Ugly, Base, Nauseous, and the like, as the subject shall require; All which words, in their proper places signifie nothing els, but the Mine, or Countenance, that promiseth Good and evill.”

This passage above is a great example of Western philosophy conflating whiteness, ability, etc. with goodness. I’ll never stop writing about this. I wrote about this here, here, and much more.

I disagree with the main premise of the book, which seems to be authoritarianism, but he has some fascinating insights. The introduction discusses the body politic….As an example of the imagination, he says that you’ve never seen a centaur. But if you’ve seen men and horses, your imagination can combine them to create centaurs. He says that some “beasts” have as much reason as a “ten-year-old child,” which I think just shows how arbitrary things like mental age theory are. He hates metaphors generally. The worst part is the non-standardized, 17th century English spelling, which is hard to read.

Nemesis by Philip Roth

This short novel is ableist in every possible way. I couldn’t find anything about the ableism online, so I wanted to write about it. Granted, it’s set in summer 1944, but it was published in October 2010. And as with J. K. Rowling and others, the ableism is inherent in the narrative voice. Bucky Cantor, the protagonist, understandably fears the polio virus and feels terror and internalized ableism when he contracts, then recovers from, it. He feels guilty because he may unknowingly be a carrier, infecting children in his care. He also breaks up with a smart, attractive woman, who’s in love with him, because he’s now disabled and considers himself a “burden” to her. The secrecy and terror around disability and illness is in keeping with the time, but the novel is also gratuitously cruel about other, non-contagious disabilities.

Horace, a character with an intellectual disability, is constantly described as monstrous or inhuman. Kids call him “the (ableist slur),” as if this is his name. Remember how I said idiot and moron used to be different diagnoses/degrees of IDD? The narrator actually uses the distinction. He specifies that while neighborhood kids call him “moron,” he’d probably be diagnosed “idiot” or “imbecile” instead.

Non-disabled characters suspect his hygiene of spreading literal “shit” everywhere, thus infecting them all with polio. In one scene, I noticed the dehumanizing contrast between the “hysterical boy” (Kenny, who’s not disabled) and the “terrified creature” (Horace). As I wrote here in “On Dehumanization”: “notice who’s a person here and who’s not.”

Even Bucky, a generally kind person who’s nice to Horace’s face, describes him as an aberration, a perverted joke from God. This is an extreme example of the everyday condescension, hatred, and hypocrisy that disabled people face. When Bucky loses his faith in God, he equates disability to death and asks how God could “cripple” children in the same breath as he asks how He could kill them.

Throughout, every type of disability is described as a curse, worse than death, contagious (figuratively, even when they’re literally not) “crippling,” “not whole,” “not myself,” “useless,” “maimed,” “deformed.” It’s awful. The descriptions of quarantine, fear of a virus, etc. are all very timely. However, we (disabled people) are NOT the contagion, shit, or virus. I wish a book that understands antisemitism and xenophobia in general so well would examine the prejudice of ableism and the eugenics implicit in language like this. Disability in general — not only death, or the polio virus in particular — is the real nemesis in the title.

One of the best-written passages was when the Italian-American teens spit on the ground as an act of biological warfare and a hate crime against the Jewish community. Sadly, people are still doing things like this now. This part really resonates because racism and antisemitism are still prevalent. It’s also obvious how saliva, or even proximity to another person, could be a biological weapon in a way that we didn’t often consider before COVID-19.

The summer camp where Bucky works is incredibly racist, appropriating and mocking Indigenous peoples. I get that this type of racist appropriation was probably popular in the 1940s, but the book makes no attempt to examine it or the ableism.

Other people have revisited Nemesis during COVID-19. In April 2020, New Yorker writer Richard Brody wrote: “Two dramatic differences between the novel’s polio epidemic and the covid-19 pandemic are that polio principally affected children, and that it often left its survivors disabled; these factors lent the epidemic a particular aspect of horror that even seemed mythical and metaphysical. Bucky’s neighborhood is gripped by the terror of handshakes and kisses, and people recall with a shudder who they kissed or embraced, and when.”

As a disabled writer, this passage frustrates and bothers me. True, COVID-19 does not primarily affect children, but it can affect them. Second, it can disable survivors — especially, with respiratory disabilities. They’ll need healthcare, accommodations, and a disability community — respect and support, not ableism. Third, notice that Brody takes the novel’s “horror” of disability at face value. In contrast, I’m trying to question it and position it as a product of the 1940s. Unless we try to do this, we perpetuate prejudices in books instead of learning how to fight them.

I don’t blame any friends who love these books. In fact, I bet they’d agree with me about the ableism, especially if I pointed it out to them. However, if there’s a resurgence of plague literature, I’m afraid that it will also accompany an increase in ableist constructs and metaphors. Take this May 2020 Literary Hub article, for example:

“With Apologies to Susan Sontag, We’re Going to Need Metaphor to Get Through This Global Illness.”

Of course, literary critics should disagree with each other. However, Sontag brilliantly explained in the late 1970s why disability and illness are harmful and inaccurate metaphors. Now that disability studies and theory are much bigger fields, it seems retrogressive to disregard her argument. We should use it as a baseline and then build on it.

Also, logically speaking, metaphors are NOT math. They’re not reversible or commutative. Using illness as a metaphor is different from making up a metaphor FOR the pandemic. You may not like either, but “apologies to Susan Sontag” indeed if you misrepresent her argument. Why is this important? Because of power dynamics, which usually lean heavily in one direction. Using disability/illness AS metaphors is ableist: stigmatizes them, objectifies disabled/sick people…Comparing a pandemic to a war has its own issues, but they aren’t interchangeable or reversible.

I recently wrote about the fallacy of disability as metaphor in a common interpretation of Titus Andronicus: The Lavinia Problem.