Wednesday, April 26, 2017

More thoughts on the Stubblefield case

I've been delaying writing about the Stubblefield appeal, in part because I am still processing my enraged incredulity at the Singer-McMahan op-ed, (something I would have dealt with in the past by smoking half a pack of cigarettes, but alas, I gave them up). Others have already expressed their own outrage, as well as detailing-- shall we say 'flaws'?-- in their account of the case.

My habit is to keep an open mind about matters, and to consider new information as it is available. But as Dewey once said (I think it was Dewey): keeping an open mind is having a welcome mat at your front door; it is not leaving the door open with the sign, "come on in". Reading the Singer- McMahan op ed, and the legal claims it put forward, has not changed the substance of my view, though since I am not a lawyer, I can't evaluate the legal basis for the appeal, or whether the court committed a legal error in disallowing the video or other matters. However, the science is clear: facilitated communication is neither reliable or effective in giving voice to the mute.

But as I wrote some time ago, suppose facilitated communication in fact did allow DJ to express himself.

But suppose counterfactually that DJ really was communicating and did in fact express his desire and willingness to become sexually intimate with Stubblefield. This supposition would not erase significant moral concerns, which I turn to next.

On our counterfactual scenario, DJ, while an adult in years, has been socially isolated through his inability to speak or interact with others in a variety of venues. He has lived with his family his whole life, and  has had limited contact with life outside his very limited circle of household, school, day program, church. He has never been able to choose where to go, whether to go, what to read or watch on tv, with whom to interact. He has things to say but no one to say them to. Now, on our counterfactual scenario, suddenly he can communicate, with the facilitation of Stubblefield. Of course, he would fall madly in love with her. She is his liberator. This would be a predictable form of transference. Stubblefield, but not DJ, would be in a position to recognize this. She, not DJ, would be in the position to see that there is a gross power imbalance between them, that she has the power conferred by her experience, knowledge of the world, and her role in DJ's life; DJ, however, is like a person newly liberated from a locked room, only now beginning to navigate the world, and just as vulnerable. To commence a sexual relationship at this time, even if DJ expressed his desire to, is to exploit his vulnerability, his lack of perspective and patience gained from experience to assess his own desires and choose which to act on. Stubblefield, a philosopher and disability rights activist, should have been hyper-acutely aware of how their relative positions would make an equal sexual relationship between them impossible.

Worse, as his primary facilitator, Stubblefield should have been aware of the responsibilities of that position. The relationship between facilitator and communicator is of necessity quite intimate, and for that reason, it is even more important to avoid sexualizing it, especially when the voice of the communicator is just emerging. Eroticizing the relationship makes it more emotionally labile and unstable, endangering this hard-won voice.

 Stubblefield also should have recognized that valid consent requires the possibility of its withdrawal. With his sexual partner as his 'voice', it is less likely that DJ would have been able to 'voice' an end to the relationship.

So, in my view, Stubblefield crossed moral boundaries as well as legal ones. I believe that she didn't think through the former, but she should have. About the latter, she probably honestly believed that she and DJ had a mutual, loving relationship, and so was stunned when accused and convicted of sex assault. But her belief was delusive, and she, as well as DJ, was its victim.
All that said, I continue to believe that the lengthy prison sentence imposed on Stubblefield is not in the interest of justice, but I maintain that not because of special pleading for Stubblefield, but because there are strong and persuasive reasons to oppose lengthy prison sentences on the grounds of justice  and individual and social well-being.

In a somewhat related matter, an article published under the authorship of DJ in Disability Studies Quarterly has been retracted by that journal, but not because of suspicions about the genuine author, but because it substantially overlapped with another article published elsewhere under his name.

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