This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, a conversation between Diana Popescu and Tom Shakespeare. Tom Shakespeare (CBE, FBA) is a Professor of Disability Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He was trained in social and political sciences at Cambridge University but his work combines disability studies with sociology, social policy, and sexuality studies. His books include The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996); Disability Rights and Wrongs (2006; 2014); Disability – the Basics (2017). He was a member of Arts Council, England (2003-2008), a technical officer at the World Health Organisation where he co-edited the World Report on Disability (2008-2013), and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2013-2019). He is currently chair of Light for the World – UK, and vice-chair of Light for the World International.
Author: Costanza Porro
Costanza is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at MANCEPT at the University of Manchester. Previously, she was postdoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Hamburg. She completed a PhD in Law at King's College London in 2019. Her research interests lie at the intersection of moral philosophy, political and social philosophy, feminist philosophy and the philosophy of criminal punishment. Her current research explores how the fact of our nature as caring and needy beings shapes the way in which we should conceive an egalitarian society.
In recent months, the police have been the object of extensive discussion and harsh criticism in the UK. The Louise Casey report published in March found the Metropolitan Police (the police service for the Greater London area) to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Since then, various incidents in different parts of the country – most recently in Cardiff last week, resulting in the tragic deaths of teenagers Kyrees Sullivan and Harvey Evans – have seen the police behaving in deeply problematic ways. The police have also come under attack for its behaviour towards protesters, or people believed to be such, especially during the weekend of the Coronation following the passing of the Public Order Bill. This is in the context of a crisis of legitimacy that the institution has been facing for a few years now, in part as a result of a number of other high-profile cases and investigations. The police are increasingly seen not as an institution that function to protect all citizens, but as a potential threat to members of different social groups. Scepticism about whether the police can be trusted to act lawfully and to provide truthful accounts of its activities is mounting. Mistrust towards the police is of course not in itself a new phenomenon, especially among certain sectors of society, but it has been gaining more traction in broader segments of the population.
In October, the environmental group Just Stop Oil staged a number of nonviolent direct actions across London. The most visible of these actions was the throwing of tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. This action has been highly controversial and has attracted a number of criticisms, both from those who are usually critical of this kind of environmental activism as well as from people who tend to be sympathetic with the cause, and in some cases the methods chosen by these groups, including some who are themselves part of the environmental movement. There were two main kinds of criticism made. First, some felt that the painting was the wrong target for such a protest, often reacting angrily out of fear that that painting had been damaged, which was soon revealed not to be the case. Second, many argued that this kind of action is to be criticised for strategic reasons as it does attract attention, but it mainly alienates people from the cause.
In the last few months, many countries have seen the lifting of numerous Covid 19 restrictions. While the pandemic is far from over and some countries are still opting for strict lockdowns, as in the notable case of China, in most of Europe and the US it has entered a new phase in which much of what made up life before Covid has resumed, at least for most people. A progressive return to the life before is also taking place in prisons. The time is right to have a look back at the last two years to review what prisons looked like during the pandemic, and what that can tell us about this fraught institution.
The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically reminded us of our shared vulnerability and our need of care, and as a result, calls for care have been widespread since the pandemic began. Some of these calls to care, as well as celebrations of essential care workers, have appeared disingenuous when coming from governments and parties with a long history of carelessness. It is precisely this carelessness, which ranges from cuts to public health services to a general lack of concern for the fate of the most vulnerable in society, that has been deemed responsible for many of the difficulties and the failures in facing Covid-19. Many calls to care have been motivated precisely by this critique as well as the idea that care should be central in our societies. How, then, should we conceive of a caring society? In what follows, I address this issue by reflecting on the ambivalence of care and the idea of communities of care.
In the past few months, a central topic of discussion in Italian public debate has been the Ddl Zan, a proposed bill to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The bill does not create any new crimes but extends to these categories existing criminal legislation that currently covers discrimination and violence on the grounds of racial, ethnic and religious reasons as well as incitement to commit such acts. Such acts of discrimination and violence and their incitement can either be punished with a fine or a prison sentence to up to 4 years or, in case these actions already constitute a more serious crime, the penalty can be increased to up to double. The Ddl Zan also includes measures to support victims as well as broader initiatives to fight discrimination and inequalities, including the creation of a National Day against homophobia. Unsurprisingly, the bill has been the object of a heated debate. The LGBTQ+ movement and the majority of the feminist movement as well as other progressive forces are fighting for its approval, while conservatives argue that the bill endangers freedom of speech and imposes a supposedly divisive worldview. Setting this aside, I want to address another issue in connection to this bill, namely that of whether the criminal law should be regarded as the right instrument to fight discrimination and this kind of violence.
The idea of vulnerability has been discussed regularly throughout the pandemic. This aligns with a more general trend towards considering issues in law, bioethics and philosophy from a vulnerability perspective – especially among those dissatisfied with human rights theory. Can thinking in terms of vulnerability help us understand the current crisis?
The term vulnerability captures cases of risk of harm. To restrict attention to morally significant forms of vulnerability, theorists often refer to harms to vital interests or needs. The concept of vulnerability carries an inherent ambiguity, which is reflected in both ordinary use and theory. On the one hand, we are all vulnerable due to our embodiment and our nature as social beings. This is what theorists call ontological universal vulnerability. On the other hand, particular groups or individuals experience heightened vulnerability in particular respects due to their specific circumstances. This is often called circumstantial vulnerability. An especially problematic kind of circumstantial vulnerability is pathogenic vulnerability, which is the product of injustice. People and groups experience different types of vulnerabilities arising from a variety of sources, which interact with each other, often creating new vulnerabilities.
Because it captures the idea of being under threat of harm and circumstances where an agent is not in the position to protect her vital interests, vulnerability seems to be particularly apt to describe the current situation in connection to the risk of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risks of socio-economic harms and social isolation that have accompanied the pandemic. Distinguishing between different kinds of vulnerability also helps us in reflecting on various aspects of the present crisis.