Evading Responsibility by Making Science the Solution
July 6th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I have been reading, with great interest, Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body. I have been particularly interested in her analysis of our cultural “myth of control” — the notion that we can control our bodies and protect them indefinitely from illness, disability, and death — and the ways in which disabled people become stigmatized for being an affront to this myth (Wendell 1996, 93-94). Wendell writes that the emphasis in Western culture on curing disability, and all of the millions of dollars spent on cures that never come, is a manifestation of our discomfort with the fact that what happens to our bodies is largely out of our control (Wendell 1996, 94). Our bodies age, they break, they do things we don’t want them to, they don’t do things we do want them to, and ultimately, they fall apart and die.

Our faith in science and medicine to exercise control over disability and death means that resources don’t go to the things that we can control for disabled people. I agree with Wendell that medical science should continue to act in the service of easing suffering, healing illness, and saving lives, but the emphasis on control through science is so extreme that we neglect all the ways in which we can make life better for people who are living, right here and right now, with disability (Wendell 1996, 110-111). We spend an inordinate amount of time and money waging war on disability and death, and very little time and money on things that we actually do have some power over — such as whether buildings are accessible, employment is available, housing is affordable, medical care is within reach, and people generally have access to all of the things that make life more than mere survival.

The myth that we can control our bodies against difficulty, illness, injury, aging, and death is simply a blanket denial of physical reality, but the more I look, the more I see this myth all around me. I see it when people assert that you can protect yourself against rape by how you dress. I see it when people hawk the latest weight-loss program, as though within every woman is a sleek supermodel just waiting to be born, and as though it were a mark of shame to be anything else. I see it in advertisements for products that promise to reverse the visible signs of aging, as though aging were an insult to human dignity. I see it whenever I read an obituary about someone having waged a “courageous battle” against whatever they died from, as though they have gone down in defeat, rather than simply surrendered to an entirely natural — and inevitable — process.

Recently, while all of these issues were knocking around in my brain, I happened across the article David Frum on How We Need to Learn to Say No to the Elderly. Please be warned: the article is very painful reading. It is full of blatant ageism, beginning with the entirely inaccurate assertion that elderly people are the worst drivers in America. In point of fact, according to a report from the census bureau for 2009 (the latest date for which such statistics are available), the worst drivers are those between 25 and 34 years of age, with drivers over 65 accounting for the fewest numbers of accidents (just over 8%). And then there’s a lovely graphic showing the proverbial little old lady in the huge automobile about to drive into a terrified 30-something young man. The caption credits Darren Braun for the photo illustration; all I can say is, How proud he must be! The rest of the article is a scapegoating, dividing-and-conquering mess. It blames elderly people on Medicare and Social Security for bankrupting the young and causing the economic woes afflicting the US; in fact, the subhead reads, in part, “If we don’t push back, they’ll steal our benefits and bankrupt the country.” In this, it reads in a manner reminiscent of the tabloid stories in the UK that blame disabled people for the recession (Briant et al. 2010, 9).

So the article was a tough go, but what I found most troubling were some of the responses. I try to stay away from reading comments to most news articles, lest I despair of humanity altogether, but I was anxious to see whether anyone had called out Frum’s absurdities. Fortunately, a number of people had, but a few had chimed in with absurdities of their own. One comment, in particular, caught my eye as an interesting fantasy of what to do about the “problem” of elderly people bankrupting the economy with their lavish Social Security checks. It read, in part:

Simple: fix aging, as in lets use the now rapidly developing sciences of biotech and nanotechnologies to reverse aging….Aubrey de Grey, founder of the Mpize and the SENS foundations (now with the SENS foundation) estimates we need just 1 billion, spent over a 10 year period, to eliminate the day to day damage of aging in a mouse model, then people in the next decade).

It’s not the first time I’ve read someone excitedly going on about science putting a stop to the aging process, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Every time I see it, I’m caught between wanting to laugh uproariously and feeling myself holding back tears of desperation. On the uproarious side, I find it hilarious that anyone would believe that science could stop the aging process. I mean, the implication is that we’d be young forever and… then what? Never die? How would that work exactly? Once science stops the aging process, would it also stop all other breakdowns in the body? And if that were the case, and no one dies anymore, exactly how are we supposed to all crowd together on this tiny little planet? I realize that, in this culture, death is a bitter pill to swallow for most people, but honestly, it’s the cost of doing business on Mother Earth. We each have our time, and then we leave so that others can have their moment as well. If no one died, the planet would become so crowded that we’d destroy one another.

But mostly, when I read these kinds of comments, I feel a combination of puzzlement and exasperation at the assumptions that underlie them. First of all, there is the assumption that aging is a problem. Personally, I don’t have a problem with my body aging (although I could do without the stigma that attaches). I mean, what’s the problem with aging, except that it’s a sign that you can’t live in denial of death forever? Then, there is the assumption that the problem is in the body, rather than in the world at at large — a common assumption in a society enmeshed in the medical model. Finally, there is the assumption that we need to fix the body instead of the way we structure society and allocate resources. This assumption is the most troubling of all. The idea of putting more faith in science than in the moral conscience and behavior of other people really frightens me. Have we really lost that much faith in the power of human beings to work collectively, to do the right thing, and to make positive political change? Are we really turning our moral obligations over to science, fleeing our responsibilities of care and compassion for one another?

We create a world of suffering: young people can’t find jobs, middle-aged people lose their homes, elderly and disabled people end up isolated in nursing homes or on the street. And then we say, in response to the suffering we’ve created, that if we could only change the bodies of elderly and disabled people, society would work swimmingly. Somehow, the suffering we’ve created outside the body begins to adhere in the body, and the conversation turns to “fixing” the body — ending disability, aging, and ultimately, death. I worry about a world with such zealous faith in science to solve problems that require moral will and political action. I worry because service to one another is the highest calling in human life, and while science can be put in the service of that calling, it can never be a substitute for it.


Briant, E., N. Watson, and G. Philo. Bad News for Disabled People: How the Newspapers Are Reporting Disability. Glasgow, UK: Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit, University of Glasgow, 2010.

The Daily Beast. “David Frum on How We Need to Learn to Say No to the Elderly.” June 25, 2012. Accessed July 4, 2012.

The United Status Census Bureau. Accessed July 4, 2012.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


3 Responses  
  • chavisory writes:
    July 6th, 20121:28 amat

    Rachel, my amazement never ceases at your ability to completely, devastatingly, take apart cultural myths and assumptions like this that most people never get around to even noticing, let alone questioning.

  • Sheila writes:
    July 6th, 201210:34 amat

    Thank you for reminding me of the richness of Susan Wendell’s book. I was looking at a different section of it last night but your point (and her’s) about our society’s strong desire for control is very interesting. I have been despairing a little lately because I see a lot of the world’s problem with disability being related to capitalism and I feel quite powerless to change that. I am probably just as powerless to change the minority world’s focus on science and the “cure” for everything. But I some how feel empowered to sometimes question “the given” that looking for a cure is a good idea. Thanks again. I love reading your thoughtful posts.

  • Bob Rottenberg writes:
    July 9th, 201211:15 pmat

    …and just when you thought it might be safe to write a blog post like this, along comes the Texas GOP, proudly and publicly proclaiming, in their party platform, their opposition to the teaching of “critical thinking” in all Texas public schools. It says, in part:
    “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” (page 20, Republican Party of Texas, 2012).” Got that? Don’t challenge authority. Sad to say, this is not a joke — it’s a real document issued by a real political party in the largest state in the US (oh — sorry Sarah…) See the July 7 piece by Danny Weil in Truthout.

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