Debating Vulnerability…

Exchange of ideas

Exchange of ideas

On Valentine’s Day, I took part in a debate entitled, Are we all vulnerable now? which featured as part of our Doctorate in Education Residential here in the School of Education, University of Sheffield. My fellow panel members were Ken McLaughlin, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and Mark Taylor, Deputy Headteacher at Addey and Stanhope Comprehensive School, New Cross, London. In this blog post, I want to share the debate preamble and my opening remarks. The debate was an interesting experience – I’m not a natural “debater” – but then, who is? I knew that my stance, which is drawn from feminist critical disability studies, posthuman studies, and my own lived experience as a disabled woman, would be tricky to communicate in the context of a debate. But, what I hoped I could do was offer some new (potentially transformative) ideas into the mix.

Immediately below is the preamble to the debate, written by its Chair, Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, School of Education, University of Sheffield:

Are we all vulnerable now? The implications of ‘vulnerability’ for educational policy and practice

In official terms, ‘the vulnerable’ used to refer to people in extreme circumstances, like the homeless, or those unable to look after themselves mentally or physically. Officially and informally vulnerability now describes many more people, including those receiving counselling or palliative care.

It now describes anyone and everyone who need our sympathy. The unemployed are vulnerable to depression; women are vulnerable to ‘everyday sexism’; immigrants are vulnerable to trafficking or even slavery, teenage girls are vulnerable to body-image issues; and teenage boys are vulnerable to being warped by pornography.  Labour leader Ed Miliband and MPs have accused payday loans providers and bookmakers of targeting vulnerable people in deprived areas. Former culture secretary Maria Miller pledged to save ‘children and the vulnerable’ from gambling adverts. A coroner recently called on the Ministry of Defence to review its care for vulnerable soldiers at risk of suicide and bullying.

Campaigners increasingly regard ‘vulnerability’ as a collective condition. Solutions invariably involve calls for more support and protection and interventions to ‘build resilience’ and develop ‘survival strategies’.  Many schools, colleges and universities now offer resilience training and mindfulness, and trades unions call for resilience workshops for those threatened by redundancy.

Is recognition of vulnerability not just realistic but also positive, making us recognize that we are all, to a greater or lesser extent vulnerable and therefore need to show more empathy? Or does preoccupation with vulnerability sap our resilience and make us dependent on external support? Does defining ourselves and others as vulnerable empower us to change the conditions that undermine material, physical and mental well-being? Or does it create a sense of victimhood and powerlessness?  And with so many labeled vulnerable, how do education and welfare professionals assess competing claims and allocate scarce resources?

In response to this preamble, here are my opening remarks:

What I want to do in my opening remarks is both ask and attempt to answer 6 questions in as many minutes! As much as I have tried, I don’t present a coherent stance but flit between different positions. I’m painfully aware that this makes me very vulnerable in the context of a debate!

Question 1: Why am I here today and why is that important?

I’m here because the privileges that are afforded to me – almost routinely – as a White, middle class, educated Westerner make it possible for me to even be in this room of very clever people. Intersecting with these identity categories, is my disability identity: I am a very proud disabled woman. This is important because this simple statement at once makes me more vulnerable in this room, and beyond, in myriad ways, and yet, for me, serves also as a form of resistance. It’s this paradox of vulnerability and resistance which marks my “flittiness” (for want of a better word!)

Question 2: How is vulnerability defined in Western neoliberal societies, and what impact does this have?

We associate the state of being vulnerable with those whom we position as Other: ‘the feminine, the disabled, the aged, the marginalized, the weak’ (Rice et al. f.c.). Whom we come to define as Other is rooted in dominant ideas of the archetypal human and neoliberal adult citizen as self-contained (see Slater and Liddiard, f.c.), autonomous, independent, strong and ultimately self-governing. Because Western culture uses vulnerability to condone marginalisation and oppression – where vulnerability is a precursor to violation – it is difficult for us to be or claim vulnerability; so we actively disassociate with becoming a vulnerable subject (see Rice et al, f.c.).

Question 3: But what if I said that we are all vulnerable?

Not just those “Others” who live in precarity – very real material, economic, political conditions which cause harm – but all of us? There are many aspects of advanced capitalism that make us vulnerable. Things like: the increasing psychologisation of life and self, the intensification and extensification of work/labour, increasing militarism, global terrorism, and global economic instability. And let’s not forget the unequal systems of power that these produce: racism, neocolonialism, sexism, misogyny and heterosexism, ableism and disablism, ageism and transphobia. If we think more locally, we now have the Coalition Government, which has made many of us far more vulnerable: children, women, older people, students, disabled people, teachers… We could argue, then, that these are some very vulnerable times.

Question 4: So if we accept that we are all vulnerable – in what some have called the Vulnerability zeitgeist (Brown, 2014) – what then?

Rather than “mass vulnerability” and its responses causing the production of more distressed, depressed and dejected people, who are then further exploited by growing state and professional power, I want to question the ways in which collectively claiming vulnerability might be different. What happens to culture, community and humanity when we understand vulnerability as a ‘universal, inevitable, enduring aspect of the human condition’ (Fineman 2008: 8)? One which is ‘necessary for human being and human understanding, fundamental to relationships and to social life’ (Rice et al., f.c)? Rather than vulnerability equating only to victimhood, to sapped resilience, and dependence on external support (which, I may add, is not a terrible thing; we all lead interdependent lives, none of us in this room are independent, despite what we think) – what if our shared vulnerable selves could be our starting point to build a more equal and just society; where ‘vulnerability is the ground for human exchange, empowerment, and growth’ (Rice et al. f.c.); a springboard for resistance, justice and change (Ecclestone and Goodley 2014)?

Question 5: More relatedly, can vulnerability can have positive implications for educational policy, practice, and research?

As Rice et al. (f.c.) discuss in their forthcoming paper, anthropologist Ruth Behar coined the term the “vulnerable observer” as a way of talking about the value of vulnerability to research. Here, researchers and practitioners make themselves vulnerable in the sense of sharing aspects of themselves in their work to shed additional light on the subject in discussion. Being a vulnerable researcher or practitioner means being present and honest with ourselves throughout our work. At the same time, it requires a willingness to be present with others’ emotions and embodied experiences, to approach respectfully, and tread carefully. (You can read about vulnerability in my own research here; and see Me and You (2012), *a film I made about (amongst other things) impairment, embodiment and vulnerability, as part of Project Revision).

Finally, Question 6: What’s my point?!

I’m less concerned with vulnerability as a state of being, than I am with the problematic ways in which it is measured, ascribed and, for many, becomes a site of oppressive intervention.

I’m concerned, as a disabled person, with our denigration of vulnerability and the vulnerable subject as an undesirable way of being. If anything, vulnerable subjects draw out the very problematic ingredients of what it means to be a valued and valuable human – why do we have to be rational, sane, autonomous, independent and self-governing to be valued, or to be included in the category of the human? Click here to read more about what it means to be human, or Dishuman.

I guess I want to ask, can we harness vulnerability for our own sakes? What might this look like? Reject the inevitable precarity that comes with being labelled vulnerable, and demand and imagine a different kind of response to the state of being vulnerable. Maybe, we can politicise our vulnerability rather than psychologise, criminalise and pathologise it? Maybe we celebrate our vulnerability in ways reminiscent of the radical crip/disabled people’s communities I’m part of, where people are proudly vulnerable, different, and Other? Maybe we embrace vulnerability as something that can make us better teachers, researchers and lecturers?

Ultimately, I think we should collectively demand more inclusive, empathetic and compassionate responses to vulnerability, because in the context of humanity, vulnerability isn’t about being Other, it’s about being us.

Me and You (2012)

Me and You (2012)

* Please note that captions/subtitles on the current Youtube version of Me and You (2012) are in process.


Brown, K. (2014) ‘Questioning the Vulnerability Zeitgeist: Care and control practices with ‘vulnerable’ young people’, Social Policy and SocietyAvailable online.

Ecclestone, K. and Goodley, D. 2014 ‘Political and educational springboard or straitjacket?: Theorising post/humanist subjects in an age of vulnerability’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. DOI:10.1080/01596306.2014.927112

Fineman, M. (2008). The vulnerable subject and the responsive state. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 20 (1), 1-22.

Rice, C., Chandler, E., Harrison, E. Liddiard, K. & Ferrari, M. (f.c.) ‘Project Re•Vision: Disability at the Edges of Representation’, Disability and Society.

Slater, J. and Liddiard, K. (f.c.) “Like, pissing yourself is not a particularly attractive quality, let’s be honest”: Learning to Contain through Youth, Adulthood, Disability and Sexuality’, Sexualities (Special Issue: Pleasure and Desire).


One thought on “Debating Vulnerability…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s