The Staying Power of EugenicsRobert A. Wilson (La Trobe University)
E561, Menzies Buiding
Abstract: Eugenics is often thought to have ended with the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Even if the spectre of eugenics is recognized as latent in biotechnologies associated with reproductive control, such as prenatal screening, the aftermath of World War II marked its end. Here I suggest instead that eugenics has persisted well into the twenty-first century. But whether we think of eugenics as posing a possible threat reemerging with genetic technologies, such as CRISPR, or as never having really disappeared, the dominant ways of thinking of eugenics over time miss something important. The persistence of eugenics is typically thought of in terms of the appeal of eugenic ideas and ideals, such as unfettered social improvement, the elimination of disease and disability, and increasing approximations to human perfection. The suggestion here is to think about the staying power of eugenics not so much in terms of the temptation of such ideas and ideals but instead through reflection on the dynamics that govern in-place practices. Focusing on practices, such as sexual sterilization, naturally raises questions about how what I call the social mechanics of eugenics contributes to the staying power of eugenics. That staying power neither derives simply from enduring ideals of human melioration, nor is it the result of moral panic, groupthink, or the banality of evil, to take three concepts that are often invoked here. Rather, that staying power stems from an interpersonal dynamic specific to certain kinds of morally-charged social interactions that involve wrongful accusations.
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