Unspeakable Conversations Summary


People with disabilities have always been considered as less than human. This is evident in the way that they have been treated throughout history. They have been hidden away, locked up, and even killed. The rhetoric surrounding people with disabilities has always been one of pity and charity. “Oh, poor thing, they can’t help it.” “They’re a burden on society.” “They’re not really like us.”

This rhetoric is still very prevalent today. Just look at the way people talk about people in wheelchairs. They’re often referred to as “confined” or “trapped” in their chairs. They’re seen as objects of pity, to be pitied and cared for, but not really considered as fully human.

This needs to change. People with disabilities are just as human as anyone else. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. It’s time to start having unspeakable conversations about disability. It’s time to start seeing people with disabilities as whole, complete human beings.

Is it acceptable in today’s society for an unborn disabled baby to be murdered? Selective infanticide is a highly debated issue that has been discussed for many years. In her essay “Unspeakable Conversations,” disabilities activist and lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson expresses her viewpoint on the subject. She tells this narrative as a story, with herself as the narrator.

She tells the story of how she was asked to have a conversation with Peter Singer, a world-renowned philosopher and Professor at Princeton University. Singer is known for his beliefs in speciesism, which is the idea that some beings can be treated differently because of their species. He applies this idea to humans when he argues that it is okay to kill a disabled baby because they are not “fully human”. Johnson strongly disagrees with Singer’s views and uses various rhetoric strategies throughout her article to try and change his mind.

One strategy that Johnson employs is ethos. She establishes her credibility as an expert on disability by sharing her own personal experiences. For example, she talks about how she has lived with muscular dystrophy her whole life and how she uses a wheelchair. She also mentions that she has a law degree from Harvard University. Sharing these accomplishments helps to build her ethos and show that she is qualified to have this conversation with Singer.

Another strategy that Johnson uses is pathos. She tries to appeal to Singer’s emotions by sharing the story of Patrick, a young boy with Down syndrome. She describes how Patrick is loving and happy, despite his disability. Johnson hopes that by sharing this story, Singer will see that disabled children are just like any other child and they deserve to live.

Johnson also uses logos throughout her article. She provides various statistics about disabled people, such as the fact that “eighty percent of Americans say they would rather not have a baby with a disability”. She also talks about how most disabled children are killed before they are even born, due to parents choosing to have abortions when they find out their child will be disabled. By providing these facts, Johnson is trying to use logic to show Singer thatdisabled children are already disadvantaged and they should not be further discriminated against by being killed.

In conclusion, Johnson uses a variety of rhetoric strategies in her article “Unspeakable Conversations” to try and persuade Peter Singer to change his views on selective infanticide. Although she is unsuccessful in changing his mind, she does provide a well-argued case for why disabled children deserve to live.

The film follows her journey as she quarrels with Peter Singer, a Princeton University professor who has an opposing viewpoint on when disabled babies should be aborted. With this in mind, Johnson uses the strategy of a Rogerian argument and the rhetorical elements of ethos and pathos to convey her position.

Johnson begins her argument by first giving the reader some background information about herself. She is a wheelchair user and has cerebral palsy, which is a disability that affects her motor skills and speech. She then talks about how she was born two months premature and how her doctors did not think she would survive. However, she did survive and has been living with her disability for over 40 years.

Johnson then turns to the issue of abortion, specifically mentioning the case of Baby Doe, a child who was born with Down syndrome and later died after his parents chose to withhold treatment. She talks about how this case led to a national conversation about whether or not it is ethical to kill disabled unborn children. This is where Singer comes in; he believes that it is ethical to kill disabled unborn children, and he has written about this extensively.

Johnson then argues that Singer’s views are harmful to disabled people. She points out that his rhetoric creates a “culture of death” for disabled people, as it reinforces the idea that our lives are not worth living. She also argues that his views are based on ableist assumptions about what constitutes a “good life.”

McBryde Johnson intended to convey her viewpoint in a polite manner while putting down her opponent, Professor Singer, in the process using the strategy of Rogerian argument. “A Rogerian argument is a conflict resolution strategy based on finding common ground rather than dividing debate” (Wikipedia). It emphasizes a solution that includes both negotiation and mutual respect (“You win, I win; you lose, I also lose”).

Johnson’s article is an excellent example of how not to have an unspeakable conversation.

With her first sentence, Johnson puts her audience on the defensive. “I am a cripple. I choose this word to name myself because it is honest, blunt and direct. It is also offensive. I mean to offend” (Johnson 1). By identifying herself as a cripple, Johnson immediately alienates any able-bodied person reading her article. She continues to antagonize her readers by using words like “defectives” and “burdens” (2) when referring to people with disabilities. This sort of language only serves to further the divide between those with disabilities and those without.

Johnson’s approach to the conversation is clearly not one of respect or understanding. Instead, she relies on personal attacks and offensive language in an attempt to score points against her opponent. This is not productive and does nothing to further the conversation about disability rights. It is clear that Johnson is more interested in winning the argument than in finding common ground.

Throughout the piece, it is observed that while McBryde Johnson’s perspective differs from Singers’, she does appear to care about his ideas. This is revealed by her need to disagree with Singer’s views in order to demonstrate dislike for him. The audience may observe a shift in her respect for his ideas as their professional relationship expands. “I’ve come to believe that Singer is actually human, and even nice in his own way” (McBryde Johnson 9). This shows that she attempts to despise him.

However, by the end of the article it is clear that she has developed a begrudging respect for him. Even though their views are different, McBryde Johnson recognizes that everyone is human and should be respected as such.

In the essay, Johnson uses a common strategy when she talks about her personal experience with disability. By sharing her story, she aims to connect with the reader on a personal level. She does this in order to create common ground and show that she is just like them, someone who has also faced struggles. In doing so, she breaks down the barriers that exist between “normal” people and those with disabilities. This helps to create a more inclusive conversation about disability, which is something that Singer was not doing.


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