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The social construction of feeble-mindedness in the American eugenic era

Many people are shocked upon discovering that tens of thousands of innocent persons in the United States were involuntarily sterilized, forced into institutions, and otherwise maltreated within the course of the eugenic movement (1900–30). Such social control efforts are easier to understand when we consider the variety of dehumanizing and fear-inducing rhetoric propagandists invoke to frame their potential victims. This book details the major rhetorical themes employed within the context of eugenic propaganda, drawing largely on original sources of the period. Early in the twentieth century the term “moron” was developed to describe the primary targets of eugenic control. This book demonstrates how the image of moronity in the United States was shaped by eugenicists.

This book will be of interest not only to disability and eugenic scholars and historians, but to anyone who wants to explore the means by which pejorative metaphors are utilized to support social control efforts against vulnerable community groups.

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Gerald V. O’Brien

The introductory chapter lays out the rationale for and goals of the book. It provides an overview of important terminology, delineates the importance of eugenics, and provides a brief history of the movement within the United States. Chapter concludes with a delineation of the content included within the various chapters of the text.

in Framing the moron
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter describes the importance of metaphor analysis in light of the eugenic alarm period. It spells out the various ways that pejorative metaphor images support social control practices and policies, and briefly delineates the metaphor themes (organism, animal, war and natural catastrophe, religious and altruistic, and object metaphors) that will be described within the book.

in Framing the moron
The moron as a diseased entity
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter focuses on the role of the organism metaphor in supporting an aversive image of persons diagnosed with feeble-mindedness. Through this metaphor the state is conceived of as a functioning organism, and target groups are perceived as invasive and contaminating agents that threaten its integrity. This view of the outsider lends itself to some form of community or racial “cleansing.”

in Framing the moron
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The moron as an atavistic subhuman
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter highlights the animal metaphor, through which undesired community sub-groups are subject to pejorative comparisons with animals. Another important aspect of the animal metaphor, especially within the context of the eugenics movement, was the development of a hierarchy of the human race, though which “feeble-minded” persons were perceived as sub-human entitite.

in Framing the moron
The moron as an enemy force
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter describes the importance of the war and natural catastrophe metaphors within eugenic writing. Through use of the former, the groups is put forth as acting in opposition to the community, and taking action against them is thus a measure of self-defence. The latter theme utilizes natural catastrophe analogies to describe the potential harm group members pose to society.

in Framing the moron
The moron as an immoral sinner and an object of protection
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter focuses on the use of religious and altruistic metaphors in eugenic writings. Religious terminology and symbols were frequently employed to present eugenic aims as the height of morality, and in keeping with Christian precepts. Related to this, the altruism metaphor presents the image that those controlled by eugenic practices were not victims. Rather, such policies were said to be beneficial for persons with feeble-mindedness, who would agree with such measures if they could employ rational thought.

in Framing the moron
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The moron as a poorly functioning human
Gerald V. O’Brien

This chapter explores the various ways by which “feeble-minded” persons and other targets of eugenic control were objectified through the use of pejorative language and invidious comparisons. Such persons were viewed against the backdrop of a simplistic stereotype, and institutional control in many ways fostered this view through uniformity and regimentation. Especially important was the objectification of women, which in many ways paralleled their eugenic objectification in Nazi Germany.

in Framing the moron
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Gerald V. O’Brien

The concluding paragraph ties together the major themes of the book, and describes more fully the importance of the “moron” classification within the overall context of the eugenic alarm period in the United States, along with reasons that the themes explored in the book became important ways of framing those diagnosed as “morons”. This paragraph also discusses issues related to disability studies and eugenics, as well as contemporary relevance, especially in regard to those current practices that may be considered forms of eugenics.

in Framing the moron