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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.

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

‘genetic doctor’, was a healer not of individuals, but of the state, and, just as an inflamed appendix would be removed from a diseased body, a diseased ­individual was viewed as inimical to the future health of the Volk.16 The organism metaphor and the menace of the feeble-­minded The last quarter of the nineteenth century and first quarter of the twentieth were characterized in part by the expanding influence of a medically based conceptualization of the world. The growth in medical science naturally led to The organism metaphor 33 efforts to employ this

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

allowing – or, in some cases, assisting – newborns to die is less morally problematic than bringing about the deaths of older children or adults. The animalization of ‘feeble-­minded’ persons prior to the eugenic era Of all marginalized groups, surely those with severe cognitive impairments are among the most vulnerable to being animalized. The taxonomic status of persons with mental disabilities, especially mental retardation, has been a topic of intense debate for centuries.26 Even before 1900 Alice Mott noted that in many cultures idiots had been classified as brutes

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

5 THE RELIGIOUS AND ALTRUISTIC METAPHORS: THE MORON AS AN IMMORAL SINNER AND AN OBJECT OF PROTECTION 1 Just as none of you would now marry a brother or sister, so you must come to think of it as a crime and a sin – a sin against your race – to marry into a strain that shows feeble-­mindedness in its past.2 As an integral aspect of modern cultures, religion has often served as an important means of fostering interpersonal bonding, providing hope, direction, and meaning to people and helping to develop a communal sense of morality and demarcate normative from

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

a better crop of boys and girls we must, as with other crops, weed out bad strains.’25 Within this context, of course, morons and other undesirable breeders were objectified as the ‘human weeds’ who threatened to choke out – primarily through their rapid growth – the good crops. In the human garden a feeble-­minded person was characterized as ‘a social flower of no prospective bloom’.26 Another eugenicist wrote 136 FRAMING THE MORON that ‘[j]ust as thorns and thistles are the direct result of imperfect vegetable development, so are fools and lunatics an

in Framing the moron
John Field

3 Labour colonies and public health As well as the unemployed, labour colonies were also directed towards those who could not work for other reasons. Large numbers of people with physical or mental disabilities or impairments found themselves in workhouses, often classed together – idiots, the feeble-minded, cripples, inebriates, or simply old1 – as incapable of earning a living in the open labour market. Increasingly, though, the workhouse was viewed as entirely inappropriate for these groups, whose vulnerability was seen as a legitimate basis for intervention

in Working men’s bodies
Joanne Woiak

two questions that linked alcohol to disability: how was susceptibility to heavy drinking connected to conditions that were labelled insanity and mental deficiency, and how could parental drunkenness produce offspring that were identified as constitutionally weak and feeble-minded? The disease concept of inebriety was initially promoted in the 1880s, under the auspices of the Society for the Study of Inebriety (SSI), to explain alcoholism as a type of mental illness and therefore a problem that fell within the domain of the psychiatric profession

in Disability and the Victorians
Work camps in Britain, 1880–1940
Author: John Field

The book provides a comprehensive account of work camp movements in Britain before 1939, based on thorough archival research, and on the reminiscences of participants. It starts with their origins in the labour colony movement of the 1880s, and examines the subsequent fate of labour colonies for the unemployed, and their broadening out as disciplined and closed therapeutic communities for such groups as alcoholics, epileptics, tuberculosis sufferers and the ‘feeble-minded’. It goes on to examine utopian colonies, inspired by anarchist, socialist and feminist ideas, and designed to develop the skills and resources needed for a new world. After the Great War, unemployed camps increasingly focused on training for emigration, a movement inspired by notions of a global British national identity, as well as marked by sharp gender divisions. The gender divisions were further enhanced after 1929, when the world economic crisis closed down options for male emigration. A number of anti-industrial movements developed work camps, inspired by pacifist, nationalist or communitarian ideals. Meanwhile, government turned increasingly to work camps as a way of training unemployed men through heavy manual labour. Women by contrast were provided with a domesticating form of training, designed to prepare them for a life in domestic service. The book argues that work camps can be understood primarily as instrumental communities, concerned with reshaping the male body, and reasserting particularistic male identities, while achieving broad social policy and economic policy goals.

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

not always apply. While morons were generally framed as unknowingly posing a threat to the nation, the military metaphor was still a fairly prevalent mode of describing the ‘war on feeble-­mindedness’. Finally, it should be noted that either the war or the natural catastrophe metaphor is especially likely to be employed if the target group is large and imposing, and particularly if the group is framed as a rapidly growing threat, through extensive immigration, rapid procreation, the ability to dupe ‘weak-­ minded’ or ‘wrong-­thinking’ citizens to aid in their cause

in Framing the moron
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Gerald V. O’Brien

about the eugenic period, or any alarm movement for that matter, relates to the nature of the various metaphor themes or sub-­themes that are employed by those advocating control or restriction within the context of the movement. One might ask why specific stereotyped images come to be embraced, and whether contrasting metaphor images serve differing ends. These issues will be taken up in the first section of this chapter. A second issue that relates to this first is the following: what was it about feeble-­mindedness or moronity that caused it to become the central

in Framing the moron