Bloomsbury Addressing Eugenics Citizen’s Assembly

(Bloomsbury Eugenics Congress Anti-Centennial Steering Group)

 

Context...

September 2021 marks the centennial of the Second International Eugenics Congress held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1921. The repercussions of this Congress were felt across the globe and helped to usher in, normalise and in the name of ‘Science’ justify some of the most extreme atrocities recorded in history. In less obvious forms, ideas promulgated at the Second Eugenics Congress continue to reverberate in contemporary science, medicine, education and politics. We are still grappling with the legacies of the Second International Eugenics Congress today.

As with a century ago we find ourselves on the cusp of political, scientific, technological, social and economic developments that could well embed a revival of eugenic theories and practices that we now know to be scientifically unfounded and often dangerous for individuals and societies. Key components of the current arguments heard in support of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-disability and anti-LGBTQ individuals and populations often is grounded in or is supported by arguments developed and disseminated by eugenicists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In light of current local and global problems, further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a critical moment to revisit how widely diffused assumptions and attitudes linked to eugenics continue to implicitly and explicitly effect our world. 2021 provides an excellent reason to focus on how eugenics has been used and misused over the past century but still more importantly – especially in light of all immediate and emerging global concerns and injustices – to critically assess how eugenics continues to pervade/influence political, social and medical ideas, opinions and practices.

 

Marking the centenary of the Congress in London...

As a climax of the international ‘From Small Beginnings...: Addressing the continuing shadows of eugenics’ project, a programme of international reflections marking the Centennial of the Second Eugenics Congress will address the legacies of ideas linked to the international eugenics movement. Coordination of major events in New York and London, the “birthplace” of eugenics, in addition, with additional linked events across North America (California, the South, New England, Mid-West, Canada and Mexico) and Europe (Russia, Scandinavia, Romania, France and Poland), globally (India, South Africa, Japan) and transnational discussions, will mark this occasion by bringing together a global group of scholars to reflect on past and future issues related to Eugenics. As such we are proposing an interinstitutional programme in September 2021, around the We Are Not Alone exhibition hosted by the Wiener Library, that looks to the centennial of the Second Eugenics Congress to build a platform on which the important discussions needed to addressing a resurgent interest in eugenics. Those groups who have been overtly targeted for eugenics segregation, exclusion, sterilization, institutionalization by modernist management norms will be first and foremost at the center of the work ahead. Through a citizen’s assembly we aim to explore how we empower and learn from the voice of those targeted by eugenics.

The core Bloomsbury programme will be held over four weeks from mid-August to mid-September 2021, with numerous other public engagement events held around this. This programme will cast a broad net of exploration across many sources where eugenics is explicitly or implicitly prevalent today, in order to address that underlying eugenics' philosophy that connects them all. It will also include a diversity of voices, including academics, geneticists, community leaders, activists, curators, journalists, practitioners, artists, educators, etc, with intended representation from a vast array of communities, The events will seek to emphasize diverse groups and areas of expertise that eugenics continues to impact and the shared concerns and insights on its continuing repercussions today.

 

Proposed programme...

In four sessions, the programme will use the structure of the 1921 Congress and transform it into a 21st century oppositional and transformative position. In 1921, four themes organised meeting content:

- Human and Comparative Heredity

- Eugenics, and family

- Human racial diversity

- Eugenics and the State

Through dialogue between communities groups and academics, we aim for workshops and engagement activities such as “hot topic” debates, exhibits, panel discussions, etc, and we plan to apply current historical and human sciences to move audiences through critique (why were the positions taken in 1921 wrong, wrong-headed, biased, etc.) to transformative thinking (what underlying issues were identified as concerns and how might they be re-interpreted and engaged in the present). Each theme will have a principal organiser. Planning will include contingencies for physical distancing. Concluding the programme there will be a Citizen’s Assembly event devoted to looking at addressing eugenics.

The second congress also devoted considerable time in its 'Business Session' in laying the foundations for the internationally influential American Eugenics Society. Here amongst other agreements was that Scientific papers from the Congress be disseminated universally, including in all colleges and higher education institutions. Perhaps what has been so sustainable over the past century or so about eugenic ideas, was that as well as speaking to and exploiting predispositions of prejudice and fear-of-others long ingrained into society, eugenics was not just a scientific endeavour but simultaneously an extensive political/Public Relations effort to sell this idea and make sure it was widely spread. A needed discussion then will be if this was the case, how can an anti-eugenics argument be now mounted locally and internationally to duplicate this extensive political/PR effort and erase the harm that has been done? For any informed understanding of how we are going to achieve this, discussion should be devoted to why was Eugenics was so effective in getting itself into mainstream culture here and abroad, and how is it that these ideas (despite the world being vastly different to 2021) continue to appeal to so many people?

 

This Citizen’s Assembly event will therefore be devoted to looking ahead and building a platform for addressing and undoing locally and internationally the legacies of eugenics. Community representatives will be invited to engage in the programme through five working groups, including posing questions for the panel discussion, and then in breakout working group sessions, to lead discussions and formulate key aims and goals for addressing the legacies of eugenics today and tmw. Ultimately the aim of the conference will be to create a shared statement of intent moving forward. Congress chapter events will consist of a presentation from a distinguished talker. This will be followed by introductory statements from panellists. Then the attendees will split into five groups lead by student community representatives (representing Disability, Race, Religion, LGBT+, Women), to discuss these themes within the context and perspective of their particular group, and formulate questions to ask panellists. There would then be a panel which is led by these questions from attendees.

Event 1 – Human racial diversity

Indicative topics for this theme includes:

Confronting racial and racist biology: embracing human difference

Genetics of human migrations and diasporas

Genetic and ethnic diversity across the UK: bursting socio-cultural bubbles about uniformity

No, “everyone” did not think that way back then – confronting our imagined past of normative behaviour

If “race” isn’t a real biological category, then how come we use it so much? Alternatives?

“White rules don’t apply here” – race, ethnic categories used outside Europe

Will we get swamped? population models we assume are correct and why they are wrong

 

Event 2 - Eugenics and the State

Indicative topics for this theme includes:

Sterilization as punishment around the world (e.g., reports of US sterilizations in ICE facilities)

Eugenics as the mythical magic bullet

Nativism and anti-immigration

Engineering a nation’s efficiency

Licencing marriage

Thinking cheap: eugenics and the argument for cost-savings

Less “them” more “us”: Where does UK/EU attempt to control human population growth?

Eugenics in the law

Eugenics in UK regulations

Eugenics in the NHS

Links between eugenics, anthropology and Britain’s colonial project

Eugenics and the welfare state

Event 3 - Eugenics, genetics and family

Indicative topics for this theme includes:

Eugenics as regulating “mother work”

Family pressures with eugenics importance: “why don’t you marry a nice [character] [person]?”

Pop eugenics (e.g., social Mendelism; “In the Blood”; “skips a generation”; “runs in families”; “what will their children be like”)

Your obsession with “normal” is killing me. [This is something I heard from a person in the Down’s Syndrome Association – great line].

Beware the middle-class activists

Eugenics within faith communities

Event 4 - Human and Comparative Heredity

Indicative topics for this theme includes:

Folk heredity – “can I really have my mother’s ears”

Epigenetics and myths about hard inheritance: it’s not all in the genes

Qualities we seem determined to “fix” or “cure” or “delete” or “fight” - selling prenatal diagnosis

Stop asking if there’s a “gene for” that thing. Changing languages around nature and nurture

Why did we think tuberculosis was inherited?

Event 5 – Addressing Eugenics Citizen’s Assembly

The ultimate aim of this project is to generate a clearer, informed collective statement of how to understand and address continuing and resurgent aspects of eugenics in the 21st century. This will be part of a final capstone roundtable discussion bringing to the table a summary of the discussions from the previous breakout group discussions, and generating a shared statement of intent and next steps.

 

Audiences will be split up into different breakout sessions, with each group representing a different protected characteristic. Led by a student community representative and scholar in the field, the group will then collectively explore a particular theme in depth and find a shared set of values or resolutions into addressing the legacy of eugenics in this particular subject matter moving forward.

Capstone roundtable discussion and shared statement of intent…

 

The representative leading these different discussions will then come together for a final roundtable discussion, using their statements as framing the discussion. Each representative in turn will share in turn what has been discussed and agreed upon, followed by a discussion. The actions/aims/resolutions will then be brought together and a shared statement of intent published and shared with all participants.

 

Other events...

‘We Are Not Alone’ Exhibition

As with a century ago this central gathering will then serve as a focal point around which multiple other public engagement events can take place. As well as the 'We Are Not Alone' exhibition spearheaded by Marius Turda to be hosted by the Wiener Library, there is scope for eugenics artefacts showings, Bloomsbury walking tours, play readings, screenings, publications, etc.

Also potentially at the Institute for Education there will be a discussion preceding the conference looking at how we go about addressing the legacy of eugenics in education, put together by the Eugenic Legacies Transnational Education Working Group.

These events will hopefully also serve as a catalyst for future engagement events around addressing these issues in London, which can also be incorporated into the statement of intent, and it is worth emphasising that there are already ongoing discussions around this.

Participants of the Bloomsbury Eugenics Congress Centennial Steering Group…

Benedict Ipgrave (Birkbeck), Nora Groce (UCL), Caroline Bressey (UCL), David Feldman (Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism), Debbie Challis (LSE), Fay Brauer (UEL), Indy Bhullar (LSE), Joe Cain (UCL), Louise Lyle (ULIP), Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes), Mark Pimm (Birkbeck), Roddy Slorach (Imperial College), Saskia Baron, Subhadra Das (UCL), Tom Haward (Institute for Education)

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