"Don't Be a Knucklehead": Moralizing Disability in New Jersey's Pandemic Response and Rhetoric

Emily Brooks


Policy failures impacted, sickened, and killed disabled New Jerseyans from the beginning of New Jersey's reign as an epicenter in the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a qualitative content analysis of Governor Phil Murphy's coronavirus press briefings, I argue that New Jersey's public health messaging relies on ableist and eugenicist conceptions of intelligence through both an insistence on individual "smartness" to combat the pandemic and a shaming of individual actions which are rhetorically connected to "stupidity." The official state government messages reflect a moralizing, individualizing focus on behavior and shaming of "unintelligent" actions, which shifts attention from leadership and statewide policies to personal responsibility for safety during a public health crisis. In this way, the State of New Jersey abdicates responsibility for illness and death, no matter the personal cost to marginalized populations.


COVID-19 pandemic; moral model of disability; intellectual disability; public health communications; qualitative content analysis

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v41i3.8398

Copyright (c) 2021 Emily Brooks

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