Many ways to do the right thing.

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I have said in many earlier posts that the world needs all kinds of people in it. I quoted my friend, who said that training her to be like everyone else would be training her to be a true misfit: She already has a place in society, and she benefits from learning how to most effectively use that place. Dave Hingsburger has written that the most important thing in life is finding who God wants you to be, and trying your best to be that person (I know not everyone reading my blog is religious, but I think even non-religious people can understand the idea).

I am reading a book called Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire by Anne Norton. It’s a very interesting book. I read it after a friend read a book by a Straussian, drastically changed her outlook on life, and started attending a school with a curriculum that comes highly recommended by Straussians. (The book I am reading draws a clear distinction between Strauss and Straussians. The author was taught by many Straussians, but is not one herself. She is trying to chronicle their origins, their beliefs, and their influence on American politics.)

In one part, she describes the Straussian aversion to postmodernism. I have an aversion of my own to much of postmodernism (and I actually regard Straussian philosophy as highly related to it), and to the forms of moral relativism that say for instance that if something is done in some culture then it’s okay (there are many things taken for granted in my culture that I think are absolutely wrong), but I agree with what Norton says in the following passage:

Derrida’s reading also suggests, more disturbingly, that the fulfillment of one set of responsibilities may demand the sacrifice of others. If doing one duty requires us to neglect other duties, if cultivating one virtue requires the sacrifice of others, then an all-encompassing perfection is beyond us. Each of us will be dependent on others to repair the duties we neglected. Each of us may someday be faced with someone who cultivated a virtue we sacrificed. I think that is something most of us are all too ready to acknowledge. Perhaps the danger lies in what follows. If this is true, if we do, if we must, sacrifice some virtues in cultivating others, then we must acknowledge that there is more than one good and honorable life. Some call this “moral relativism,” and it makes them angry. I call it a simple recognition of the limits of a human life, and I take some comfort in knowing that the duties I could not fulfill and the virtues I had to sacrifice will show themselves in others, where I can depend on and admire them.

My own belief is that if everyone were the same, society would cease to function. We need generalists of various kinds, and specialists of various kinds, and all kinds of brains and bodies and minds, in order for society to work. And I do take comfort in knowing that there are people who can do things I can’t, who are good at things I am not, who are doing those things.

My friend (after reading Allan Bloom) told me at one point that she had to divorce herself from the autistic liberation movement, because some of the ideas were too hooked up with postmodernism, in a bad way, and she could see what postmodernism was doing to society, and it was dangerous.

I remember holding a conversation once with someone in the medical profession, online. I was saying how most people who are born with no arms are better at using their legs, than using clumsy and uncomfortable prosthetics. But how the medical profession often forced them on such people anyway.

The doctor became very angry with me. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was a dangerous moral relativist postmodernist something or other, and that these ideas would ruin the practice of medicine. He told me that at least if you gave people prosthetic arms you were giving them a chance, and who would withhold that chance from a child. He didn’t seem to think that, even after the child got old enough to say something, the child should have any choice in the matter. It was sick, to him, to want to use your dextrous feet instead of clumsy fake arms.

I have a videotape called Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back. It includes clips from a performance by Mary Duffy. Mary Duffy is a performance artist who is, conventionally, stunningly beautiful. And she has no arms. She poses as the Venus de Milo, naked, in one of her performances, and says to the audience:

You have words to describe me that I find frightening. Everytime I hear them they are whispered or screamed silently wordlessly from the front to middle-page spreads of newspapers. Only you dare to speak them out loud. I look for them in my dictionary and I only find some. The words you use to describe me are “congenital malformation.” In my child’s dictionary I learn that the first part means “born with”. How many times have I answered that question? “Were you born like that? Or did your mother take them dreadful tablets?” How come I always felt ashamed when answering those big staring eyes and gaping mouths? “Did you have an accident? Or did your mother take them dreadful tablets?” With those big words those doctors used, they didn’t have any that fitted me properly. I felt even in the face of such opposition that my body was the way it was supposed to be, that it was right for me, as well as being whole, complete, and functional.

In an interview, she describes her experiences with the medical profession as a child:

…I felt I’d been objectified by the medical profession in general, and I wasn’t able to talk back. And particularly about how they made decisions and comments about my future as if I wasn’t there. And speaking to a dictaphone and describing my future as if I was incapable of comprehending.

Then she concludes with:

Today I’m winning battles every day against my own monster, my inner critic, who has internalized all my childhood oppressions. The oppression of constantly trying to be fixed, to be changed, to be made more whole, less visible, to hide and to be hidden.

The idea that Duffy is whole, without arms, and does not need fake arms, does not need to be changed into someone who appears more normal (even if functionally it’s all wrong), was threatening to the doctor I spoke to. He was angry at me. Very angry. Disproportionately angry. My ideas were, he thought, tied into a whole philosophy. A philosophy I actually don’t buy into. But he couldn’t see these ideas as part of a different view of the world than the one he was attacking.

Anne Norton talks about how there are many ways to be good and honorable. I think that some people mistake that idea, with the idea that there is no way not to be good and honorable, that everything everyone does is right. But that’s not what she was saying. She wasn’t saying “Everything everyone does is right.” She was saying “There’s more than one way to do the right thing.”

People make a similar mistake when autistic people, or disabled people in general, argue that there’s nothing wrong with the way we are made, that everyone is valuable, regardless of disability, that the ways disabled people do things are different and it is right for us to do them in this different way.

They think that we are saying, “Disabled people are exempt from the process of growth that all humans go through.” And they deride us for it.

They are wrong.

The world is not a set of clashing philosophies, and the world does not need to be reconciled to a philosophy. Trying to do so, will leave out important parts of the world. The real world is not a fight between postmodernists and modernists, that stuff all seems to me to be a clash of words in the air, and I always feel like I’m left sitting on the ground wondering why all the words high in the air are seen as more important than what is right in front of me.

What we are saying, is that disabled people have a place in the world, and that our place in the world, and how we fulfill it, how we move, how we think, is going to be differently shaped in some ways than other people’s places in the world. There is more than one way to be. It does not mean that all ways are correct.

When I write things, it is easy to take what I say as “All ways are correct,” sometimes. I never mean that. I never mean that if a parent chooses to enroll their child in the Judge Rotenberg Center, I will ever agree with that decision, because I won’t.

I never mean that autistic people, or any people, should be neglected and left totally alone forever.

But I find it very interesting that people think I mean that.

People are very adept at raising non-autistic children without trying to force them into autistic ways of operating. But most are stunningly bad at raising autistic children without trying to force them into non-autistic ways of operating. So they interpret “Don’t make someone non-autistic” as “Don’t raise someone, just ignore them.” They literally don’t know how to raise an autistic person as an autistic person, so they assume that raising an autistic person as an autistic person is not raising them at all.

I read an article recently that condemned “postmodern” practices in special education, right alongside its condemnation of Nazi eugenics policies. (It also condemned facilitated communication. I really liked the article, which was about the genocide of disabled people, until it went down that road.) I looked up the references and “postmodern” practices apparently include believing that society has to change in order to include disabled people, which is equated with not teaching disabled people anything about the world.

This puzzles me. Does the addition of ramps to buildings mean that people don’t learn how to move their wheelchairs? It’s illogical to equate the two so rapidly, but people seem to do so. People regard acceptance of autistic people similarly: “Oh no. We can’t have people flapping their hands in public. What would happen next, not teaching them anything at all?”

I’ve used the analogy of trees before. Ever try to get an oak to look like a counterfeit redwood? It injures the oak, prevents the oak from growing the way oaks are supposed to grow, and doesn’t look a thing like a redwood. What if we had a whole viewpoint that only redwood-like growth was growth and all other growth was really just stagnation? There need to be lots of kinds of trees, and there need to be lots of kinds of people, it’s that simple.

I don’t know, though, how to enter words properly into some of the more ridiculous-seeming debates that go on, debates that are clashes of words, clashes of professional egos, clashes of a lot of things. There’s something going on underneath all these words, there’s a way things should be, that can’t be articulated in words, ever.

But there are many ways to do the right thing, many bodies and minds that are the right way to be, and this is not nonsense or moral relativism or any of that other crap, it’s just how things are. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t wrong ways to do things, it just means that there’s not only one right way.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

4 responses »

  1. Very nicely put, but I still don’t know how to get through to someone who thinks xe equates human value with the amount of money the person generates (“thinks” because people tend to make all sorts of exceptions, but refuse to generalise from them).

  2. I still don’t know either.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who was convinced that “contributing to society” meant “making money through paid employment”, period, end of story.

    Actually I have a lot of conversations with people who think that, or, as you say, think they think that.

    This person referred to people like me, as sitting around feeling good about ourselves without actually doing anything to earn our money, or something like that.

    I remember thinking their description sounded an awful lot like some (certainly not all) rich people I’ve known — thinking they’re better than other people without having actually done anything to earn that money. But somehow they’re okay, and people on government assistance are not.

  3. I once knew a woman who had been born with six fingers on one of her hands. The extra finger was surgically removed soon after birth. Apparently this is common practice and is done for no other reason than to make a child fit in better with his or her peers.

    Social conformity really frightens me when it extends to such things as cutting perfectly healthy fingers off newborn babies, just so that they will all look alike.

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