The “right” to freedom from disagreement.


While I was approving comments today (and marking half the comments I got as spam, ugh) I came across a comment on one of my older entries, Suicide and Autism Severity. The commenter said that the person I was disagreeing with in that entry has done a lot for our community, and that the amount of people who see that person as an “easy target” therefore demonstrates an ingrained fear of success and were the “angrier” autistics.

I’ve already covered the way people mischaracterize me as “angry” as if it’s a personality trait, in a post called On the “angry” nature of my writing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever covered this interesting phenomenon whereby your contributions (real or imaginary) to a community are supposed to make you immune to disagreement.

I’m going to quote from Jane Meyerding’s excellent “snippet” called Discourse (I encourage people to follow that link and read the whole thing, it’s a really important statement):

I see this as part of the “psychologizing” of the culture. In the U.S., it used to be accepted as part of the democractic process — a necessary part of that process — for people to have and to discuss a variety of opinions/perspectives on any given topic. But now, psychology has replaced civil/political culture to such an extent that the primary objective is “do not hurt anybody’s feelings.” And if you express an opinion, you are seen as “putting down” (and thereby hurting the feelings of) anybody who does not agree with you.

The assumption seems to be that people are so fragile (in psychic terms) that they will be damaged by having their feelings hurt — and that their feelings will be hurt by contact with anything that does not “validate” them in every way.

I’ve never found anyone I totally agree with, nor anyone I totally disagree with. Given the complexity of human beings, this makes sense. To me, most people occupy some continuum of agreement and disagreement on various specific issues. Moreover, if I disagree with you on one thing, and I also disagree with you on another thing, that does not mean that the two points of disagreement are connected to each other.

I have, however, been told, in reference to many different people, “Please stop saying these things. [Insert name here] has contributed so much to our community. I don’t think it’s fair of you to disagree with things they have written or done. [Although “disagree with things they have written or done” is often replaced by “attack them”, as if disagreement is attack.] Look how much they have contributed.”

I don’t get this. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. If people are not able to voice disagreement, whether correct or incorrect, then how on earth are the mistakes going to get questioned? If all disagreement suddenly becomes an attack on the person, and people who have “contributed a lot” (in some people’s minds, since the value of various contributions can be perceived very differently depending on who is involved) are conferred some kind of immunity to disagreement, then what exactly is going to happen?

Several years ago, I wrote an article about autism “experts”. The article stimulated debate in an autism forum. Some people agreed with it, and some people didn’t. Moreover, some people’s points of “agreement” seemed more valid than others, as well as some people’s points of “disagreement”. But I was glad that it was getting people to talk about those things. That was my goal as a writer at the time, and I considered it a compliment that they were taking me seriously enough to talk about these things in a forum where I only lurked, not posted.

Then, it happened. Someone invoked, not my “contributions” to the community, but my “fragility”. They said I’d put up with enough from the NT world and that I didn’t need people “attacking” me like this.

That was the first response I took offense to. They were effectively saying that I should not be taken seriously as a writer. That it was enough that I wrote, and people should either agree with me or shut up. That seemed very wrong, and still does.

M.J. Carley said that most “low functioning” autistics are not self-aware enough to consider suicide. I believe him to be wrong. I stated my reasons why. This is not considering him, the person, an easy target.

The only way in which this could be conceivably argued is something like, “I was on the GRASP website looking to see if a particular copyrighted article from had been removed yet. It hadn’t. Then in the same section I saw these new articles, so I decided to read them, and then I came across this statement, and responded to it.” And I have to say, that’s really stretching things. The fact that I have ongoing copyright problems with GRASP and the fact that I disagreed with a statement are not related except in the sense of how I first came by the statement. If I’d come by the same statement, made by any other person, I would have responded the exact same way.

(By the way, if any GRASP people are reading this, seriously, linking to articles is fine, copying them wholesale without permission is not fine, and this goes for anybody’s articles, not just mine — I’m talking about in particular the “Theory of Mind” article from One of the authors is working under a pseudonym, and two including that one have not been involved much (one not at all) in the autistic community during the time when you put up the site. You need permission from all the authors to copy it. Also, last time I checked my own articles that you’d copied are not linked, but are still available on the site and hence through search engines. I’m fine, as I said, with you linking to those articles on, but I would prefer if you did not keep copies on your website, even without linking.)

I can see how it’s easy to see all disagreement with a person’s views, as “targeting” that person, and as somehow related. It’s just not true, though. I once ran into someone who viewed disagreement, or even questions that might indicate disagreement, as hostility. I tried to find out why, and she said that she’d experienced a lot of hostility that week, therefore my disagreement and my questions (which were mainly on the order of “Uh… what did I do wrong??”) were also hostility.

This attitude when held by or about someone with power seemed, and still seems, dangerous to me. When Larry Arnold disagrees with Michelle Dawson on whether there’s a difference between autism and Asperger’s, it’s simply not the same thing as when Lenny Schafer (who agrees with Michelle Dawson that there’s a difference, but disagrees on what the difference is) launches an all-out smear campaign on Michelle Dawson that has nothing to do with her views or actions and everything to do with proving she’s not really autistic.

It would be wrong for me to tell Larry, “Look at all Michelle has done for our community. I think you and Lenny Schafer are just angry people looking for an easy target.”

And it’s wrong (both inaccurate and questionably ethical) to tell me the same for disagreeing on a point of opinion with Carley. Nobody has a right to freedom from disagreement.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

12 responses »

  1. Yeah. I don’t get it, either.

    If I post my writing on the Internet, I expect some disagreement. That’s just the

    That’s just the nature of the beast.

    (BTW, there’s a problem with the word wrap in your comment box.)

  2. What browser/version are you using to access the site? I don’t seem to encounter any problems with word wrap in Firefox, but I may be able to find a fix or something for the word wrap problem for other browsers.

  3. At the community I run, if I had a nickel for every time ….

    * We have a lively discussion going on with people giving all their different views, and all of a sudden someone puts the brakes on and starts calling the discussion a flamewar.

    * We’ve had a couple of policy discussions, people asking that a certain policy be changed, other people write in saying “I don’t think that’s necessary,” or asking her why she thinks it is, original poster deletes her post and all responses citing “attacking and flaming” — when there wasn’t any.

    * On another community (I didn’t see this personally), they were just getting started. A member stated her opinion about the way they should handle something routine… archive the posts or something. She was attacked and flamed — for having an opinion. Matter of fact, when she apologized for having an opinion, the woman running that community thanked her for her apology.

    * There is something postmodernist about this, as well as, as you say, psychologized. My spouse reports that in school, especially high school, she was repeatedly scolded for expressing opinions or having preferences. She stopped communicating or making choices altogether where others could see it, because she had been scolded or mocked for her choices by the teachers. She couldn’t turn in, say, a book report, because anything she said about the book would be marked “wrong”. She was told that she was incapable of forming opinions due to her age and limited experience.

    She and her brother are both autistic. As the identified patient in the family, he was sent to a “special” school for so-called emotionally disturbed children and reports that he was treated the same way — opinions were forbidden because you cannot know what another person’s experience is.

    That’s what postmodernism is, that’s been an attitude that’s a boon to cultural anthropology because it dispenses with the eurocentric, imperialist attitude that led to all those studies on the “primitive savages”. Let us tell you our truth is an important phrase to me and mine. But when it’s used against children like this, you end up losing the dialectic. How can people resolve differences and come to common ground if they can’t reason together?

  4. Postscript. On the way to school I discussed this for a few minutes with my spouse. She reminded me about the other thing that happens; when there is a lot of disagreement and contrasting opinions, someone will say “Stop the drama”.

    In fact, in the community I run, when someone posts a legitimate question about how do other people handle this or that problem, they will often apologize for “creating a drama”.

    So, anything that might be negative or possibly make someone feel badly is “drama”; any indication that everything in your life isn’t tickety-boo is “drama”.

    So people start self-censoring to avoid the accusation, and there goes the dialectic again.

  5. There certainly *is* a problem with the word wrap. The moment I start writing, the box extends in length to beyond the end of the screen!

  6. I always thought “drama” was when it started getting unnecessarily personal and nasty or something. But then, that definition would fit with people who believe that all disagreement is personal and nasty.

  7. The term ‘drama’ seems to be applied off the cuff nowadays, in some communities, to any kind of personal dispute or conflict, but also to any expression of routine life problems, unhappiness, or vulnerability, no matter how valid. The implication seems not only to be that any kind of negativity is undesirable, but that anyone who expresses it is merely trying to get attention from others.

    It *used* to mean what you said– people getting nasty, blowing things out of proportion, and trying to get others to feel sorry for them.

    We have an essay written somewhere about why we don’t like to be involved in activism groups qua groups (as opposed to activism through our own works, on our own terms). The last time we got into an activism group, it ended up producing nothing but badly-worded messages about tolerance, because the people running it could not seem to tell the difference between (or did not believe there was a significant difference between) debating and discussing various aspects of group policy, and flaming/attacking others. Everyone had to agree on every point; no one could express dissent from the ‘party line’ in public places, or endorse ideas and theories that hadn’t been pre-approved by the whole group. If you didn’t ‘understand’ why your POV was wrong and theirs was right, they’d sit you down and subject you to long lectures on why all of their theories applied to you and why you were merely ‘fighting us over technicalities’ or dissenting because you ‘wanted to believe you were too special for any model to fit you.’ (There did get to be kind of a cultlike ambience to it after a while.)

    And if you tried to bring up anything as a point of debate, especially in meetings, you were always accused of ‘fighting’ and ‘disagreeing just for the sake of disagreeing.’ For some reason it was never assumed that any disagreement you had could possibly be for a valid reason– no, it was always because you wanted to be negative. If you raised too many questions, you were blasted for being too negative and told that you shouldn’t try to contribute to the group unless you could say something positive. There was also a rule against ‘fighting in public,’ which in practice worked out to mean debating or questioning any aspect of the group policy, or even questioning others’ non-group-related opinions too much, in any place ‘where other people can see it’ (including Livejournal).

    Meanwhile, the webpage essays and ‘official group statements’ got reworked over and over to remove the remotest traces of controversy or language or position statements that didn’t ’emphasize equality’ enough, until they became practically unreadable, and someone outside the group thought that whoever had written them was ‘probably schizophrenic.’

    The irony is that if this entire strategy was meant to be in aid of not hurting anyone’s feelings, it didn’t work. We lost a few friendships over this incident, as well as our trust in some of the other people involved. There would have been a great deal fewer hurt feelings if people had been allowed to simply express their opinions without having the worst assumed for them merely for disagreeing.

  8. I’d give the world for people to just say “yes” when they meant yes and “no” when they meant “no”.

    I get so damn tired of trying to figure out what they “really” meant to say…Oops, I guess I sound angry…

  9. Julian/ Berke – that’s an interesting post of yours concerning your experiences. There are, of course, a nu,mber of groups that would function in that kind of cult-like totalitarian way. That does not mean of course that all groups function in that way. On ‘party lines’ I would say that having a clear line and making sure everyone follows it in public is actually quite important, at least when there are other forces opposed to us that we have to make our case against, *but* party lines have to be agreed in advance and discussed fully, openly and democratically and, if necessary, voted on. I’m a member of a revolutionary Marxist party (frequently accused of the same kind of cultlike behaviour you describe) and that’s precisely how we do things. Yes, there is a partyine and yes, we have to stick to it, but it’s fully discussed first in our meetings. I have to say, my view is that as an individual you can only get so far. Throughout history, it has been organised movements that have been the biggest galvanisers of change.

    “That’s what postmodernism is, that’s been an attitude that’s a boon to cultural anthropology because it dispenses with the eurocentric, imperialist attitude that led to all those studies on the “primitive savages”. Let us tell you our truth is an important phrase to me and mine.”

    I don’t think postmodernism has been terribly beneficial – it’s replaced solid objective analysis with the idea that there are just different texts and opinions, all of which are equally valid. That means the existence f various forms of injustice can be reduced to just ‘texts’ or ‘interpretations’ and making objective assessments becomes impossible.

  10. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » On “contradictions” and so-called prodigies and so-called savants and prejudice and being a freak on display.

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