Daily Archives: January 11, 2007

Politics, Ethics, and Mental Widgets


This topic came up during the last Autistic Liberation Front meeting. We were discussing the connection of autistic people to the rest of the world, and Laura Tisoncik made a comment — can’t remember quite what — that reduced a lot of the ethical choices we were talking about making, being a choice between love and disconnection. And how there were all kinds of fancy ideologies people could get into and so forth, but this still seemed like a better way to sum things up.

I have a confession to make that might startle some people: I’m not capable of holding a complex ideology — what I call a set of abstract mental widgets all connected to each other in the sky — in my head. If I try, it falls apart rapidly. I can’t sustain it, I can’t even fully build it, and I certainly can’t believe in it. I used to try, because I thought that it was a measure of my stupidity or something that I couldn’t. And my brain turned to mush every time and I got really frustrated and miserable. I’ve since learned that that’s simply not my strong point and there’s no way on earth I could do it and would be better off putting my cognitive resources somewhere more useful.

This is not easy in a world that mostly equates politics and ethics with vast, overarching ideologies, all neatly connected like a giant sculpture in the sky, and no piece possible to be moved because it would bring the rest of the structure down on top of it. Of course, this is also a world that also equates politics with greed, anger, and corruption, and in which many people who do engage in politics all the time (trying to understand various power structures and social systems and how to do something about the bad parts) actually deny that they are political at all because they view politics as something ugly and dirty, something about politicians, rather than about everyday people. So they do politics all the time while denying it to their last breath.

My versions of politics and ethics have to do with taking some really basic, simple values — such as love rather than disconnection — and applying them to situations that I encounter in the real world. The strange thing is, this tends to yield what look like views a lot more complex than you’ll generally see coming out of a complicated string of mental widgets. That’s because of the “real world” part of it — the real world is actually more complicated than any mental widget could ever be, and applying a simple principle or two to the real world yields results a lot more complex-looking (when taken as a whole) than erasing the real world in favor of a complicated (but not as complicated as the real world) mental widget.

But given the circles I tend to run in, I seem to bash into complicated, rigidly-held, abstract mental widgets all the time.

There are people afraid to condemn the Ashley Treatment because it throws some of their “feminist” mental widgets out of whack. Some people have argued that seeing Ashley as a human being is dangerous because of this thing called “abortion rights” which has to have all kinds of arguments behind it (including the inhumanity of human fetuses by virtue of cognitive ability, which has always struck me as one of the stupidest arguments for abortion in the known universe, but anyway) and if we see someone severely cognitively disabled as having personhood then oh my goodness we might have to rethink our definition of humanity and rights and the whole world (or at least Feminism As We Know It) will fall apart. That it’s really only their ideology (not the whole ethical world) that’s likely to fall down under its own weight doesn’t seem to occur to people, and they do this damage control of their mental widgets so they can keep them all neat and lined up and orderly and safe while other people suffer and die as a result. (And people think that I’m the one who’s screwed up for lining up blocks.)

(My favorite posts I’ve seen about Ashley so far, by the way, are all by someone named Thirza, who wrote Growing Up with Sky, Oh Now I’m Really Mad!, and I Am Not Responsible for Your Discomfort. Zilari has also written Ashley X: What People Aren’t Getting which sums a lot of things up.)

The reason I can come up with so many things to say on so many issues, is not because I have a beautiful bunch of mental widgets lined up in my head with all the proper ideas on sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and every other ism out there, lined up neatly and gracefully, preferably in line with a particular overarching academic ideology where you memorize which bits of privilege are which and plug and play and mix and match. I’ve certainly read more than my fair share of “theory” coming from that angle (on more than my fair share of topics), but it’s just not where my head goes when I’m looking at a situation. I just take the situation and try to figure out what’s true within that situation, and write about that.

That method seems a lot easier to me. I don’t have to hold a bunch of things in my head that are not happening in front of me. I don’t have to memorize tons of arcane ideas about how the world works off in word-abstraction-land. I just have to take a look at what’s going on, maybe cross-reference it to various forms of “what has gone on,” or “what is going on elsewhere,” and that tells me most of what I need to know. My head doesn’t have to hold the whole world because the whole world already exists just fine on its own without my head around to make sense of it. It seems, though, that for some people it’s either easier or preferred (it’s hard to tell which) to memorize all the proper mental widgets, and to violently force the world (or at least make a serious attempt) to bend to the shape of the widgets.

This doesn’t mean that people who apply mental widgets this way always get things wrong, or that I and others like me always get things right, or that I always disagree with people who use mental widgets (whether both of us are right or both wrong). We’re all fallible human beings, and sometimes mental widgets can provide a shortcut to the right answer. But overall the mental-widget approach to ethics and politics strikes me as far more violent, hateful, impractical, disconnected, and damaging, even if it’s also aesthetically pretty from a certain standpoint and fits very well into academia.

So, I am political because wrong, evil things happen in the world and I find that the only right thing I can do is insert myself in the right spot to do whatever I can about them. Because politics as far as I’m concerned is about doing what needs to be done about the misuse of power and its effects on people’s lives, not about a specific set of mental widgets or a political party or campaigning or something. I may do what other people call analysis, but I do it by throwing a few really basic ethical principles at a wide and interesting world, not by memorizing bunches of mental widgets and lining them up in the right places. I can be totally lost by people’s tall nets of abstractions built in the sky, and that may make some people think I’m stupid or incapable of “real” political thought, but I think I do just fine closer to the ground, and that from closer to the ground I may even be better equipped to dismantle a lot of the ideas-in-the-sky — such as mental age, to pick a recent example — that seem to trip a lot of others up in their neverending throwing of one set of mental widgets at another to see which one topples first.

I wrote the following a long time ago about this topic, but it still applies:

In towers tall they shout across
Impressions of the ground below
In folly but in certainty
The more they yell the more they know

I tried to build a tower once
I lost myself in winding stairs
That clattered down on top of me
My building skills not up to theirs

I tried to build so many more
They toppled faster with each try
The more I tried to work it out
The more my plans would go awry

And now my feet are on the ground
I feel and smell and see the earth
And now that it’s in front of me
I know what all those words were worth

Basically, I just can’t get all interested in whether this-ism clashes with that-ism or whether under the-other-ism it’s possible to believe such-and-such or whether you need to meld the-other-ism with yet-another-ism to come up with a belief system that can encompass whatever situation is being discussed. While I’m clearly capable of using my brain, there’s one particular kind of intellectual analysis that’s totally beyond me and that seems to set me apart from most people I’ve known who are considered academically brilliant. And that is the one that gives people lots of shiny widgets to bat around in their heads. It’s not just a matter of distaste, it’s a matter of incompatibility with my brain structure or something.

In the end, it’s also the mental-widget approach to politics that convinces a lot of people that they are too simple, dumb, or outright too ethical, to be political, even as they do things that are incredibly important politically. It’s not that intellectual sophistication never has any place in politics, but it’s not a prerequisite for being political, either, and does not have to be used to create ridiculous amounts of rigid mental widgets where anyone who can’t memorize and use them is automatically an Inferior Creature of some kind or someone who will never be able to do anything of importance ethically or politically. (Although the existence of this bias seems like a wonderful example of cognitive ableism in trendy political circles.)