I wrote most of this post a few days ago, but was really tired when I wrote it so I wanted to make sure I’d written something decent on the topic before I sent it out. I apologize for getting this out later than intended and therefore possibly prolonging something.
I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my “mental age” post acting like I’m accusing people of being something called bad parents or bad people. It’s interesting. I’ve seen a couple different bloggers recently complain about generalized things, and get castigated for not bringing up specific instances. I brought up specific instances of the usage of certain concepts I believe to be really harmful to people (in the real-life sense, not the hurt-feelings sense) and instead I’m being treated as if I’ve got something against a particular person, even been accused of attacking, bullying, etc.
Here’s my worldview on this sort of thing:
I don’t think there’s good guys and bad guys in the world. I think humanity is an interesting mix of good and bad and everything in between. I think every one of us does things right and every one of us does things wrong, some more than others in either direction, most of us a whole lot of both.
I do suspect there are people who see the world as good guys and bad guys. That worldview would be more likely to make a person panic when someone doesn’t like what they’re doing, thinking, or feeling. “Oh no, that person’s saying I’m a Bad Guy.”
No, that person’s saying you’re human. Being human doesn’t let you off the hook for doing something wrong. But doing something wrong doesn’t negate everything good you’ve ever done. And it’s important not to get your sense of self-worth all tied up in whether you’re doing good things, because that actually makes it harder to do the right thing. Because it makes you want to think you’re doing the right thing even when you’re not, so that you can keep up the belief you’re a good person. And when you want to think you’re doing the right thing even when you’re not, it’s easier to just go into denial when you screw up.
Not that I’m the ultimate arbiter of what’s right and wrong obviously. But I do mention when I see something I don’t think is right. The reason is that I’ve learned a lot when people mention stuff to me. I don’t always agree with them. Sometimes I very much don’t agree with them. Sometimes I disagree with them and later come to agree with them. Sometimes I can see their point right away. Someone on the comment thread seemed to have me pegged as someone who sees the whole world as my enemy, and I can pretty safely dismiss that one as someone who doesn’t know me.
But when someone yelled at me emphatically that I shouldn’t talk about my older brother like he wasn’t my older brother… I listened, and I learned, and I changed. If nobody said that I’d still be saying it. I was taught growing up explicitly that he wasn’t necessarily “older” than me, that he’d stopped maturing at the age of fifteen or so. This wasn’t true. It wasn’t real. But it’s a commonplace belief about certain kinds of people. And the people who taught me that belief learned it from someone else. And I learned it from them. And others doubtless learned it from me until I learned to stop saying things like that. But I didn’t learn it from having everyone “validate” my feelings about being the sibling of someone with a disability. I learned it from hearing the uncomfortable truth about what those views really mean.
I’ve noticed that most of us who talk about certain things like this being wrong, come from a position like mine: We know that everyone is prone to this stuff, we know that framing it in terms of good person/bad person, good parent/bad parent, isn’t useful. We know that we are susceptible to it as much as anyone. We know that it doesn’t make us “bad guys”. We know that even the defensiveness around it is something anyone can get prone to, depending on circumstances, and we know we’re not perfect either and never going to be, but we don’t think being imperfect in this regard means you stop trying or use the general fact of human imperfection as an excuse.
I mean… if I praise what someone has done, does that mean I like everything they’ve ever done? No. I have friends and allies online and offline that I disagree vigorously with on a number of important issues. A lot of the time we even talk about that stuff. And somehow it’s okay. Somehow when we do it it’s somehow known that this isn’t personal hostility going on.
I do, by the way, understand the motivation of wanting to validate the feelings of other parents. I don’t happen to think it’s worth the cost to people with disabilities (and particularly people with developmental disabilities, and more particularly people with — or assumed to have — intellectual disabilities, who bear the absolute worst brunt of these attitudes). The cost in actual impact on our lives of having these views spread around like this as if it’s normal to think these things about us. I also think there are ways to discuss this that say “Yeah this is normal, but it’s because we learned it somewhere, and this is a bad thing to have learned, and here’s why.”
In this case it’s not a matter of not understanding that some people want their feelings validated, it’s a matter of not agreeing that this is a good priority when there are other things that take priority first like the impact on people with developmental disabilities in general. Would I rather validate the feelings of parents who might feel really alone in thinking certain thoughts about their children? Or would I rather make sure that adults I know (and in some cases, am) who struggle to get taken seriously as workers, voters, sexual beings, people who can live on their own if they want, and adults in general, actually get taken seriously in that regard? It’s an easy choice to me.
It’s not that I don’t understand the feelings exist, or that people want their feelings validated. It’s that I think there are more important things in life than validating feelings that arise from harmful prejudice that directly impacts the lives of an entire group of people. And that in fact I find the whole goal of validating feelings that arise from harmful prejudices ethically questionable at best. There are plenty of better ways to discuss them, such as “How did we come to feel this way? What taught us these things? How might these things harm the people they’re directed at? Are these ideas really as innocent as they look?” And again I’m not exempt from that process of questioning.
But it’s hard to even have a discussion of this sort of thing, when at the slightest hint of saying that someone’s doing something I happen to think is wrong, then they’ll go “Oh no you’re calling me a Bad Guy” or something. Compounded by the fact that when it’s an autistic person and the other person involved happens to be a parent, you’ll hear “You’ve never been a parent” (even if you are a parent) and “You’re attacking parents!” or “You’re calling us bad parents!” (even if you’re not).
It’s also hard to have a discussion when there’s various unwritten rules of etiquette that can be invoked no matter what you do. If you post broadly and anonymously, you can be told you’re not producing sources to back up your claims, and that people don’t need to listen to you because of that. If you post specific examples, people can tell you you’re attacking a person, and a specific one at that. If you post publicly, you can be told you should’ve taken it to private email, and it’s again assumed that you only need to say this to one person. If you post privately, you can be told you’re being invasive. If people don’t listen to you, people can blame everything from your writing style to your presumed emotions about or motivations for the whole thing. And the whole thing can always be taken back to being about insults and personal feelings, on a level playing field, even when it’s about issues that affect some people more than others, on a direct and sometimes survival-based level, on a very topsy-turvy playing field indeed.
But bottom line: There’s no good guys or bad guys in my view of the world. It just doesn’t divide up that way. I don’t hold anyone exempt from the idea of doing things right, or doing things wrong, and I don’t see doing things wrong as meaning someone’s something called a “bad person,” or someone doing things right as meaning someone’s something called a “good person”. These are not useful concepts when dealing with me on these issues. There’s also, with regards to prejudices, no such thing as “the sort of person who wouldn’t do that”, and calling someone “the sort of person who would do that” (which is generally seen as some kind of ultimate insult) is another way of calling someone human. Anyone who thinks I’m calling people bad guys or the enemy for this, should probably look to their own views of what bad guys, good guys, and enemies mean.