March 18, 2013
Another thing that’s happened to me in a debate more than once recently is that somebody tries to belittle me out of the discussion on the grounds that I’m “over-emotional,” and therefore can’t expect to be taken seriously.
It took me a long time to learn that almost whenever someone tells you that you’re being “too emotional,” what they mean is that you are being perfectly appropriately emotional about something that they simply don’t want to have to acknowledge or think about. That being emotional is not a disqualification from argument. Being emotional is human.
Un-emotionality is not the equivalent of having a rational argument, or a reliable indicator that someone does. It is not the same as having a grasp of facts or science or of the actual conditions under discussion.
Emotionality is not personal attack. Personal attack is personal attack, and while there is such a thing as lashing out gratuitously or needlessly, the sole fact of someone’s being emotional, is not it.
That someone is emotional does not mean that they have not, or are not capable, of considering their own arguments logically or rationally.
Rationality and emotionality coexist within individuals. They are not a zero-sum quantity; they are not opposing or mutually exclusive characteristics. Or aren’t there people who are both highly rational and highly emotional, as well as people who are both unemotional and deeply irrational? Because an opponent displays emotion, does not invalidate the logical grounding of their argument, and isn’t an excuse from addressing the actual substance of their argument. Emotionality itself is neither evidence nor lack of evidence.
To be emotional in argument is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of emotional argument, which is to assert that the emotional consequences, or the intensity with which something is felt, is itself evidence of the rightness or wrongness of a position. Ironically, it is those who would invalidate a position based on the emotionality of the arguer, who are actually engaging in emotional argument—taking the position that emotionality alone invalidates a position or standing in a debate, and not the validity of the argument itself.
What it probably does mean when someone is emotional is that the topic under discussion means a great deal to them. That they’ve been affected personally by a situation, or suffered serious and personal consequences of how a problem is perceived and debated—often by people who do not know the realities of the situation as intimately as they do.
It means that somebody cares, that they’re passionate and invested. And none of those traits precludes the ability to think productively about a problem. Otherwise, you claim that no one who is truly, individually affected by a problem has any standing to talk about it and to be heard. That the poor have no place in discussions of poverty, that the disabled have no place in discussions of disability rights, that racial and ethnic minorities have no place discussing racism, and gender/sexual minorities have no place discussing discrimination and bigotry against those identities—if they can’t be perfectly unemotional about it, to an arbitrary standard set by those who are not personally, directly affected by the topic at hand.
Does that sound either fair or rational?
Do we really believe that any major civil rights or human rights victory, whether in a court of law or in our culture, was accomplished without emotional engagement? The end of South African apartheid, or Jim Crow laws in the US? The fight for women’s suffrage and enfranchisement? The aftermath of the Stonewall riots and of Matthew Shepherd’s murder in terms of LGBT rights and acceptance? The disability rights movement for the rights and inclusion of disabled people that preceded the passage of the ADA?
As logically grounded as all of those movements have been, they have all involved intense and even disruptive degrees of emotion. And as certain as I am that their very emotional intensity was probably cited as a strike against their credibility at the time…who, now, would dare to say that the emotional investment of their participants should have disqualified their arguments and demands from serious consideration by the majority?
It’s an incredibly unfair standard when only those with the luxury of being able to be unemotional about a topic are granted the credibility to discuss it. Particularly regarding the concrete consequences that the way it’s discussed has for people’s actual lives.
When someone claims that you are too emotional to be having an argument, it is they who are refusing to engage with the substance of your argument. They are saying that the only recourse they have is to disqualify you from the debate, because they have no actual refutation to what you are saying. And that the grounds on which they can do so are that you care too much, that you mean what you are saying. That the problem at hand is not purely abstract or intellectual to you, but that it means something real.
What’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress? (New York Times Magazine, 8/12/12)
The answer, of course, is that there’s nothing bad at all about a boy who wants to wear a dress…but what I’d like to know is why this is the question.
The article is well worth reading, and I’m thankful for these parents who make a decision to accept their sons as they are and to not force them to suppress their gender expression, and to get them support in their schools and neighborhoods. I know it does take courage to do it in the face of a lot of misunderstanding and pressure to the contrary. They make me hopeful and thrilled for their kids.
But it just shouldn’t need to be considered a revolutionary act to stand up for your kids.
I’m impatient despite my relief that these people exist, and will probably keep growing in numbers, with an article written mostly by and for people who are only just now learning to face up to the things that people like their kids have always had to. And that this is an eight-page article in the Times, not because we’re suddenly aware of the existence of gender-variant people, but because a certain number of otherwise mainstream parents have decided to accept it in their children. Not even completely and unconditionally, but to one degree or another. Not that gender fluidity has always been a normal part of the fabric of human identity and yet that these kids have almost always lived under a terrible burden of abuse and repression (and probably still do more often than not). But that a relative handful of parents are willing to stand up to a cruel and unjust culture to prevent abuse of their children for being who they are. To say that maybe conformity is not the highest possible goal, to recognize that it might be easier for them but not actually the best thing for their child.
Lots of people have fluid or androgynous gender expression, and young children can be far more self-knowing than we give them credit for. The question I wish a writer for a major, mainstream news publication would address is “what the hell is wrong with a society that would treat the most vulnerable of children the way that we currently do?” How is it that ostracism, bullying, ridicule, forced suppression, employment discrimination, and violence are considered the normal responses to deviations from it, and acceptance is considered the curiosity?
March 12, 2012
The last several weeks have brought a series of unfortunate articles, op-eds, and blog posts trivializing or dismissing the validity of or need for the Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis—usually in some kind of misconstrual of what it means that the designation is being removed from the DSM-V in recognition that it’s redundant with “high-functioning” autism. These pieces often contain, or inspire in the resulting comments and letters to the editor, a raft of responses to the now widespread recognition of Asperger’s Syndrome—along with other invisible disabilities, learning disabilities, and subtler neurodevelopmental conditions—along these lines:
“Why do we have to pathologize everything?”
“Why can’t we just appreciate people for who they are?”
“I don’t want to label my child.”
“Labels are for soup cans.”
“But everyone has quirks.”
“Didn’t we just use to have a broader conception of normal?”
“Aren’t we all just human?”
I want to explain why these make me violently annoyed.
And there was a time when I might even have said the same things. When I would have given a lot just to be treated like everyone else.
But eventually I realized that is not what people mean when they say that. What they really mean is usually one of two things: First, that “I don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have to try to understand how things are truly different for you.” They don’t want to, or can’t, recognize that other people’s experiences, needs, or abilities can be very different from their own and yet equally real.
It says they’d rather deal with the superficial and they’d rather you be superficial. Preferably in ways that make them comfortable. It’s an alternate take on “but you don’t look disabled.”
Or, second, it means they don’t understand that it isn’t the label that makes someone different, or makes other people treat them differently; that it is the underlying condition itself that makes someone different, that is the reason they function differently, and that makes you know you are different.
And I did know it, at a very early age, and even when no one else would admit it. Don’t kid yourself that we don’t know we’re different if no one tells us.
It’s the label for a condition that confers the knowledge that what we’re going through is known and recognized and survivable. That we are within the realm of human experience. That there even is such a thing as we.
To be denied a name means having your very existence as a person who has a certain experience undermined, denied, and even disallowed.
The fact that we have words for things is an acknowledgement that those things are real, that they are part of our world. George Orwell knew this when he wrote 1984, in whose dystopic language system, Newspeak, words for concepts that Big Brother doesn’t wish people to be able to describe are systematically stricken from the English language, so, for instance, without a word for “freedom,” no one will be able to conceive of the thing itself.
I also find it striking that in so much literature concerning magic, magical ability turns on a wizard’s, elf’s, or magician’s knowledge of true names, or true language. To know the true names of things is to have mastery over your world.
It’s not just what you are, but how the world works for you.
Try going through your life every day, being able to tell that things simply don’t work for you like they do for everyone else. That you can try to do everything exactly the same way that normal people seem to, and yet somehow it just doesn’t work for you like everyone says it should. From the way shoes fit to the way sales clerks treat you, how food tastes and feels, how your brain organizes information and how medications work (or don’t) to the color saturation of the natural world to the essential nature of reasoning, time, and memory; to the fact that no one ever quite understands anything you say. Then tell me you don’t need an explanation. Then tell me that you wouldn’t give anything for one word to tell you why.
Or imagine the single most true thing about yourself. Whatever that is for you. The most true word that springs to mind when you think “this is what I am in the world.”
Now imagine that everyone in your life denies that it’s real, or even possible, yet finds a way to punish you every day of your life for functioning in accordance with it.
I know what it is to be told day after day, in ways large and small, “real people don’t work that way.”
Since I have a label, I know the world I belong to is real, and the people I belong to are real.
That there are people I can go to for support and advice, and they know what in the hell I’m even talking about.
That somebody else’s child doesn’t have to do what I did thinking they’re alone in the world.
I doubt I can make you feel what a miracle it is, if you’ve never lived without that. If you’ve never been without the ability to hear another person say “I know,” and know it was true.
That’s what it is for me to have a label.
And then there’s this rationalization being thrown around that all of these people who shouldn’t really be labeled with an ASD—regardless of whether all of their characteristics do add up to autism—can be re-classified and receive services for all of their various subordinate learning disabilities and other issues, which just have other names like “non-verbal learning disorder,” or “social communication disorder,” etc.
But here’s the problem: I am not simply an amalgamation of all of my various quirks, disabilities, and learning/perceptual/emotional/physical differences. I’ve made that list. There’s not another category that even could better account for what I have. I knew all of the various traits that made me hopelessly different, but without being able to know why, and it had me actually formulating hypotheses of how I was really a fairy being and not human at all—some highly unlikely genetic throwback to an unknown species, older and distinct from modern humans—of which I was the only one left. (Kind of like how if you backcross zebras for long enough, you get something that looks a lot like a quagga. I identified with Henry the quagga for a long time—a creature that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore, but somehow, sort of, did.) I literally, seriously believed that I was the last fairy on earth because it was the only remotely coherent explanation I could come up with on my own.
The word “loneliness” doesn’t really begin to name that way of existing.
So, yes, you can just like and appreciate me for who I am.
What you cannot do is treat me as a whole person by trying to remedy separately all of the difficult traits that come with what I am. Because that is what turns a person into nothing but a collection of flaws.
No, you cannot “just accept someone for who they are” if you have no intention of acknowledging what that actually is. You cannot do that while you deny and belittle what somebody is actually experiencing. You cannot do that if you see acknowledging disabilities as a shameful thing.
No, you cannot just accept someone for who they are, if what you mean by that is the exact opposite.
“But imagine the effect on a child of being told your brain works in a way it doesn’t.”
I don’t want that either, and I don’t have to imagine. I was constantly being given a description of my mind that wasn’t true. It is a terribly alienating and disheartening experience. We should obviously endeavor not to misdiagnose people. I was misdiagnosed with some other things: being able to speak but just not wanting to, depression, dysthymia, and being a control freak perfectionist who just didn’t want to admit I wasn’t unique and whose standards for humanity were too high. I know firsthand the harm of misdiagnosis. I am not denying that misused labels can be damaging and prejudicial.
But there is no evidence that ASD’s are systematically over-diagnosed by professionals. What I do see happening is that mainstream pop-culture does not truly understand what ASD’s are, and so misinformed laypeople speculate baselessly about odd personalities like Al Gore, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc., based on shallow (and frequently false) stereotypes. When these writers wrongly conflate this cultural trivialization and misappropriation with rampant over-diagnosis to argue that Asperger’s Syndrome (or any invisible disability) is a dubious and unnecessary designation, they contribute to the very trivialization they claim to be opposing.
In my last production, a character says with sad resignation near the end of the play, “There is no word for what I am. I have looked.”
And that’s what you perpetuate when you deny or scoff at the use of a word for what someone is, or what they have, or what they identify with. You say “you don’t need a word for what you are.” You say that your wish for denial takes precedence over theirs for self-knowledge, acceptance, practical information, treatment, or however they need to deal with the truth.
And If you’ve never needed a label, needed a word, needed a name, and not had one—or as Emily Willingham wrote last week, “If you have not lived a life like that, one that has been bereft of an emotional glue that groups you with others who feel as you do—then you are privileged indeed.”
If you have not lived my life, you do not get to decide that I don’t need language for the experience of it. You do not get to say “there is no word for what you are,” that “there is no word for what you share with other people,” when there is.
Because there is.
October 30, 2011
There’s been one of those viral status updates going around Facebook for a while, and it goes like this:
Florida is the first state that will require drug testing when applying for welfare (effective July 1st)! Some people are crying this is unconstitutional. How is this unconstitutional? What, it’s okay to test people who work for a living, but not those who don’t?
My dislike for the snideness of the status aside, I dared to hoped that it was just some half-baked, unsubstantiated rumor that there were states about to start drug-testing public assistance applicants. Or that some little bill to that effect had been introduced somewhere by some jerkface, but would never make it out of committee.
I hoped wrong. This appeared in the Times recently:
First, I reject the central premise that it’s okay to drug-test employees or job applicants. I don’t think it’s okay in most circumstances. It’s demeaning and it demonstrates a lack of basic respect of one adult for another on the part of an employer, and a presumption of ownership of your body and non-work hours. If you give an employer no reasonable cause to suspect that your leisure activities are having a negative impact on your job performance, then what business of theirs is your private life? The Fourth Amendment guarantees freedom from “unreasonable search and seizure.” I don’t understand how applying for a job constitutes a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.
Likewise, I don’t understand how having fallen on hard times during a major economic collapse and prolonged period of high unemployment constitutes reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.
Secondly, the purpose of requirements like these is not to keep druggies from receiving benefits, or people receiving benefits from buying drugs with your tax dollars. Sorry, it isn’t. It’s for states to keep their welfare rolls artificially low by deliberately intimidating eligible people away from applying in the first place. It’s to discourage people from applying for benefits for fear of humiliation or mistreatment.
Multiply anyone’s basic, rational fear of humiliation or mistreatment in a vulnerable situation by about 15 for people with communication or cognitive disabilities.
Leading me into objection #3: Applying for assistance to which you are legally entitled should not require surrendering basic human dignity, privacy, and rights over your own body.
Anyone who thinks it’s too easy as it is, probably hasn’t done it.
And all of this is aside from whether requirements like these would even be cost-effective, saving more money in denied benefits than they’ll cost to implement and run; or whether they’re a good idea even if they do. My strong suspicions are probably not, and probably not. I mean, does anyone really think that someone without adequate food or shelter is super likely to be getting effective treatment for a drug problem?
It’s easy to imagine that we have a problem with people who “just don’t want to work” beating down the door for “your tax dollars,” because woo, money for nothing! but the reality is that in every state, huge proportions of people who are eligible for public assistance programs do not access them, either from not knowing that they’re eligible, not knowing how and being too embarrassed to find out, fearing retribution in some other way if they bring their situation to the state’s attention (for instance, if some members of their household are in the country illegally), or because the application requirements are onerous or humiliating.
Why are the people whining “but I’m a taxpayer!” always the ones proposing some new and creative way to humiliate the poor?
I’m a taxpayer, and here are some of the things my tax dollars pay for: a war that I hate on a country that did nothing to us (now mercifully ending). Airport “security” measures that have made it impossible for me to fly. Subsidies for the production of the lowest quality food products that are making us fat and sick, for our continued unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels, and for the very same banks and corporations that ruined the economy for the rest of us. And the now decades-long complete failure that is the War on Drugs.
So pardon me that I won’t moan about some comparatively small proportion of our tax dollars going to assist with food and living expenses for some of the most vulnerable people in one of the richest countries in the world. There are lots of things wrong in this country; that we actually try to keep people from starving or dying on the streets isn’t one of them.
There will always be a minority of people who will abuse any system; that’s an inherent risk of a system’s existence (which of course we should try to reasonably minimize), not an excuse for the rest of us to be smug or cruel.
September 13, 2011
In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying of Gay Students (New York Times, 9/13/11)
It seems that teachers and principals in Minnesota aren’t totally, completely, 100% sure about protecting kids from bullying based on their sexuality.
After years of harsh conflict between advocates for gay students and Christian conservatives, the issue was already highly charged here. Then in July, six students brought a lawsuit contending that school officials have failed to stop relentless antigay bullying and that a district policy requiring teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation has fostered oppressive silence and a corrosive stigma.
School officials say they are caught in the middle, while gay rights advocates say there is no middle ground on questions of basic human rights.
School officials say they are “caught in the middle.” Between allowing students to be hounded–occasionally to death–by abuse and misinformation, and stepping in to stop it. Somebody here missed a lesson on what it means to be an educator.
Mr. Carlson, the superintendent, agreed that bullying persists but strongly denied that the school environment is generally hostile.
I have no words.
Under a recent law, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, New Jersey now has the most stringent and extensive anti-bullying policies of any state. The Times has an article today about the administrative and enforcement hardships that the law will impose on New Jersey schools (Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools On the Spot).
I’m pretty unsympathetic to the perspective expressed by one Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators: “I think this has gone well overboard,” he says. “Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”
School administrators…. Don’t think you need a law to force you to keep students safe in your schools? Then you need to prove that you can do so without one. But you haven’t.
When you create and preside over an environment that invites abuse of the vulnerable, then yes, you’re actually accountable for what happens to them in that environment.
When you claim to be acting in loco parentis, in the place of students’ parents while they’re in your power, then yes, you’re responsible for protecting them from abuse.
I don’t know how representative Bozza’s opinion is of other members of the Association of School Administrators, but he sounds downright flabbergasted and resentful than when you claim to be responsible for students’ learning and living environments (and I think it’s fair to call school a living environment, when students spend a third or more of their time there), you are actually responsible for students’ learning and living environments.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim the ability to legally compel students to spend eight hours a day in your facilities, to legally be acting in place of their parents, and then abdicate actual responsibility for their well-being.
Where are you supposed to get the people and the resources to enact this? That’s not the problem of the bullying victims in your districts. Get it together.
Not up for actually protecting kids? Then you’re in the wrong job.
Does the New Jersey law go overboard in its requirements? Yeah, maybe, but then you should’ve proven that you can do your job without it. If kids are still being abused in your schools while staff turn a blind eye or claim powerlessness, you haven’t.