March 7, 2013
I am often not a big fan of the language of privilege. While I have found it a useful concept and thinking tool, and one that I tend to think people should take the time to understand…I’ve seen it turn already highly-charged discussions rancorous. Particularly when both “sides” in a discussion are in fact vulnerable in some way. The word has such a negatively loaded connotation in its everyday usage that it can turn unproductive quickly when participants aren’t familiar with its meaning in a social justice context, or legitimately feel vulnerable, overtaxed, or externally threatened…only to be told that they may in fact be privileged. I try to stay away from it. I usually think that there are better ways to explain things that don’t send people straight into self-defensive mode.
So I was mildly surprised, and humbled, last week when a college friend on Facebook thanked me for alerting her to her own state of privilege, in response to a link I’d posted about a recent event, in the sense of privilege being a circumstance in which you never even had to think about how an issue affects you.
You may have heard about this: Somebody noticed and blogged about the fact that if you Google-searched “autistic people should,” or “autistic people are,” the autocomplete search suggestions–generated automatically by the most searched phrases completing that sentence–were all hate speech:
In response to the attention from bloggers who organized a flashblog to counteract those results, Google announced that it would revise its search algorithms to more effectively screen out death threats from the top suggested search terms. (My contribution was here.)
There’s been a lot of discussion of privilege in the interactions between autistic bloggers and autism parent bloggers lately, which I’ve mostly stayed out of (and characterizations of war between the two groups, with which I mostly don’t agree).
But on a whim, I tried something. Try it for me now if you want.
Go back to the Google home page.
Type in “parents of autistic children should,” “parents of children with autism should,” “parents of children diagnosed with autism should,” or “parents of autistic children are,” and don’t hit enter. Let autocomplete do its job.
And see what the suggestion for that query is.
Here’s what I got:
That is the magnitude of the difference between the assumptions that society makes about you, and the assumptions that society makes about us. That’s privilege.
You may feel like autistic people, or other people who don’t know what’s like to parent an autistic child, judge you too harshly or unfairly, make ridiculous accusations, or hold you to impossible double standards. There are times when you
may be probably are right. That there is a privilege differential does not mean that you can’t be hurt or bullied or wronged on an individual basis by someone of a less privileged group.
But society at large doesn’t wish you would just go away and die. Major charities and research organizations don’t actively seek ways to make that happen. There isn’t a federal law entitled the Combating Autism Parents Act.
(There is a federal law called the Combating Autism Act. Think about what that really means if autism is an inextricable part of your psyche.)
Privilege is not about parents vs. autistics. It is not about which group of us has had it harder, or that we could somehow count, add up, and compare the number of strikes against us. It is not about how we feel about you or you feel about us or whatever personal wrongs or misunderstandings we might have done each other.
Privilege is about how the world at large sees you, and how the world at large sees us–and people like your kids–and the consequences of those conditions in who gets listened to and how. And people–including parents of autistic people–are way, way more likely to get listened to seriously when they say that the world would be better off if people like us didn’t exist any longer, than when they say that we are acceptable, that we are not a tragedy, that the value of our lives is not best measured in terms of our financial burden on the country…or when parents like you say that you love your kids the way they are and only want their happiness and acceptance.
Privilege is the poisoned water that we’re all swimming in; it’s not about laying blame for who did the poisoning. We all get wet; none of us can help but be affected in our views and the way we live our lives and interact with others…that doesn’t make it the fault of the people who aren’t the targets of the poisoning. But we can all help unpoison the water.
December 5, 2012
Two major considerations of autism and the place of autistic people in society sort of collided in the news media this past week. First, the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine ran a long piece, “The Autism Advantage,” on a European company, Specialisterne, whose mission is to find supportive employment opportunities for people with Asperger’s Syndrome in the tech world. And second, the House of Representatives held the first hearings in a decade on rising diagnostic rates of autism spectrum disorders.
In both forums, it quickly became apparent, as it often does, that by having any ability to take an active role in our own lives or discussions about us, our right to do so is discounted by many. The comments section of the Times article quickly exploded with criticism that because some autistic people are too severely affected to ever hold jobs, the article was irresponsible or trivializing, that the employment concerns of the so-called “high-functioning” had no place in discussions about real autism.
And the originally slated panel of witnesses to Congress included zero autistic people of any stripe. When Michael John Carley and Ari Ne’eman were added in response to pleas from the advocacy community, complaints resulted that two such “high-functioning” men couldn’t truly represent autistic people, or did so inadequately because their testimony didn’t focus on the need for a cure for “lower-functioning” people.
Effectively, that because some autistic people have severely compromised communication abilities, we should not have been represented, in a Congressional hearing about the federal response to our existence, at all.
And I’ve lost count of the number of times in online discussions when I’ve been told that I’m nothing like someone else’s child, couldn’t possibly understand what their child goes through or have any idea what it’s like to be their child…before they list off a litany of experiences that sound a whole lot like my own childhood.
(Or sometimes not. Sometimes someone else’s experience with the autism spectrum is actually radically different from mine. It’s called a spectrum condition for a reason, and we know this, better than anyone.)
I may never be able to convince these people that my experience has anything in common with their children’s. I know that no single human being can ever truly know the experience of being another, but I also can’t convince myself that I have no place standing up for those kids.
Because I remember getting the message so often, in so many ways, that there was no place for me in the world as I was, that I was never going to make it in “the real world.” That I wasn’t going to be allowed to make it if I wasn’t going to do a better job of pleasing others.
I remember not being able to look the way I was supposed to, talk the way I was supposed to, dress the way I was supposed to. I remember not being what anyone wanted.
Because my heart broke for your kids when Michael John Carley asked the nation to remember, when we talk about the autistic, that the vast majority of us can hear and understand what you say about us—and a gallery full of people behind him angrily shook your heads “no.” Because I remember being told again and again that I could not be perceiving what I was perceiving, and being told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to do what I knew I could.
Because I remember having no one who spoke or understood my language, and losing hope that I ever would. I remember having no one who thought that the world as I experienced it was worth respecting or understanding remotely enough to be any help to me.
Because I remember the constant implication that the ways I was being treated were acceptable because the way I am was not acceptable.
These things wear you down, day after day. The memory of it all wears on me still. I want better than that for your kids. I think we can all do better than that for your kids. I’ve cited before, and probably will again, the quote from Adrienne Rich:
When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.
I think that all of your children deserve to see a world with them in it, and belonging in it.
And far from our abilities disqualifying us from that role, I believe that our communication abilities and everything that we’ve done and learned for ourselves are all the more reason why we have a responsibility to stand up for kids like yours. If I were to decide that because of the gap in our apparent abilities, that they and I have nothing whatsoever to do with each other….If I said “You’re right; because I can speak and write and have a job, and your child might not ever, then his rights, dignity, and well-being have nothing to do with me,” then I really would be guilty of the accusation leveled against activists so often–that we care nothing about the well-being of the more severely disabled.
But I don’t think that’s true.
July 23, 2011
Legal same-sex marriage begins tomorrow in New York, and I love that the Times ran this article (The Clergy Effort Behind Same-Sex Marriage in New York) spotlighting the efforts of members of the clergy on behalf of marriage equality, noting that it’s a common but erroneous belief that churches and religious people are polarized against the advancement of LGBT equality. While some of the most conspicuous campaigns against equality have been waged by churches, in fact, there are religious believers working on both sides of this issue.
What makes this surprising or counterintuitive for a lot of people is a pair of major misconceptions, perpetrated largely by the preaching of the fundamentalist religious right wing, that moderate, liberal or progressive Christianity is just a watered down version of fundamentalist Christianity with weaker versions of the same beliefs; and that in supporting LGBT equal rights, we’re just capitulating to the permissive amorality of popular culture.
What we want people to understand is that we’re actually doing this because we truly believe it is right. Not because it is easy or just happens to be popular at the moment.
We are not, as socially conservative preachers often accuse, saying we believe in equality for political expediency, to be popular, to duck uncomfortable criticism, because we’re insecure in our faith or because we don’t know all the same Bible verses from Leviticus and 1st Corinthians that they do. We support LGBT equality, including in legal marriage, as an expression of our faith, not in spite of it.
We think that the narrative arc of the Bible is one of an ever-expanding conception of grace and compassion for our fellow humans. It’s a story of each successive generation seeing a new reflection of God in the world and the people around them. We don’t think that that story ended 2000 years ago, but that we’re asked by Christ constantly to see all people anew as creations of God.
I do take issue with one characterization of the debate from the article, when it says “Yet the passage of same-sex marriage in New York last month, just two years after its defeat here, attests to the concerted, sustained efforts by liberal Christian and Jewish clergy to advocate for it in the language of faith, to counter the language of morality voiced by foes.”
Because we absolutely believe that this is an issue of morality as well. We believe it’s immoral for the government to create second-class citizens and second-class families. We believe it’s immoral to withhold civil rights based on sexuality just as it would be to deny those rights on the basis of race or religion. We think that the bigotry enshrined by the Defense of Marriage Act is immoral. We believe that to scapegoat gays for divorce, child abuse, and a host of other cultural problems is immoral. We believe it is a moral edict of our faith to stand up for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society.
We are not attempting to undermine morality, but to support a morality of compassion and respect for all of our citizens.
We believe, as Victor Hugo wrote, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and that nothing can make that wrong.
May 18, 2011
This is probably my most belligerent and exasperated blog post ever. Consider yourself forewarned.
I got myself into a couple of Facebook arguments recently, in which I’m not sure how much I accomplished, and which served mainly to undermine my regard for humanity. Apparently, after Osama bin Laden’s assassination a couple weeks ago, it was said by some on the political right that information we obtained by “harsh interrogation methods,” allowed us to find him. And I don’t even know enough about the chain of events to judge whether it’s true or not, but it hardly matters to my opinion: if it is true, then it wasn’t worth it. We paid too high a price in our own humanity and national honor. I would rather never have caught him, and let him die holed up in his little fortress, than have stooped to that level, morally, to get to him.
And if it isn’t true, then the argument is even more malevolent for being a lie.
So I really don’t care whether the practice of torture allowed us to catch bin Laden.
But I’ve already learned the immensely frustrating way that apologists for torture aren’t swayed by ethical arguments, or legal ones. There is always some end that justifies the means or legal loophole or illusory ticking time bomb.
I’ve only got one more argument:
The use of torture isn’t just weak, unconstitutional, un-American, illegal, immoral, and un-Christian. (Did I miss anything?) It’s stupid. It makes us as a country look brutish, and it makes its supporters look unintelligent.
It demonstrates an utter lack of foresight, of historical memory, and of imagination. You’d have to be totally unable to imagine yourself in the place of an innocent torture victim—swept up in a dragnet in the midst of civil unrest, at the mercy of a regime desperate to quash dissent or inconvenient criticism, the resident of an invaded country whose invaders understand neither your language nor culture very well but are convinced that you must know something that they want to know. And while it’s true, practically speaking, that you’re probably fairly safe from those circumstances here in America (for the time being, anyway), that’s only by sheer accident of birth. It’s not by any virtue or deserving of your own that you were born here, and not in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent. It’s luck of the draw.
Look back—how do we regard countries and regimes which engaged in torture? As evil. They all had high ideals. They all saw their own goals as ultimately good and so justified ignoring the human implications. But it’s their actions that reveal them for what they really were. So how is the future going to look back on us and this sorry decade in our history?
Look forward—what we do to the world and to other people comes back to us, one way or another, over and over again. You have to have not been paying very much attention not to have noticed this, or not been alive for very long. Or maybe I’m just better at pattern recognition. But we do reap what we sow. What if America finds itself in some kind of serious danger in the future; what will it do for our chances of finding support or cooperation from other countries if they know that when push comes to shove, we’ll behave just as badly as our enemies?
It’s arrogant, and arrogance is always shortsighted and dumb. It pretends that we know more than we can; I’ve heard the attempted excuse that we only torture people who we know are bad guys, or who we know (feel the sarcasm) have some kind of vital information but don’t want to give it up. But our record doesn’t support this confidence. See story of Maher Arar above, or look at the US justice system’s record of having to release people who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted of major crimes. And those are people who’ve had a lawful trial in which all available and legally admissible evidence was supposed to have been presented. Most of the people we’re interrogating at GITMO have not. We’re seriously not good at realizing what we don’t know.
Anyway, sorry to sound belligerent and angry. It’s tiring and it doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just that I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this stuff, and it makes me really sad.
January 12, 2011
This makes me so upset that I somewhat doubt my ability to write coherently about it.
Arizona Orders Tuscon to end Mexican-American Studies Program (New York Times)
The attorney general of Arizona has decided that a Tuscon magnet school’s Latino literature class an illegal propagandizing and brainwashing program, under a law which he himself wrote, seemingly for the specific purpose of targeting the Tuscon school district’s ethnic studies programs, after a perceived personal insult by a high-profile guest speaker:
It was Mr. Horne, as the state’s superintendent of public instruction, who wrote a law aimed at challenging Tucson’s ethnic-studies program….Mr. Horne’s battle with Tucson over ethnic studies dates to 2007, when Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, told high school students there in a speech that Republicans hated Latinos. Mr. Horne, a Republican, sent a top aide, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to the school to present a different perspective. He was infuriated when some students turned their backs and raised their fists in the air.
According to the Times article, the law explicitly forbids programs that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” suggestions that “portions of the Southwest…once part of Mexico should be returned to that country,” “promotion of resentment toward a race,” and programs that “are primarily for one race or that advocate ethnic solidarity instead of individuality.”
I’ve long had mixed feelings about ethnic studies programs. And I haven’t attended Tuscon’s Latino studies class, so I can’t claim to know what’s going on. But I doubt very, very, very much that students in a high school literature class are actually being indoctrinated to support the overthrow of the government of the United States. And if denigration of individuality is the real problem, well, AG Horne, you might as well outlaw high school.
It seems far more likely that Horne is terrified by the prospect of a minority group, which he sees as a threat to his version of Americanism, taking justifiable pride in the literature of their own heritage, examining their place in American history and their hopes for its future, and that those hopes might conflict with his own. He’s not afraid of a bunch of Latino high schoolers plotting to topple the US government; he’s afraid of them having a narrative of their place in society that’s valuable, unique, and powerful.
And he’s counting on misinformation, ignorance, apathy, and xenophobia to protect him from any real consequences for his astonishing and vindictive attack on students’ First Amendment rights and academic freedom. He knows he probably won’t face any appreciable outrage from the state’s citizens, because not many people will see themselves in the group of young Latinos he’s maligning. Not many people will perceive any threat to the freedoms or safety from intimidation that they take for granted in this action, because they aren’t part of a controversial literature class alleged to be inciting disloyalty and racial discord. But they should. Because if this can be done to any of us without the protest of our neighbors–being legally targeted for what we are, read, or learn–then it can be done to all of us, for any reason.
November 16, 2010
One of the latest video messages to have gone viral in the last few weeks’ public fight against anti-gay rhetoric is of openly gay 14-year-old Graeme Taylor speaking at a school board meeting in defense of a teacher who had apparently ejected from class two students who said that they “did not support gay individuals” during a discussion, on Anti-Bullying Day, that erupted after he’d asked another student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The teacher was then suspended without pay for a day.
Sound like a First Amendment quagmire yet?
Graeme eloquently defends his former teacher, saying he was driven to a suicide attempt at age nine in large part by anti-gay slanders by classmates that long went accepted and unchallenged by teachers. The teacher says that he ejected the students for being disruptive, not for their stated opposition to supporting gay people, and I tend to believe him.
But…suppose that the students were telling the truth, that they only expressed their personal opposition to support for gays, calmly, non-threateningly and non-disruptively. Would their ejection have been a violation of their free speech rights? How should the teacher have handled the discussion?
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect even–especially–the most unpopular of speech?
Yes, I would say, IF the students in question merely expressed a position, as vile and unfortunate a position as I find it, then the teacher did wrong to punish them rather than guiding the conversation to a useful and potentially enlightening conclusion…even though he was right, doubtless in the eyes of some of his most vulnerable students, to oppose the sentiments as strongly as he was able to in the moment.
As much as I despise the opinion that gay people (or black people, Gypsies, Muslims, whoever) are morally inferior, in my understanding, the right of free speech applies equally to these sentiments. We don’t allocate the First Amendment’s protection based on the popularity of the content of the speech. So long as the speech does not constitute an explicit or implicit threat, well, people have the right to dislike whomever they dislike, whether or not their reasoning sucks.
But students also need to learn that the right of “free speech” does not mean the right of unchallenged or consequence-free speech, that just because their prejudice may be a religious belief doesn’t disallow opposition to it, and that if they choose to express their bigotry, they should expect to be strenuously challenged. Banning or punishing such speech (again, as long as it’s not actually a threat) will only give the bigots confirmation for their whine that they’re being oppressed by the fascist liberal homosexual agenda or something. Simply suppressing it doesn’t allow us to openly challenge it, to reveal its ugliness and violence for what it is, to discredit it with facts, or to show that the positions of acceptance and respect are stronger. Teachers are in an optimal position to do these things, and more importantly, to show their students how to do them.
Graeme Taylor has eloquence, grace, and self-possession of which I could only be passionately envious at his age; there will be no one more suited to take up the task than he will be. I’m sorry that he’ll have to. I shudder for his opponents to think of what he’ll be like to oppose in debate in a few years.