Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Rhetoric of Critical Theory and Intersectionality: A Review of Authoring Autism


Melanie Yergeau is an old friend of mine from my Ohio State days (though she has since gone over to the School Up North). She was the driving force behind the founding of the Columbus chapter of ASAN. I would describe our relationship as she led, I followed; I spoke loudly, she got things done. (You can say that I was the Emerson to her Peabody.) 



She was a very quiet person, but that quietness masked a very sharp tongue that did not suffer fools lightly. When I got into trouble with the central ASAN office over my understanding of rights, she had my back. Of the two of us, she was the one to actually finish her doctorate and enter academia. (Just in case you were wondering which of us is the better dysfunctional autie.) So it was with great pleasure that I read her book, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness.  

The book perfectly embodies Melanie's ability to get you to underestimate her soft-spoken nature until she knocks your teeth out. In a sense, Melanie offers a more sophisticated autism narrative designed to demonstrate that behind the peculiar autistic quirks lies a serious intellect. This personal narrative serves as a vehicle for self-reflection on the role of narrative in crafting personhood. The central thesis of the book is that autism is a form of rhetoric to express oneself instead of the non-rhetoric of the missing person stolen by autism. 

There is a lot to recommend in this book (besides for the fact that I am mentioned in the acknowledgments). Melanie's fighting personality comes across throughout and never allows the book to get boring. I cannot think of an academic work that has more cursing in it (and I have read books about the history and psychology of profanity). This is a rare example in which the profanity is appropriate and adds to the book. This is not some abstract analysis of autistic rhetoric, but a primal scream of someone who has lived with the specter of being shut down and denied a voice. It is only proper that the author's voice ring out uncensored for good and ill. This is not a rose-tinted view of autism, but an honest one, literal and metaphorical poop included.  

Melanie notes that many in the medical profession would dismiss what she has to say about autism on the grounds that her ability to communicate and write a book precludes her from "truly" understanding autism. Of course, if she was unable to write she would not be able to communicate her autie experience.  I particularly wish to call attention to Melanie's use of Zeno's Paradox as a means of describing the rhetorical trap we face. If you constantly gain fifty percent on someone, you will never catch up. Similarly, auties live in a world in which, no matter how hard they work, they are endlessly running to live up to neurotypical standards of behavior and can never catch up. The problem is that neurotypical have been placed in a position of judgment in the first place, from which they can always find reasons why you do not measure up to their standards. 

I am reminded of something Trevor Noah brings up when talking about South African apartheid. One of the reasons why the white minority was able to rule was that there existed a wider population of coloreds, who were placed above the black majority. Whites held out the promise to coloreds that, if they met certain arbitrary bureaucratic standards, they too could become classified as white. Hence you had a colored population forever chasing acceptance for themselves while also keeping blacks down at of a fear of being tainted by them. 

The problem with Authoring Autism is that it feels the need to place itself within the structure of critical theory and intersectionality. Despite the fact that people on the autism spectrum face very real violence, Melanie often seems far more concerned with denouncing as violence any time other people have power over her. Even though our cause would be just even if we lived in a world that lacked oppression otherwise, Melanie feels the need to attach autism to other causes like LGBT rights to the point that it often is not clear which one she is advocating for.
                                                                                                      
Obviously, it is reasonable to be both pro-autistic and LGBT rights. That being said, they are distinct and any attempt to confuse the two is not only intellectually dishonest but likely to cause harm to both sides. Consider the example of libertarianism. I am an autie libertarian. There are a number of us out there and there is certainly a lot of overlap between the two. That being said, they are not the same. Furthermore, it is inevitable that a conflict of interest will arise and one will have to choose between the two. Even when I choose to be a libertarian over being an autie, I have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge what I am doing. Even here, I benefit the cause of autism by not writing myself a blank check to piss on autistics and pretend I was doing otherwise.   

Much of the book is an attack on ABA, which is perfectly legitimate. The practice can easily cross the line into physical abuse. Such abuse is facilitated by an attitude that delegitimizes the personal lives of autistics. If you view people on the spectrum as suffering something akin to being dead then it logically follows that any attempt to “cure” them, no matter how extreme, is acceptable. One can imagine even agreeing to play Russian roulette with autistic lives; either we cure them or they die, which would still be better for everyone involved.  

For some strange reason, Melanie seems intent on connecting ABA to gay conversion therapy programs. While I am inclined to see gay conversion as the more problematic of the two, it almost seems as if the real crime committed by the founders of ABA, in Melanie’s eyes, was supporting gay conversion therapy. Furthermore, whether it is ABA or gay conversion, Melanie seems less concerned with physical abuse than with the very notion of people in power making judgments about those in their care.  

This need to declare autism professionals guilty of every non-autism related charge leads to some comically absurd conclusions, such as that autism organizations are racist. According to Melanie: "Even a cursory glance at the boards of major autism advocacy organizations reveals white supremacy at work." (158) The reason for this is that they are "surprisingly white." For example, in 2013, Autism Speaks had twenty-five white men and only one person of color on its board. As someone who dislikes Autism Speaks greatly and has repeatedly denounced racism on this blog, complaining about the racial makeup of their board seems beside the point. 

Lack of diversity on a board is a problem as it strongly suggests a lack of openness to alternative points of view. This marks an important step on the road to actual racism, but in of itself is not racism. If you wish to say that this is a symptom not of white supremacists but of a white supremacist society, you may be right. That being said, it makes everyone, from me to Melanie, racists and renders the term useless in the fight against actual racists.

Efforts should be made to make autism organization boards more diverse, but that is hardly a top priority. If Autism Speaks made a serious effort to recruit more minorities, I would not see them as any less dangerous. Quite the contrary, as the Me Too movement has demonstrated, a general support for progressive causes can coexist and even facilitate highly abusive behavior against women. Similarly, if Autism Speaks were to unveil a front office made entirely of black Muslim lesbians, I would suspect that they were trying to create the ideological cover for themselves in order to blatantly call for eugenic policies against autistics.   

If we are going to be accusing autism professionals of heteronormative thinking and downright white supremacy, it is only reasonable to also throw in … (can you guess it?) neo-liberalism. Thus, we learn:

… cognitive rhetorics quantify both behavior and free will and gain their rhetorical traction through neoliberalism. The productive subject reigns, and mental hygiene is a paragon of productivity. What neuroplasticity lends to capitalism are rhetorics of improvability and calculability. … under neoliberalism, we will always need more of these things, and it is our individual responsibility to acquire them. (130)

I confess to being uncertain what this passage even means. I think it has something to do with condemning anyone analyzing society from a rationalist perspective and believes in individual self-improvement.

Neoliberalism is a term that, in practice, can mean anyone from Donald Trump to Ta-Nehisi Coates, anyone not Prof. Cornel West. (I am sure, though, that someone, at some point, has accused West of being a neoliberal. Who else, but a secret neoliberal, would so recklessly accuse others of being neoliberals?) There is a certain irony to this. In a book premised on the notion of people have a right to their own discourse and not to be defined by others, a word like neoliberalism is used even though epitomizes not allowing people to define themselves. Neoliberalism is not a word people use for themselves.  It is an epithet used to define other people with little sense of what they might actually believe. Let us be charitable and assume that Melanie was simply mentioning how other people have attacked neoliberalism because she needed to cross off neoliberalism from some checklist.

This leads me to a more personal complaint. Melanie mentions an incident with the autism book club we both were involved in that used to meet at the Barnes and Noble on High St., near the OSU campus. The members were a mixture of people on the spectrum, mostly boys in their late teens and early twenties, and people involved with autism social work. There was a vote between Catch-22 and the Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight. Incident of the Dog won largely because the non-autistics in the group voted for it. From Melanie's perspective, it was not just that the book was badly written or that it failed to accurately portray autism, the book itself was oppressive. The fact that non-autistics dared to vote at all was bad enough, but they used their vote to "make" us read this book. 

I confess to not remembering the vote. I cannot recall what book I voted for. I do remember reading Incident of the Dog and that we later read Catch-22. Let me state for the record that I did not like Catch-22 and thought it was over-rated. I was ok with Incident of the Dog largely because, having previously read it, I had no large hope invested in it. It was a humorous book, but hardly the book I would have recommended to people trying to understand what it means to be on the spectrum. My teenage self had little in common with Christopher and the same could be said with the other teenage boys in the group. 

The non-autistics were in the book club to better their understanding of autism and one of the virtues of the club was that it allowed them to interact with us in a non-hierarchical manner as opposed to a more professional setting. I don't think anyone was trying to force us to think of autism in any particular way. It was only reasonable for them to be curious how autistics would view what had by then become a classic novel on the topic. Let me state for the record that I am very grateful to Dr. Renee Devlin, Hillary Knapp Spears and the others who took part in the club over the years. I find their implicit treatment here to be unfair and downright insulting. 

I believe that autistics have a voice and are capable of rhetoric. For that voice to be heard, it is necessary to take control of the autism narrative away from parents and professionals, even well-meaning ones. Melanie is a powerful force on this front and I look forward to reading her future work. That being said, Authoring Autism is a cautionary tale of how critical theory and intersectionality can taint even a noble cause. I look forward to the day when auties can engage in their own rhetoric, unfettered by the boxes that others, whether parents, professionals or modern liberalism, wish to place us in.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

No, Nancy MacLean, Autistic People Do Not Become Libertarians Because They Lack Empathy


I must confess that since reading Nancy MacLean's Democracy in Chains, my opinion of her has only lessened. To move away from her incompetence as a historian or an economist, I would like to discuss her views on autism. As always, whenever suggesting that MacLean might not be completely correct, it is important to confess, right from the start: I am a Koch minion so you should ignore everything that I say. All arguments against her simply prove how deep and nefarious the "not exactly a conspiracy" against her is and how desperate her enemies have become now that she has revealed the truth about them. (Also, as an Asperger, I have no sense of humor and am incapable of sarcasm.)



This is a video of a speech given several days ago by historian MacLean about her book. At about the hour mark, she speculates that James Buchanan and other people who share his libertarian politics (or his desire to take over the world) are autistic as they do not "feel solidarity or empathy with other people." This is a further jump from her attempt, in her book, to make something out of the fact that Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economist, is involved with the autistic advocacy. Now she is going so far as to diagnose Buchanan, a man who never identified himself with the neurodiverse community.

Whether Buchanan really was on the spectrum or not, this is dangerous slander, particularly for the casual way in which she frames it, as if it was a truth that everyone knew that people on the autism spectrum lacked empathy. Such "casual truths," by their nature cannot easily be refuted by simply pointing out the facts because people are not going to think that it is even a matter for debate. You can actually see this in action a few minutes later in the video. A person in the audience runs with MacLean's statement and jokingly starts talking about autistic libertarians trying to take over law schools.   

The principle of rational ignorance teaches us that there is no reason to expect MacLean to educate herself about autistic people or care about what we might find offensive. It is generally not productive to get worked up about someone (even a university professor) being wrong on the internet. My justification for this is twofold. First, her account of Buchanan's life is an exercise in trying to tar someone as a racist on the vaguest kinds of guilt by association. (Contrast her case against Buchanan with the kind of evidence that Prof. Deborah Lipstadt and her team had to produce when sued by David Irving.) It is a losing proposition to simply attempt to defend Buchanan. It is inevitable that at some time, over his career, that he walked within a mile of a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. It is necessary, therefore, to hold MacLean to her own standards. The fact that she fails, robs her of the authority to prosecute her case and demonstrates that she does not care about tolerance, but merely uses it as moral cover for her progressive agenda. (If Buchanan was guilty of all of MacLean's charges, but was a progressive in his politics and economics, would this book have ever been written?)

Second, there is a wider case to be made against modern liberalism, which gains much of its moral authority from its claim to universal tolerance. This is connected to modern liberalism's claim to knowledge of some objective "public welfare." It is impossible for anyone to be universally tolerant or to grasp the public welfare. Inevitably, much like G. K. Chesterton's insane rationalist, reality is chopped up to fit the limitations of the human mind. Tolerance for certain people must take precedence. In practice, this means that liberals are terrible at considering problems of justice the moment they have to step outside of their narrow index card of privilege scoring. (What do you do when the villains are not white Christian heterosexual men?)

There is an even larger problem in that the liberal's belief in the ultimate value of tolerance makes it difficult for them to ever question their own prejudices. This is similar to how formal religion has a tendency to work against actual spirituality. How can a person whose very notion of self is equated with their relationship with God ever question the genuineness of that relationship? (The dark night of the soul, by its very nature, is something that only God, not the human seeker, can initiate.) Likewise, since the liberal defines himself as tolerant and it is this tolerance that gives him moral authority over all the "less enlightened," any attempt to question that tolerance challenges the liberal's very being. By contrast, both religious people and liberals might agree that it is a virtue to be slow to anger. That being said, acknowledging that one is quick to anger (something I am quite guilty of) is not that serious a problem as it does not challenge anyone's central narrative of themselves nor undermine anyone's moral authority.  

Are libertarians likely to be on the autism spectrum? In my experience, there seems to be some truth to this. If I were in charge of a libertarian organization, I would make a special point in reaching out to autism organizations on the assumption that they contained likely converts and vice versa. (Admittedly, as a libertarian on the autism spectrum I am biased to notice people like me.) This is not because we lack empathy; whatever the very real challenges of being on the autism spectrum, lacking empathy is not one of them. I suspect that autistics come preconditioned to make the kind of Faustian bargain necessary for ideological libertarianism (as opposed to simply being socially liberal and fiscally conservative). Libertarianism offers the prospect of being right and logically consistent, but the price you pay is irrelevancy. Note that I am not claiming that libertarians are right or consistent; on the contrary, to even seriously consider libertarianism you have to be willing to surrender relevancy and you may never turn out to be right or consistent.

I confess that this is a limitation of my own thinking. A politically conservative relative recently compared reading this blog to a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. You can count on Calvin being logical, but nothing he says has anything to do with planet Earth. I write in order to have my own little universe that is rational and where the things I care about matter. There would be no point in writing if I lived in a world that actually reflected my mode of being. 

In politics, this leads to voting for Gov. Gary Johnson in the last election even though he only got three percent of the vote. (Not that Johnson was some kind of perfect libertarian. Furthermore, voting for him did not make you one and vice versa.) I voted for Johnson precisely because I refused to make the practical consideration of whether Trump or Clinton was worse than the other. I simply voted for him out of a desire to stick to my principles, to live according to a set of values that exist only in my head. I readily grant that, by doing so, I chose to make myself irrelevant. Not that I have any regrets, but I threw my vote away and neither of the two parties has any reason to take me into consideration.

Consider libertarian principles like "taxation is theft" and "the state has no special moral authority." These are great for those on the spectrum as it offers the chance to turn political science into geometry with beliefs that logically follow clear axioms and theorems. Trying to beat neurotypicals' heads with these ideas is unproductive as they do not relate to their lived experiences. We live in a world of states that claim the moral authority to tax and do anything else for the "public welfare." The state is so ubiquitous that it is meaningless to seriously analyze it as an instrument of power. Unless you can produce something tangible with it, neurotypicals are not likely to make the moral jump and reject the state. To mentally live in a world where you have rejected the government from your own head has no meaning for them.

This leads us to a certain irony in MacLean's accusations of a Koch backed libertarian conspiracy. Much as anti-Semites would have never dreamed up the Protocols of the Elders of Zion if they only had spent time with Jews and saw that Jews could not plot through a kiddush, if MacLean understood either libertarians or autistics, she would have realized that we have no master plan and, if we had to come up with one, it would be much better than the one she invented for us. Buchanan, whether or not he was on the spectrum, wrote as an academic for people living a century in the future, not guidebooks on overthrowing the state.

Autistics are often accused of lacking a theory of mind. In essence, this is a more sophisticated version of the lacking empathy libel. It has the advantage of sounding more clinical and offers the fig-leaf of pretending not to be prejudiced. What is funny about MacLean is the extent that she seems to lack any theory of mind regarding her opponents. Conspiracy thinking is fundamentally about lacking theory of mind in the sense that you assume that your opponents claim what they claim, knowing that it is false, for some sinister purpose as opposed to accepting that, whether they are right or wrong, they honestly believe what they say.

History is about getting into the mind of your subject. If MacLean honestly wanted to write a biography about Buchanan, she should have, for the purposes of the book, started with the assumption that public choice economics is correct. Furthermore, that progressivism, the New Deal, and the 1960s marked wrong turns for this country. If you were an academic who believed this, how would you have responded? Now you have a story worth telling regardless of your political affiliation. The fact that MacLean failed to do this does not mean that she is autistic; she simply lacks the moral imagination to be a good historian.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Needing the Secular World: A Thought Experiment and Some Rodney Stark


In the last 
post, I discussed the idea that Haredim, while they might possess individual scientists, are incapable of creating their own genuine scientific culture. This brought up an argument from the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the necessity of being able to fill out all jobs required by a society. It is not enough for Haredim to say that other people should be doctors or lawyers and, for that matter, policemen and garbage collectors; Haredim need to be able to fill these positions themselves. The fact that Haredim cannot do this, in the long run, poses a major ideological challenge far beyond any particular scientific argument. I would like to further develop this idea with a thought experiment and consideration of the Rodney Stark model of conversion. 

Imagine a town divided between secular people and Haredim. No one has a political advantage to allow them to force their values on anyone. Both Haredi and secular parents are keen to pass on their values to their children and keep them from going over to the other side. One major advantage that secular parents would have is that, ironically, it would be easier for them to raise their children without ever interacting with the other side. The reason for this is that there is no job that they require that they cannot simply fill in with their own people without recourse to Haredim. They can make sure that their children only visit secular doctors and have their trash picked up by secular garbageman. Haredim, for all their talk about maintaining their purity, are forced to lead relatively open lives. Every day Haredi children will walk past secular policemen and garbageman. If they get sick, they will be hard-pressed to make sure that they are seen by a religious doctor. It will not only that these people happen to be secular, but the children will be conscious of these facts as they have been taught to think of these as non-religious jobs.  

Haredim, of all people, should be able to instinctively appreciate how such casual contact with the outside world can become spiritually dangerous. To understand the problem at an intellectual level, it is useful to turn to the sociologist Rodney Stark and his model of conversion. Stark argues for the importance of social relations in causing people to convert to a different denomination or even to move outside of one's religion. People are unlikely to be converted and even more importantly stay converted due to some argument made by a stranger in the street. By contrast, they are very open to their friends and family. 


There are two major reasons why a personal connection is so much more valuable than an intellectual argument. Human beings are social creatures. Even if we wanted to, we are unlikely to be able to change our lives around an argument, even one we believed. By contrast, we do readily change our behavior to match those around us. Furthermore, it is social relations that are going to keep a person within a movement. An argument can be countered with another argument. By contrast, you cannot will a new set of social connections into place; it takes years of work (particularly if you are not a neurotypical).

A good example of this kind of thinking can be found in Mormonism. The LDS Church, decades ago, recognized that having missionaries try to "cold call" strangers was essentially useless. By contrast, having a potential convert meet with a missionary at the home of a Mormon friend was very effective. Hence the LDS Church has now built their entire missionary program around this premise. 

Everyone has their moments of crisis. People with a strong spiritual sensibility are likely to have more of them and they are likely to involve their chosen faiths. Keep in mind that, if you never expect much from your religion, it can never disappoint you. It is precisely the true believer who can become disillusioned. When that happens it can only benefit the LDS Church if you have a Mormon friend that you can find yourself falling into a theological conversation with. This friend can then suggest that perhaps you might want to come over to his house sometime to continue this conversation with some of his other "friends."

This idea that people are ultimately converted by their friends leads us to a particular narrative of conversion. There is a first stage in which a person "socially" converts in the sense that they take on a group of friends, who happen to follow a particular religion. At this point, there is nothing intellectual involved. In fact, the person would likely insist that they have not converted or changed in any significant way. That being said, this is the truly crucial stage. At some point, a person is going to realize that he has come to associate with people from a particular religion and that religion carries a particular ideology that needs to be taken into consideration. A person who fully converts is likely to look back and reframe their narrative to make themselves seekers who found their faith when, in truth, it was the religion that found them.  

This idea of social conversions can be seen in Chabad. The society around a Chabad house consists of a series of circles. At the center is the Chabad emissary couple. Around them, you will have some observant people. But most people at a Chabad house are not Orthodox. You can have people who have been associated with Chabad for years as an important part of their lives without ever becoming Orthodox. They like the Chabad rabbis and perhaps recognize some need for Jewish spirituality, but have no interest in being ritually observant. 

This state of affairs is possible because Chabad emissaries tend to be both remarkably nice and tolerant. Non-religious Jews are amazed at how tolerant Chabad emissaries are and want to be friends with them. In the long run, this model has proven to be incredibly effective even if that is hard to see on a day to day level where it appears that what you have is an observant rabbi surrounded by a non-observant congregation just like you would see in a Conservative synagogue.

My wife an excellent example of this. As a teenager with a non-Jewish mother, she started going to the Chabad in Pasadena on Friday nights mostly as a matter of convenience as it was easier to get there by bus than the Conservative Temple. Her taking on ritual observance and then realizing that, if she ever wanted to get married, she needed an actual Orthodox conversion was a process that took years. This process was made possible by the kindness and tolerance by the Chabad emissaries for someone who was not halakically Jewish.

As to ideological conversions, consider the example of C. S. Lewis. The most dramatic moment of Lewis' journey from atheism to Christianity was a late night conversation with a number of religious Christians, including J. R. R. Tolkien, in which Lewis argued that the main ideas of Christianity came from ancient paganism and therefore should be taken with equal seriousness. One might enjoy Greek and Norse mythology and even see it as a source for great moral teachings, but one cannot be expected to seriously believe in these religions. The response was that the ancient pagans intuitively understood certain truths that were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. 

Now what can easily be lost in this story is that Lewis did not simply walk up to some random Christians at his favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, and start an argument with them. At this point in his life, he had started believing in God largely because the writers he most identified with were theists and that he found that he could not disassociate what he admired from that theism. He had even started going to church as an exercise in being part of the theism team. This led him to become friends with a number of intellectually serious practicing Christians and it was with these Christian friends that he had his famous late-night conversation about pagan mythology.    

To bring this back to our earlier thought experiment, in order to keep their children in the "faith," both the secular and Haredi parents are going to have to keep an eye out for alternative social circles as opposed to some guy handing out leaflets. The secular parents have nothing to worry about as there is no reason why their children would consciously ever have to interact with Haredim. They will know that Haredim exist as theoretical abstractions walking in the streets in strange clothes almost like philosophical zombies. There will never be a reason to take them seriously as individuals with names. Haredi parents will be able to work with no such advantage. Their children will have to interact with secular people, such as doctors and policemen, as individuals with names. This can form the basis for a friendship or at least enough of one that, when that inevitable moment of crisis comes and they feel frustrated with the Haredi community, that they might think to go talk to that secular person in their life. The moment we cross that line, the child might still be a long way from leaving and may have no conscious desire to do so, but his soul is now in play.