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.  

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