Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Dysfunction, Difference and Diversity

As background, you may want to read The Americanization of Mental Illness but it is long.  I could summarize it by simply saying that we should think of mental illness as an underlying dysfunction that manifests through a culturally chosen mode.

On We The People, the US site for futilely petitioning a government that only cares about rich people who only care about money, there is a petition to brand Autism Speaks a hate group and revoke its non-profit status.  Autism Speaks is an odious group that takes donations and uses them to search for a "cure" for autism.  This strikes me as hugely stupid, as it is very hard to believe that autism is a curable condition, but it also wrong because, as the petition itself says, people with autism don't need to be made more normal any more than black people need to be made more white.

We are currently, and thankfully, at what seems to be an inflection point in our treatment of transgender people.  Sympathetic stories appear in mainstream newspapers about trans girls and boys who aren't being allowed - or who are just not being allowed - to use the bathroom that matches their gender at school.  I call this an inflection point because I feel like the rights of transgender people are gaining momentum, but they are still obviously in a very sorry state.  Transgender people are still medicalized by Gender Identity Disorder and still have to go through gatekeeper doctors, psychologists and legislators to be themselves.

What we are seeing with both of these examples is that we are gradually moving from the notion of dysfunction to the notion of difference.  People who find themselves to one side of the mean on the autism spectrum aren't malfunctioning, they are different than those who are at a more average point on that spectrum.  People who are transgender don't have anything wrong with them, they are different than people who are cisgender.

Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" was used as a rallying call for eugenicists who wanted to improve the species by making us smarter, stronger, and taller and by eliminating things like austim and transgender people.  Of course "fittest" was a bit of a weird, self-referential and tautological term as Darwin used it.  It meant "possessing those traits that made the most likely to survive" not "possessing those traits that any particular culture associates with fitness".  The trait that really makes a species survive is diversity.

We are better off for having autistic people in our society, and transgender people.  We are better off for having people with down syndrome, for having people who are blind, for having people who are deaf.  We are better off for having psychopaths and we are better off for having narcissists and Machiavellians.

We are not better off when we deny transgender people the ability to be who they are.  We are not better off when we treat adults with down syndrome like problems instead of people.  We are not better off when create conditions such that the preferred cultural mode of expression for narcissism is murder-suicide or when the preferred mode of expression for psychopathy is financial instrument innovation.
I put stick figure comics on the internet for about a decade, and now I won't. If I make stick figure comics, then I should….live?
I don't know how John Campbell is dysfunctional/different, but I feel a strong affinity for it.  I've always felt this way, that I needed to be given permission to live and that the permission could and would be revoked if I refused to play along.  I feel like I'm running around in the jungle just barely scraping by all the time.  Why is this?

And given this, how did I turn out like I did?  Why am I married?  How do I have children?  How do I have a job that pays me enough money to buy property in the city and pay for daycare in the city?  Why aren't I homeless?

I suspect the answer is that I am a coward.  While the comments on John Campbell's last kickstarter post are filled with people wishing him well and urging him to get help, what I don't see is people congratulating him.  He did it.  He stopped living in fear of what would happen if he was himself.

Or is the difference that I have a greater capacity to tolerate negative emotions?

Can't it be both?


  1. Treatments for severe autism are worth seeking. If your kid was sitting in a corner biting their own fingers off and banging their head against the wall for hours every day then you'd be seeking research and help for them too. I'm on the ASD spectrum and I certainly don't want people to stop researching this condition just because a few people with very mild cases manage to get by and lead normal lives despite it. "Cure" might not be the right word but it would be nice to figure out ways to help non-verbal or self destructive kids on the spectrum, and I don't think that a group working towards those goals can really be called a hate group. I don't know much about Autism Speaks but the idea of researching treatment doesn't really bother me, and I don't get why someone would find it upsetting or threatening really. Can you explain more about what the group does wrong?

  2. Looking at their website right now, it's possible they have grown with growing awareness of autism as a different way of being rather than a mental health issue.

    They were big into funding research into the link between vaccines and autism back in the day (that is, one or two years ago) and while they now talk about treatment, they have consistently talked about "curing" autism. It isn't just that this is not the right word, if it were then they would have adjusted the word they used instead of suing autistic activists who parodied their usage of it (which is something they did).

    They seem like an advocacy group for parents who feel burdened with autistic children rather than for autistic people. Not that those two things are mutually exclusive, but you can certainly advocate for one rather than the other.

    It may be that they are significantly better than what I knew of them when I was more aware of them a few years ago, but I'm not surprised to see a petition to have them branded as a hate group. They seem to want to eradicate autism, which really means eradicating people with autism by one means or another.

  3. with regard to autism and transgender people: i think the distinction point of whether or not it's disordered is how the person who lives it experiences it. some manifestations of autism may indeed be acceptable variations on regular personhood but for some people it's disorder because it is painful.

    gender identity is only a disorder if you're stuck in a gender that feels wrong and that's a problem for you. i imagine that's a hella nightmare for some people, and it may be useful for them to be able to use the idea of disorder in seeking remedy.

    but no, it's not ok to advocate for eliminating people, which is what calling for a blanket cure to autism does amount to. i think it's ok for people with an uncomfortable -what do you call it? syndrome? disease? illness? neural atypical-ness?- it is ok for these people to want mitigation of the symptoms of their discomfort.

    it is not always easy to draw a bright line between those two concepts.

    and thanks to you i have been thinking a lot about mr. campbell's apparent mental illness, and i've been reading a lot of what's been said.

    i still don;t think it's ok to offer a product in exchange for money and then go off your rails and be angry at people who want the thing they paid for. i think mr. campbell is at this time in a sad fugue state in which he wishes for supporters to pay him for just being, which is maybe ok if the supporters are fine with it, but it's not really a way to make a living.

    i do understand the stresses of feeling pressures to PRODUCE and the feeling of being overwhelmed by demands and i can see how and why an artist might go off the rails but i don't think it's an achievement to snap your elastic and lash out at the people who wanted to buy the product you designed and offered.

    i think people should be understanding and gentle and maybe just cut their losses because sometimes things happen to people and they fail at obligations due to illness, and i think that's what happened to him.

    i don;t think he should be congratulated for finally being himself, because i don't get a sense that selling his comic to people who wanted to own his work was somehow inauthentic for who he was up until he broke.

    i'm speaking from the perspective of someone with a serious and sometimes crippling mental illness. when the crazy comes and sits on me, i do not consider it to be an accomplishment for which i should be congratulated.

    i want there to be room in the world for me to live with dignity and some comfort, but not for a second should people congratulate me when i go off the rails.