Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Our Culture Teaches

A recent post on Kevin Leitch's blog discussed autistics who say they want to be cured. The blog entry made the point that those who feel this way are entitled to make their own choices and to be treated with respect when they express their views. Several people commented that it should not be surprising that in a world where autism has been widely characterized as a medical problem, there are autistic people who view their existence and their difficulties in terms of this medical discourse, as our society has taught them to do.

Culture plays a very powerful role in how we define ourselves and our goals as we go through life. When we discuss whether or not there ought to be a cure for autism, this question itself arises from the constraints of our culture. That is to say, such a discussion could exist only in a society that has first defined a certain set of traits as comprising "autism" and has then placed this category of "autism" under the broader category of medical disorders.

Just a few generations ago, nobody was discussing whether autism ought to be cured because the concept of a medical disorder called "autism" did not exist. People who had traits that modern society would call "autistic" were taught to define their ways of interacting with the world in different terms. There were other groups of people who were categorized as mentally disordered on the basis of the cultural prejudices then existing. For example, women who sought equal rights were likely to be labeled as delusional and suffering from hysteria. Homosexuality was officially defined as a psychiatric disorder, and many gays went into therapy (voluntarily or otherwise) with the goal of curing them and making them socially acceptable.

The concept of cure fits into the broader expectation that we must always strive to improve ourselves. Modern society has taken industry's objective of continuous improvement and has applied it to the human body and mind, seeking to develop an efficient system for producing a new and improved population according to the experts' specifications. In a relatively short time, this cultural paradigm has largely replaced the old ways of humbly following ancient traditions and believing that God or the pagan gods intended us to be as we are.

For better or worse, this is the culture we live in now, and I'm certainly not arguing that we should all go back to living in traditional villages. The modern quest to improve ourselves and our children has brought about many good things, including widespread literacy, public sanitation, environmental protection, a decrease in vaccine-preventable diseases, and a health care system that (while still primitive in many ways) has played a major role in increasing the average human lifespan significantly.

Indeed, it is now within the realm of possibility that longevity research may enable people to live hundreds or even thousands of years, with a wide variety of artificial body parts and enhancements. It's a fascinating topic to contemplate; and while I haven't taken up transhumanism as a political cause or a personal philosophy, I see this as the direction in which our society is moving, and I believe it is imperative that we address the ethical issues associated with a culture of continuous improvement of the self.


The most vital issue, as I see it, is this: Who gets to decide what an improvement is? In this rapidly approaching future, will we respect the right of individuals to choose their own preferred ways of configuring their bodies and their brains, creating a vibrant kaleidoscope of human diversity as we evolve in ways as yet unimagined? Or are we heading toward a sci-fi nightmare where, in addition to having cosmetic procedures such as breast implants for the sake of popularity, each of us will be expected (or required) to get implants for our brains so that we can conform to a narrow range of socially acceptable thought patterns?

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15 Comments:

  • I think the latter is more likely.

    By Blogger VAB, at 3:16 AM  

  • An interesting post.

    By Blogger Casdok, at 3:58 AM  

  • "Just a few generations ago, nobody was discussing whether autism ought to be cured because the concept of a medical disorder called "autism" did not exist. People who had traits that modern society would call "autistic" were taught to define their ways of interacting with the world in different terms. There were other groups of people who were categorized as mentally disordered on the basis of the cultural prejudices then existing. For example, women who sought equal rights were likely to be labeled as delusional and suffering from hysteria. Homosexuality was officially defined as a psychiatric disorder, and many gays went into therapy (voluntarily or otherwise) with the goal of curing them and making them socially acceptable."

    Essentially, we're looking at a process in which societies are restricting their latitudes of acceptance. At one time, there was actually very little need for guidelines and laws on inclusive practice... it's only came about as a result of this societal behaviour of restricting latitudes of acceptance that we have to have them; in the same way that we didn't need intelligence tests until France went from a developmentally oriented schooling system to an age-banded one.

    Humans can be very intelligent on their own, but in huge bunches, they become stupid.

    This is what every social psychology book tells us.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 6:37 AM  

  • Agree with David - and don't forget the engine driving this restriction of the latitudes of tolerance (excellent phrase) - the gazillions of psychologists pouring out of universities everywhere who want to be clinical psychologists.

    By Blogger Alyric, at 8:39 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 10:18 AM  

  • "the gazillions of psychologists pouring out of universities everywhere who want to be clinical psychologists."

    Actually... I can't say that I disagree with that ... and indeed there is some blame to be given to educational psychologists who insist on taking on the clinical paradigm as their own; in educational psychology, we are trained quite differently, and that should be reflected in our practice.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 10:19 AM  

  • Although we live in an age of expanding technologies and all of the hype that goes with them, the reality is that in the future less people, not more, are going to have access to anything that would significantly change/augement their bodies and brains. The world is quickly running out of natural resources (specifically, the cheap oil on which the world's economies is predicated) and nothing is forthcoming that is going to take the place of cheap oil. We're going to be contracting economically from now on, rather than expanding, hard as it may be to face. The small villiage scenario is much more likely.

    Regarding a cure--what is a cure going to look like I think is the big question. Is it going to be a way to rewire autistic brains completely? I don't think it can happen, honestly. But what about pharmaceuticals of some sort that could make the more negative aspects of autism, *as experienced by autistics*, easier to bear (like chronic pain or tics, motor planning difficulties), etc? I think that's the more realistic scenario and researchers should be asking autistics about their more negative experiences and what would make them better when coming up with a "cure".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:38 PM  

  • Anonymous, I don't expect that running out of cheap oil will send us all back to a primitive existence in small villages. People said much the same thing when we ran out of whale oil 150 years ago, after all. With today's technology, it is possible to make synthetic petroleum out of any organic matter, including garbage; the problem is that there has been very little investment in alternative fuel production because oil has been so cheap for so long. Yes, changing from oil to other fuel sources will cause a temporary economic slowdown, but I don't believe it will be catastrophic.

    I agree that cure-oriented researchers should change their focus to improving the negative aspects of autism (with the caveat that we shouldn't automatically characterize harmless tics, etc., as negative simply because of society's prejudices against them). Such pharmaceuticals should not be regarded as a cure or treatment for autism. They would be in the same social category as the medications that some women take for menstrual discomfort, which no one would describe as a cure for femaleness; they would alleviate specific problems while not affecting group identity in any way.

    By Blogger abfh, at 1:21 PM  

  • We'll have to disagree about the peak oil issue. I think things are going to get pretty bad before they stabilize--Cuba in the 1990s is a good test model after they lost Soviet oil--they made it out for the better (I think) but we may not fare so well coming from a capitalist culture.

    Nevertheless I, certainly don't think that incredibly expensive designer technologies are going to be available to anyone of average means in the future (they aren't now). And I completely agree with you re: a "cure" and how it is defined ( hence the scare quotes).

    I know the nd "community" has been talking for a while now and in many cases ignored or discredited. I am hoping (probably in vain) that the Carly Fleischmann story is going to inspire a paradigm shift of some sort to actually start listening to autistics and understanding their perception of their own reality, rahter than presuming what is going on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:23 PM  

  • Some people have started listening to autistics. Here's a link to an excellent article about the autistic rights movement in the March issue of Wired magazine:

    Yeah, I'm AUTISTIC: You got a problem with that?

    By Blogger abfh, at 3:08 PM  

  • Carly in her own words:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4320297&page=1

    She says ABA helped her focus her thoughts but unfortunately can't make her normal. Which raises a whole bunch of questions on it's own.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:39 PM  

  • I don't think brain implants would help most of you, transplants would be required. I am in favor of the breast implants though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:08 PM  

  • Hi Foresam. Yup, you'd look really cute with breast implants.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:27 AM  

  • hi there abfh....

    I got to your blog from Ballastexistenz....

    I watched the abc video about Carly...and when I heard the bit about "unfortunately ABA cannot make me normal..."

    I thought that maybe, just MAYBE she had been "fed" those ideas....that's not the right word exactly but I mean.....events happened that weren't necessarily good that led her to type those words. There is a reason for most everything, and until one can put into proper context what a person says or types or writes and WHY he or she communicated thusly, one cannot fully understand and appreciate the real meaning behind said communication.

    I'd be surprised if she just decided for herself that she felt that way, independently of her environment or how people may/may not have reacted to her in the past or present.

    Nice to meet you online via blog, abfh.

    By OpenID athenivanidx, at 9:41 PM  

  • Very interesting post and comments

    By Blogger A Bishops wife, at 7:10 AM  

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