Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Rest of Us

One of the hallmarks of a good blog is that it not only sparks thoughtful discussion in the comments, but also inspires some readers to write their own blog entries after ruminating on the concepts it raises. Blogging is not just about exchanging thoughts and ideas; at its best, it multiplies them.

I was going to comment on a post on Ballastexistenz entitled
Views from above, but it ended up turning into a separate essay after I read this comment by Zilari:

I am definitely familiar with this “view from above” perspective. It’s very prevalent in most media-published articles about autism — one thing I’ve noticed is this tendency to use the word “we” to refer only to “we who are not autistic”, and to refer to things like, “the difference between autistic brains and our brains”.

And I’ve also noticed that articles or pieces of writing BY autistic people tend to be preceded by some sort of introduction written by a nonautistic person that sets the stage for the reader to experience a perspective of “other-ness” in what they are about to read.

For instance, the summary paragraph on the back of Thinking In Pictures includes the line,

“…a woman who thinks, feels and experiences the world in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us.”

It’s like they’re just assuming that autistic people aren’t actually going to be reading the book. So we’re not included in the “us”.

Zilari is correct that this attitude is commonplace. I've also seen it in several places. For example, Discover magazine published an article last year that used similar language in discussing how autistic children could benefit from more natural surroundings:

"But normal humans are experiencing a similar loss. We surround ourselves with television and computer games. We practically live in our offices. We inhabit a cocoon of associations and representations of the world around us—increasingly a world divorced from nature."

I'm reminded of something that I came across when I was a little girl at my grandparents' house. In the depths of the basement, which was dark, quiet, cavelike, and always smelled faintly of mold and mildew, there was a treasure trove of old books. I found comic books and adventure stories that had belonged to my uncles when they were boys, as well as Agatha Christie mysteries that might have been my mother's or grandmother's. There was always something interesting on the bookshelves.

One day, when I was about eight years old, I found a book called "A Child's History of the World," which was published around 1920. It was mostly about kings and wars, but it began with a few pages about evolution. According to the author, scientists had shown that life began with simple organisms and that more complex animals evolved, leading to the emergence of humans—who were divided into "Aryans, Semites, and Hamites." The author suggested this test to determine which group a young reader fell into:

"If your name is Henry or Charles or William, you are probably an Aryan. If your name is Moses or Solomon, you are probably a Semite. If your name is Shufu or Rameses, you are probably a Hamite."

Although I didn't always understand the social subtext of books when I was eight years old, that particular one has stuck in my head all these years because it was so glaringly obvious that the author expected all his readers to be Aryan, and male besides. From what I've seen of other material from that period, the author's attitudes were very much in the mainstream of a racist, eugenicist, patriarchal society.

Nowadays, we're supposed to know better. But do we? Not so long ago, a small group of psychologists, whose views went almost entirely unchallenged, confidently asserted—as if it were scientific truth—that the human species once again had to be divided into arbitrary and unequal categories. Autistic. Asperger. And "the rest of us."

I have to wonder what the children who find today's books in the moldy basements of the future will think of our society.



  • When I read the quote from the 1920s history book you refer to, the very first thing that stood out for me was the fact that only male names were used. I think that society has come a long way with regard to recognizing that yes, girls read too, but that hasn't been without a lot of tireless effort at consciousness-raising by a lot of people. I will be happily shocked if I ever come across a book or article that includes autistics in the category of "us" (as in, "us people"). It's possible to acknowledge differences between people without de-emphasizing the personhood of one group.

    And another thing I really think needs to go is the whole "this is the autistic brain, and this is the healthy brain" false dichotomy. There are plenty of people with healthy autistic brains, and not all nonautistic people are healthy.

    And I realize I'm jumping around between topics a bit here, but I just remembered a poem/nursery rhyme from a book I had as a child (entitled "Foreign Children", by Robert Louis Stevenson):

    Little Indian, Sioux, or Crow,
    Little frosty Eskimo,
    Little Turk or Japanee,
    Oh! don't you wish that you were me?

    You have seen the scarlet trees
    And the lions over seas;
    You have eaten ostrich eggs,
    And turned the turtle off their legs.

    Such a life is very fine,
    But it's not so nice as mine:
    You must often as you trod,
    Have wearied NOT to be abroad.

    You have curious things to eat,
    I am fed on proper meat;
    You must dwell upon the foam,
    But I am safe and live at home.
    Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
    Little frosty Eskimo,
    Little Turk or Japanee,
    Oh! don't you wish that you were me?

    Pretty scary stuff, IMO -- not the sort of thing anyone would want to instill in the heads of their four-year-old!

    By Blogger Zilari, at 2:03 PM  

  • Zilari, I would have thought that poem was tongue-in-cheek or outright sarcastic... I guess I'm a child of a different time, and I guess that's a good thing after all...

    By Blogger n., at 8:59 PM  

  • Well, maybe I'm being too literal -- and I do like a lot of Stevenson's poems. They remind me of happy things like playing on swings and watching the light change outside. But I don't know if a very young child would pick up on sarcasm in something like that.

    The whole "Don't you wish that you were me?", even if meant tongue-in-cheek in this case, seems to be something people who differ from a majority (whether via neurology or culture or what have you) are frequently on the receiving end of. I'm not getting all offended here or anything, but it's one thing to look at a poem as an adult and understand the social commentary it might be making in context, but it is another to be a young child without that kind of context.

    And honestly, the notion of it being tongue-in-cheek never occurred to me; I saw it more as an instance of archaic ideology.

    By Blogger Zilari, at 9:52 PM  

  • Zilari, I think the attitudes expressed in the poem are serious, too. There was a tremendous amount of racism a century ago, and it was so pervasive that it could be found in many stories and poems for children. Even nursery rhymes and the like were often racist. For example, "eeny, meeny, miney, mo, catch a tiger by the toe," doesn't mean much of anything now, but the original words were "catch a n***** by the toe."

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:41 AM  

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