As those of her generation are able to do, my mother the other day—with just the slightest stern shake of her head—remarked at “How much has changed,” since I was a child, and even more since she herself was young. This was in the context of a discussion about this website, and the social change promoted and chronicled here. And every generation, it’s true, has their eternal verities and rock-solid assumptions about human nature which especially over the last century or so tend to be discarded at what may seem a bewildering rate. All of course while each generation’s chosen authority figures and duly worshipped deities have managed, uncannily enough, to reflect, reinforce, and justify the passing misjudgments of those generations.
If each one of us then who reaches a certain age is entitled to play the “How much has changed” card, while society itself is able to excuse its outmoded behaviors with a collective declaration of “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” what is to be done by those who suffer under current, yet-to-be-outmoded societal misjudgments? I’m not sure I know the whole answer here, but at least for me, it’s a question that does seem to describe the situation of autistics in contemporary society.
When influential groups such as medical authorities, institutional donors, and godly proponents of family values seem to be aligned in denying the legitimacy of autistic as a way to be in the world, on what basis do we go about asserting that legitimacy? The fact is of course that social change does happen; forces like these do yield to change—but why would they, given that they themselves are society’s recognized arbiters of what is right, sensible, compassionate, and legitimate? If such powers-that-be are society’s unmoved movers, what is it that moves them nonetheless?
There’s likely more than one answer to that, one (as I wrote recently) being that even those who will never change their minds do eventually die, their places taken by younger minds who see the world with fresh eyes. That still begs the question though of why those fresh eyes would see this world any differently than did the departed.
Some hours after that conversation with my mother, my old friend l’esprit d’escalier reminded me of a story I’d run across a few times, most recently on Digg via NPR’s Monkey Business: Fairness Isn’t Just A Human Trait. The opening paragraph gets right to the point:
Showing your humanity usually refers to an act of kindness or charity. Treating someone humanely means treating him fairly and with dignity. But are these traits really unique to humans?
The research cited suggests that our sense of fair play has a source which is innate to us as social animals—and which exists effectively out-of-time, presumably unchanging across not only countless generations but across species as well. This in turn supports the notion that society’s designated outgroups (racial minorities, women, gays, autistics) are created by the socially enforced breakdown of our natural “social inequity aversion.” Or in other words by a culturally learned failure of empathy reminiscent of the fabled empathy deficits of which the autistic are so famously accused—one can wonder in fact if there might not be an element of projection involved in that “determination” regarding empathy and autistics.
“All’s fair in love and war” goes the saying at any rate, and yet the deal that emerging outgroups are always initially offered is that all’s fair, period. End of story. “Go away now, and be ye uppity no more.” Until something does finally have to change, at which point there’s a collective grumble, “Well, it seemed like a fair deal at the time,” and things return to a still uneasy, slightly different equilibrium. Wash, rinse, and repeat a few more times, and we may find that we have become elders who can remark on “How much has changed” over our lifetimes.
Do “things” really change though? Or do we have this backwards? Don’t things—doesn’t social reality (in all its cultural, sexual, and neurological diversity)—stay largely the same from one generation to the next, while we as a society grudgingly grant (or deny) that reality a smidge more accommodation or recognition here and there, smidges we flatter (or terrify) ourselves with by making as if they were grand, sweeping, watershed events?
What is it, again though, that motivates us as a society to grant such a smidge of recognition in the first place; what is it that makes us finally give in, despairing that the outfolk will ever take a hint and back off, for God’s sake, with their incessant demands that they be recognized and treated with fairness and dignity?
For today anyway, I’m entertaining the idea that it is an appeal to our innate sense of fairness that leads us to grant those smidges—a sense that seems to have come to us (yea, though the news leaves Scoutmasters and Sunday School teachers crestfallen in its wake) from our deep, deep, mammalian ancestors rather than from the examples set by our living elders or our community.
I have two quotes left here that I want to present with as little comment as possible, in the hope that they can speak for themselves. The first, maybe an obvious choice, is from another keen observer of animal behavior, Walt Whitman.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.
The other, from poet and essayist Michael McClure, is more obscure but is something of a signature point for McClure’s work, a point that builds on Whitman’s longing.
When a man does not admit that he is an animal, he is less than an animal. Not more but less.
Which may after all be only what the Capuchin monkeys in the studies described above—along with other animals in subsequent studies—are telling us themselves.
related: On the Border