Which War Are We In: Good vs. Evil, or The One vs. The Many?

Gwen McKay with what has become trademark optimism remarked in a comment the other day that “Right now I’d say that we are going through a long-term process of discarding our collective identity as a society that insists on normality and conformity, replacing that outlook with a new identity as a society that values diversity.”  I find this to be welcome news if accurate; Gwen has in any case put her finger on one theater where the little-noted drama of The One vs. The Many is being played out.  I can be counted on to snooze through many an epic tale of Good vs. Evil, whether featuring Hobbits or Harry Potter, the return of the Jedi or of Jesus Christ Himself, but whenever I can score a ticket to a rare showing of The One vs. The Many, I am so there.

An old professor/therapist friend of mine used to say that “The issue is never the issue.”  In that spirit, I’m here to suggest that the issue at hand isn’t whether or not autism is an Evil (or a disability) at war with Good (or health), but rather whether or not The One (or Gwen’s “society that insists on normality and conformity”) is to prevail over The Many (or “a society that values diversity”).  To the extent we value and identify with The Many, we distract ourselves from this issue at our peril.  Happily enough, there is evidence in Shift Journal’s referral logs that at least some internet users have got the right idea.

Week to week, two of the most consistent pairs of search terms which bring people to this site are “autism” coupled with “geeks” or “nerds,” and “Aspergers” paired with “introvert.”  One of the handful of single words which brings in more traffic than all the above terms combined is of course “neurodiversity.”  This is all, I think, as it should be. Diversity being diversity, as a word it encompasses much, perhaps much more even than was intended by those who coined the term neurodiversity.  This is what I was getting at last March when I wrote,

… so many of the challenges faced by autistics come of the stigma imposed on us by society for our behavior (including our expression of inherently different perceptions and perspectives), regardless of how or whether that behavior is labeled. What we have in common—in terms of day-to-day experience—is not so much autism as we’ve allowed it to be defined for us as it is that felt necessity of living if at all possible behind an invented and expensive fiction.

The “we” that has this day-to-day experience in common are historically known not just as autistics or as Aspergerish, but also as nerds, geeks, and introverts.  Call us the broad autistic cohort.  Our invented and expensive fictions may vary.  We may feel compelled to appear less nerdy, less geeky, less “stimmy,” more outgoing, or just less weird.  And yes, over the past two decades the geeks, praise be to Computerz-and-the-Internet, have pulled out in front of the pack in terms of social status.  The point though is that the stigma is applied regardless of the amount or kind of attention paid by medical science to anyone’s particular label.

Look, for instance, at the ever-increasing evidence that sexual orientation is a matter of innate character rather than choice.  Has this “neuro-” component of our understanding of sexuality really decreased animosity toward gays and lesbians?  Or—to the extent their position has in fact improved—is this not due to other factors, including the fact that gays, unlike the autistic cohort, have a Stonewall in their history?

Whether it recognizes autism as autism or not then, I suggest that in actual practice, society defines, disciplines, and stigmatizes diagnosed autistics and the rest of autistic cohort not in terms of medical science, diagnoses, and genetic findings, not in terms of affliction or health or disability—or in other words not in terms of Good vs. Evil—but simply in terms of differences in behavior, of divergence from The One, from The One True Way to be in the world. The “advocacy” group Autism Speaks may portray autism as an explicitly evil monster, and society doesn’t blink. Society thinks that’s plausible enough.  Or not, provided there is sufficient pushback from the autistic community.

Whatever. Because meanwhile the stigma, like the Dude, abides.

There’s a classic magician’s trick being played here:  we’ve allowed our attention to be misdirected away from what actually drives the stigmatization of the autistic cohort, and allowed it to be focused instead on the false choice of whether autism is to be seen as “good” or “bad.”  Consider that while no one would even try to get away with portraying geekery, nerd-dom, or introversion as evil, geeks, nerds, and introverts are still subject to the same broad spectrum of stigma as are out-and-out autistics.  Even were we to “win” the battle against the portrayal of autism as an evil, as nothing but a disabling monster, that “victory” would be meaningless in terms of dispelling the stigmatization that would still apply to the entire autistic cohort, and which sets up the actual, practical challenges we face in common.

The issue, when it comes to seemingly intractable situations like this, is never the issue.  The true fight has to do not with who or what is good, healthy, evil, an affliction or an affectation.  The true fight, the fight from which consequences flow, has to do with whether The One is to lord it over The Many … or not.  If we (The Many, The Diverse) are aware of this, and they (The One and its devoted, willing subjects and defenders) are not—if they come to believe their own hype—this can make for an advantage both strategic and entertaining.

Another way to think about The One vs. The Many is in terms of centralized systems vs. distributed systems.  I’ll come back to this next week [or the week after]; it’s an angle that has implications for among other things the search for autism’s “cure.”  In the meantime, keep an eye on the unfolding Wikileaks drama, in particular on the nature of the opposing forces in that story, and on which side has the better grasp of the other—specifically not in terms of which side has the better claim to being “good” and to portraying the other as “evil.”  That’s irrelevant to the lesson that’s on display there.  Which side, I am asking, is making their moves in terms of The One vs. The Many, and which side remains almost entirely clueless as to this dimension of the conflict?

on 12/10/10 in featured, Politics | 13 Comments | Read More

Comments (13)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, “the One vs. the Many” is a succinct and accurate way to put it. I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that the good vs. evil argument is meaningless; after all, being portrayed as evil generally has much more serious real-life consequences than simply being seen as different. I do agree, however, with your point that it is a distraction from the primary conflict.

    Looking forward to reading your post on centralized systems vs. distributed systems…

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks Gwen; you’re right, I did leave a rough edge there when it comes to the consequences of being labeled evil. My conception of evil runs pretty close to M. Scott Peck’s. That is, that evil is the result of a nasty, self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s inherent to the human psyche. In other words, it’s something that happens rather than something that is.

    While I don’t believe autism is the result of a nasty feedback loop, I do believe it is also something that happens rather than something that is. I don’t believe that autism is properly understood by reifying it (am I rite, Laurentius?) into a thing or a force, as the Autism Speaks campaign did — and as monotheism tends to do with evil.

    So yeah, when everyone’s luck seems to go sour, or the locals start dying of unknown causes and my witch-hunting neighbors, certain that evil’s afoot, inevitably get their culprit tied to the stake? That’ll be me, flames licking at my boots, pointing out with my last breath that I don’t feel threatened — because you see, they’ve made some grievous category error regarding the nature of evil. It’ll probably serve me right.

    But if I’m flippant about the consequences of being labeled evil, it’s intended at least in part as a thumbing-of-the-nose at those who would frame autism as a “thing” that can be conflated with evil and impersonally targeted for judgment or hatred or elimination, as if it existed apart from people. I know well enough how terrifying and debilitating it is to feel targeted and depersonalized that way. I just don’t see any point in quailing over it.

  3. Gwen McKay says:

    Ah yes, I have a copy of The Road Less Traveled on my bookshelf, too. That’s certainly an interesting way to look at it — laziness as the root of all evil.

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Actually, for whatever it’s worth, the only Peck I’ve read is People of the Lie.

  5. Stephanie says:


    I’m having trouble with your conception of The One vs. The Many. It seems backwards to me. (Not being critical, just looking for clarification.)

    To me the One would be the individual who has the right and freedom to be, well, an individual. Whereas, the Many would be the society which collectively forces the individuals to conform.

    Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t quite internalized that I’m not alone in my struggle to not conform. I mean, really, I should have internalized that by now. My husband and my children, our friends and many members of our families, and all my Internet “cohorts” reflect that I am not alone in my struggle.

    Perhaps it’s because when I look at the One you describe, the society of conformists, I see individuals who-for their own, individual reasons-choose to participate in the collective, or who participate by default, unaware or unconvinced that they do have a choice. I see people who have to be reached as individuals, in order to create that societal shift.

    I would be very interested in a more in-depth explanation on why (or perhaps it’s ‘how’) you see the One vs. the Many.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Stephanie, I’d give a lot to have many of the books in my library digitized and made searchable, but this passage may be as good an introduction as any to the perspective I’m speaking from. Welcome to what was for me a seven-year obsession:

    “The fantasy of polytheism permits no single one to be elevated to The One in a literalistic manner. Zeus posits himself above all others, for the archetypal idea of oneness presents itself as first, superior, progenitor. But Zeus is only one among many other equals, a primus inter pares, and myths show him limited by the others. In this polytheistic vision the struggle between the one and the many, good and evil, and all the either-or problems of the monotheistic fantasy become irrelevant. Polytheistic mythical thinking seems quite nonchalant about binary oppositions. When Lévi-Strauss raises the idea of binary opposites to be the single explanatory principle of mythical thought, is he speaking with the true voice of myth or of Descartes and his dualism?

    “Let us imagine an unworried blend of polytheistic and monotheistic styles as in the Renaissance. Even for medieval Christianity, ‘the pagan gods were as truly existent as the Trinity or the Virgin Mary.’ They were of course generally evil because pagan. But a characteristic virtue of Renaissance thought was that an interplay could go on between images from different myths without theological considerations, and that the psychological significance of polytheistic images could stand forth without blame for their ‘paganism.’ This attitude is profoundly psychological because it allows the diverse perspectives of myths and their figures to see through one another. None can be taken as literally real; none can claim precedence. As in the Renaissance there can be ‘an easy ambivalence of pagan humanistic and Christian values without attempting to reconcile the differences.’

    “There will always be attempts at reconciliation between Christian monotheism and pagan polytheism, between theology and psychology, when the archetypal perspective of unity and systematic order dominates. The polytheistic perspective requires no ‘reconciliation’ since there is place for all from the beginning. But monism cannot take the ambiguity of diversity. It experiences it as a tension of opposites which must be accommodated through a higher single principle and resolved. This synthesizing operation, by moving higher, is always an inflating exercise, an identification with a one high God who creates a firm order out of many viewpoints. But this chapter leaves such concerns behind. As an essay in polytheistic psychology, the discussion that follows attempts to move soul-making away from the preconceptions of monotheistic psychology.

    That’s from James Hillman’s prologue to the fourth section of Revisioning Psychology. It may contain a better reply too, than I gave to Gwen’s comment — though I do seem to have fallen into a binary opposition here myself. (Damn you, Descartes!)

    I was also touching on some of these themes in On Styles of Consciousness, also in Still a Crowded Room, and probably a place or two else. Here’s Gwen as well, with Alexithymia, Autism, and the Many Pagan Deities in the Details.

    Thanks much for asking, Stephanie. It does me good to be forced to actually crack open a book again, and it’s always a pleasure to be queried about an obsession old or new; let me know what you think.

  7. Stephanie says:

    I have read what you presented, including the links. Still processing. Struggling to grasp this use of theism. It might take a while, but there will be a response.

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    The title of that section I quoted from is Prologue: Polytheistic Psychology, or a Psychology with Gods, Is Not a Religion — and of course by the time that passage comes up in the book, there’ve been 170 pages of table-setting and term-defining. Nothing’s literal with Hillman; gods are perspectives rather than entities, embraced by being imagined rather than believed in. Rather than making abstract use of concepts like diversity and hierarchy, he’s continuing within the long, rich tradition of speaking of gods as personified notions who can be found organized into pantheons .. or hierarchies, which in turn influence our personal perspectives mightily. For me anyway, though KWombles may wince here, it’s all of the magic with none of the woo. :-)

    So he’s not talking about theism per se; he’s talking about different perspectives that are native to the psyche, to imagination and to dreams, and about how we imagine those perspectives in relation to one another. And in their native form, as we’ve experienced them from time immemorial, those perspectives present themselves in forms that Western tradition, back through the Renaissance to the Greeks, recognizes as gods. He doesn’t fight that, or dismiss it as old-fashioned. He just recognizes it — Hillman has been described as “a naturalist of the psyche” — and goes about observing their ways.

  9. Stephanie says:


    I guess my understanding of this is best expressed in Alexithymia, Autism and the Many Pagan Deities in the Details:

    “Research studies in psychological science often are designed to require participants to choose from among simple answers. This is well suited to the reasoning process of those who operate in theory-of-mind mode. But what happens when questionnaires written in this format are given to people whose brains are hard-wired to perceive more ambiguity and to contemplate the resulting pantheon of possibilities?”

    I personally experience this sort of thing quite often. Multiple choice personality tests, for example, require you to respond with short answers to questions that I feel are very complex. I often have to temper my answers, especially in cases where the question asks for “always” or “very” for situations that could vary from being straightforward to highly complex.

    Grasping that analogy through that lens and then applying it to the many vs. one makes sense. The one mind-set being the simpler, black/white mind-set; the many being the complex, gray/rainbow mind-set.

    Of course, the literal resistance lingers, but I understand.

    Thank you for the new perspective!

  10. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks for wrestling with it, Stephanie.

  11. Vous faîtes toujours des articles intéressants

  12. On va dire que ce n’est guère erroné !

  13. Rudement plaisant, je pense que ce post intéresserait ma pote

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