Note for future consideration: there’s an interesting similarity between Theory of Mind (deficit/absence) models of autism and the Standard Social Justice Model of privilege theory + standpoint epistemology, which is that both posit a condition of occlusion: of being incapable of empathetically mirroring the standpoint/situation of others, and hence being unable to access whatever knowledge is indexed to their lived experience. It’s a matter of not only “not knowing what it’s like” to be the other person, but being structurally/constitutively incapable of such knowledge. Hence the question arises as to whether James Damore’s thundering obtuseness with respect to the likely social and professional impact of the notorious Google Memo was a function of his whiteness and maleness (and so on), or of his putative on-the-spectrum traits, or both. (The general view is that the latter should not be admitted as an excuse; but are they nevertheless practically implicated?)
I’ve recently been reading Melanie Yergeau’s really excellent Authoring Autism, and she spends a fair amount of time on the way that the Theory of Mind model dehumanises autists. Reflexively, the inability to represent to oneself the mental contents of others is taken to entail an inability to represent one’s own mental contents, to have a theory of one’s own mind. Alexithymia, or the inability to recognise and articulate one’s own emotions, is one clinical projection of this. The occluded person is thus pictured as doubly-occluded: access to oneself is consequent upon, elaborated through, access to others. As Yergeau shows, when not pictured as a “full” human being who has been unfortunately kidnapped by autism and remains imprisoned within it, awaiting release, the autist is pictured as an “empty fortress”, someone who does not really have a mind at all, like the subject of a philosophical thought-experiment involving zombies.
Being so positioned as someone who does not have a standpoint from which to testify, who is subtracted from the nexus of positions and relationships that make up the allistic social world, can be deeply invalidating; as Yergeau argues, when you picture someone in that way, you’re turning them into a prop for whatever stories you want to tell about “normal” human cognitive and social functioning. They’re not supposed to answer back, because they’re supposed not to be capable of answering back in a meaningful way. Yergeau tracks the way this form of invalidation has historically run in parallel with others, notably the clinical pathologisation of deviant sexuality and gender presentation, which leads her to develop a “neuroqueer” self-interpretation of autism.
I’m still a bit dubious about this move. On the one hand, it grants her access to the contemporary rhetorical arsenal around “queer ontology”, which she deploys adroitly (or gauchely, if you prefer) to reframe autistic traits as composing an embodied rhetoric of liminal, destabilising, infra- or demi-sociality (cf the “anti-social turn” in queer theory). Cool! On the other hand, there are some very hetero aspies about, and I kind of want to hold open the discursive space between queerness as an insistently sexual social torsion, and neurodiversity as its own, distinctive yet overlapping, panoply of ways of being a bit bent. (I haven’t yet read carefully what Yergeau says about asexuality, which may be the mediating topos: is asexuality queer or not queer, or — as some would have it — a kind of queering of the queer?)
Being positioned, or self-positioning, as divergent from the allistic social matrix can also be — as, again, L’affaire Damore* illustrates — weaponised. For one thing, it supplies a motive for bristling at privilege theory’s willingness to frame certain categories of people as epistemically occluded which is not immediately identical to defensiveness about one’s own privileged position (but might be very convenient to the latter, all the same). What unintended consequences, what collateral damage, might arise from reifying a stereotype of an antagonist as constitutively/structurally unable to know that which it is most important to know?
I was talking the other day with a friend about how it can be educative to find oneself, as a white, educated, male etc person, in a situation in which you cannot expect that anything you say will be taken seriously, or treated as anything other than further evidence of your already-assumed state of moral debility. One might learn to be more wary of the kinds of dehumanising framings that routinely place others in that sort of situation. But there then also arises a duty to challenge such framings wherever they arise, because they rest on, and reinforce, a style of aggressive norm-mongering which will always end up being turned against those who least deserve to be on the receiving end.
If you want to see that in action, watch a clique of TERFs interacting with any identifiable-as-trans woman who tries to challenge their position. For bonus insight points, compare their framing of the person they invalidate and dismiss in that scenario with the ableist stereotypes they invoke when talking about autism. Obtuse, obsessive, self-centred, unreasonably demanding accommodation: is that “male privilege and entitlement”, or “autistic mind-blindness and perseveration”? Either way, we must be firm. There may be room for pity, but there is none for recognition.
(Further note to self: re-read Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology with aspie spectacles on. In what terms does she characterise the soul-dead, energy-sucking, techno/necrophiliac male? What model of healthy, emotionally correct, fully-human functioning is being established against this foil? How does this then work to marginalise and invalidate trans and non-neurotypical women?)
The autistic war machine (of which Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicals is the de facto militant manifesto) is a mechanism for dismantling invalidating framings, framings which inhibit moral imagination and allow their owners and operators to carry on as if, to paraphrase the old joke about the evangelicals in heaven, they were the only ones here. By “moral imagination” I mean a sort of negative capability: the ability to suppose that others exist who are differently configured to oneself, without immediately characterising them as monstrous, amoral predators (who must be incarcerated or killed) or incompetent, overgrown children (who must be subjected to a regime of behavioural modification). It’s a quality almost entirely orthogonal to political orientation. One is always surprised to find it on the right, but it is there. The left, by its own lights, should have much more of it than it presently does.
- The pun here on “affaire d’amour” is mostly accidental.