Sunday 21 February 2021

Neurodiversity: It's politics, not science!

... or ...

It's the name of a social justice movement, not a diagnosis

You may have heard critics of the Neurodiversity paradigm dismiss it with "It's not even scientific" or "It's pseudoscience". 

Of course it isn’t. It's not meant to be. 

Neurodiversity simply names a biological truism, a self-evident fact that adds nothing to what we already know about the world.  You don't need a cross-disciplinary PhD in a brace of "~ologies" to figure out that every human brain on the planet is as unique as each fingerprint. It follows that there is a virtually infinite diversity of humans on the planet, with infinitely diverse minds complexified further by experience in equally diverse bodies. 

A scientific investigation of Neurodiversity would have to find two individuals on the planet whose minds are exactly alike. Identical twins? As soon as one infant looks to the left and sees something that the other doesn't, their minds being to diverge. Neurodiversity is a not a scientific concept because it cannot be tested or falsified, though what a dream job it would be to get a grant to travel the world analysing each brain to get a perfect match. Y

es, you can have genetic matches, but not if you factor in culture and experience

And secondly, having been blessed, or cursed, with a highy systematizing (!) sociologizing brain,  my intent was political, unifying and liberatory, not divisively intent on putting individuals "under a microscope".

By political, I mean the combative process by which organized groups in societies make decisions about how to allocate resources, power, and status. 

Members of Neurological minorities, whether diagnostically labelled or not,  have generally been been discriminated against: denied resources, disempowered, and devalued from school through life trajectory and work career, which affects our standard of living unless we are lucky enough to be born into a well-to-do family. This must change. Thus our fight for recognition and a fair share of resources, influence, and status is a political fight. And to have the political clout we need to organize ourselves. 

The Dialectics of Neurodiversity
The Dialectics of
Click to enlarge

That is how the Neurodiversity movement began. First it needed a catchy name, a banner to gather under. And then the people came and fleshed out the agenda for change. And then as people always do, they disagreed on this and that,  polarised, debated, and sometimes even trolled each other, and a consensus began to evolve, with extremist views acting as a delimiter. And that is how politics is, and how the world changes by what is called a dialectical process 

To this end, instinctively - albeit semi-consciously, as I never imagined how this would actually take off  decades later - I came up with the word "Neurodiversity" for two specific political functions

·         to add a necessary new category to what is now called "Intersectionality".

·       to suggest an umbrella term for an emerging social/political movement based on the pioneering work of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Movement. It had become clear that ASA movement's paradigm was beginning to be adopted by other Neurotribes who had different diagnostic labels but common issues of exclusion

To be clear, this is how I first used the word "Neurodiversity", this and nothing else. 

That’s all.

Neurodiversity is a conjoined word which trades on two of the era-defining developments of 20th century science

·       the ascendency of Neuroscience, the "hard" science of the physical brain, - with pictorial proof yet - over Psychology, the study of that elusive substance, the Psyche

·       the rise of environmental science, from which emerged, in the 1980s, the term Biodiversity, another truism, coined expressly as an argument for the conservation of the species

The intention was to sound authoritative based on the combined heft of neuroscience and environmental science, not to be scientific.

The word Neurodiversity could be called a Koan – it caught on because it delivers an instant Aha! moment to so many of us. We hear it, we know it, it fits our times and for many of us, names our struggles. But the word is perhaps an exercise in consciousness that begs a question: Now that we have foregrounded the uniqueness of each human mind, 

“What is humanity going to do about it”?

What humanity has "done about it" depends on the cultures we have been born into. And our diversity of human cultures have, needless to say, dealt with it in their own diverse ways. 

Although I majored in Anthropology, I daren't make pronouncements about other cultures, other than to state that, from what I have learned so far, there are no utopias out there, not even amongst the remaining hunter-gatherer that some idealist romantics would still like to exalt to the status of "Noble Savages". Like individuals, the cultures we create have their strengths and weaknesses, winners and losers, as delimited by their available natural resources, of which, significantly, famine was the ultimate delimiter. 

Instead I will confine my observations to what I know best, our Dominant Patriarchal Western Christian Civilization.  (DPWCC). Armed with this conglomerations of beliefs, DPWCCs conquered most of the world over the past millenium, enslaving other peoples, including their own women and amassing massive fortunes as a result.

DPWCC is a mouthful. Let's call this obviously life-threatening (to others)  psychologically diseased constellation "Capitalist Syndrome". 

But like every other labelled disability, Capitalist Syndrome has its strengths and weaknesses  

Weaknesses: an  exploitative juggernaut which worships "The Market", "The Workplace"  and its High Church "The Mall" like we once worshipped our Father-God. It concentrates inequality and turns molehills of inequality into mountains that few can climb, that keeps everyone on a constant treadmill of anxious striving to outpace everyone else, lest we fall into the abyss of poverty and shame. 

Strengths: it has delivered the preconditions for an egalitarian society, at least for its members: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom from famine. There is now in principle enough for the inclusion of everyone to extend to the other necessities of life. 

Nevertheless, this monoculture is gradually being diversified and its autocratic hold weakened by various factors. These include: 

  • transfers of wealth and populations by globalization, including the movement of formerly colonized people back into the lands of their colonizers
  • the post-war human rights movement that emerged as a reaction tp the horrors of the Nazi eugenicist extermination camps, based on the psueudoscience of race, and which led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
  • the emergence of one minority movement after another demanding civil rights pioneered by African Americans Americans, Women, and Gays etc.

And this is where the Neurodiversity came in. By the end of the 20th century, Westerners had been forced by the first intersectionalist movements to question their ingrained beliefs about the inferiority of black and indigenous people and women and the criminality of homosexuality.  

These movements had made it generally unacceptable for civilized people to air derogatory opinions about the above minorities. But it was still open season on "nerds", aka Aspies  -  as we learned to call ourselves. One of the triggers for me to start thinking about Neurodiversity included the film "Grease" in which it seemed perfectly normal, natural and unremarkable that the the nerdy character Eugene, should was bullied by the gang, who were assumed to have "hearts of gold". And this is par for the course for so many other films with the obligatory nerd character humiliated for the hilarity of the crowd. 

That is partly why I wanted to add Neurodiversity to Intersectionality, so that the mistreatment of neurological outsiders could no longer be casually overlooked.

Politics and Intersectionality

Broadly speaking, politics is the process by which societies make decisions about how to distribute resources, with status, power and wealth accruing to those who are best placed to control the resources. 

Without going into the history of why society began to classify people according to their neurological profiles, and punishing some 

Despite the complaints of angry conservative outrage-manufacturers, intersectionality is a tool of social analysis that is increasingly used by policy makers.  out of the recognition that as nations we must come to terms with the reality that we are no longer a monoculture, and must learn to understand each other's backgrounds and learn to get along. 

It's important to notice that the categories of intersectionality:  Age, Class, Ethnicity, Gender, Religion,  Sex, Disability, are devoid of rank or judgment, except for "disability", which only goes to show how much disability is still considered a second class category.  The correct term should be of course ABILITY

We all have socio-economic class, we are all ethnic, we are all gendered etc, we all have abilities Yet all of of these categories have been used to classify, grade, rank, disempower and impoverish people. That is what makes these categories political, as per the definition on the right. 

Politics and the unequal distribution of resources

While our culture is nominally still Christian, notice that the political “Right” who tend to be the most vociferous about their allegiance to Christianity, act according to the tenets of “jungle law”. They preach Christianity, but their practices of Neoliberalism support Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Market law makes clear that those who are unfit or unproductive within Neoliberalism’s limited ideas of productivity deserve what the get, and should be grateful for  the meagre pensions doled out to them.

And this is where Politics come in:

In the broadest sense, politics is about the distribution of resources and in our society that is massive inequity. There is still a long way to go.

I know the explicitly political nature of these terms can make the dominant majority uncomfortable, if they want to frame the issue in medical or commercial terms, whether for the financial and/or status benefits of expertise. And who can blame them? We live in a stratified social order, and must needs struggle to retain our place.  But discomfort is part of social change. Thanks to globalisation, and how the colonized nations have come back to bite those who benefitted from colonization, there are no more Anglo monocultures, and never will be. That is why intersectionality manifested. We need to learn how to get along. 

This is not to say that there’s no such thing as disability, or no role for helping professionals. 

Difference shades into disability depending on the amount of help required by individuals and their families. We do not want to go back to a world where (primarily) women had to give up their own dreams  because there was no help or advice available for them as carers. We still have a long way to go, when we see that mysogyny has recast Refrigerator Mothers into “Autism Moms” if they shd show a reluctance to acquiesce to the roles assigned to them whether by medical authority or the Twitter mob. It takes a village to raise any child, and more so if the child is developmentally more labour intensive

Take Home Lesson: ND is not a classificatory term dividing us from them. We are all Neurodiverse. We live on a Neurodiverse planet in which amoral nature generates endless genetic diversity, while we humans have evolved the capacity to make judgments about nature’s bounty. What Neurodiversity brings us is a challenge to find a place for everyone and to distribute the bounty fairly.



Anonymous said...

Don’t tell me psychiatry is a science… it is also a politics. Dr R R Laing wrote even a book about psychiatry called “politics of experience”. How something based upon voting can even be considered a science… it is a law - so it is about politics.

Judy Singer said...

WHere did I say that? I read R.D. Laing more than 50 years ago. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Buenas tardes!
¿Cuál es el sustento teórico de la neurodiversidad y la neurodivergencia?
Considero que se está volviendo un discurso peligroso en cierta medida. Muchas personas que encuentran características en común con este grupo que se da por nombre neurodivergente se asigna un autodiagnóstico y se incluye dentro de la neurodivergencia. Lo peligro está en el hecho de que encontramos muchas personas transmitiendo estas cuestiones que no están en su campo de incumbencia. De salud mental deberían hablar profesionales preparados en dicho campo: psicólogos, psicoanalistas, psiquiatras.
No demonicemos profesionales, no sigamos reproduciendo el modelo médico hegemónico aunque el objetivo que tienen sea el contrario. Tomar un discurso muy cercano a las neurociencias es seguir reproduciendo el modelo médico hegemónico (en su costado negativo).
Respetemos la salud mental y a las personas que se han formado para trabajar en ese campo. Dejemos de proponer categorías clasificatorias que llevan a mucha gente a realizar un auto diagnóstico.
En eso que llaman el paraguas de la neurodivergencia aparecen "diagnósticos" que no deberían ser pensados desde la biología, desde lo neuronal. Ejemplo: depresión, psicosis, toc. Por favor, sean cuidadosos con las cosas que transmiten.

Leif Ekblad said...

I've always liked the neurodiversity concept, but I feel this is just another way of making the broader autism phenotype a sociological concept rather than a scientific concept. I see in comments that neurodiversity is not supposed to be a scientific concept, and the argument is that it then will turn into a medical term again, We have seen these wars between biology and sociology before, and it is not in the interest of autistic people. I tried to define neurodiversity as a scientific term based on natural properties of human diversity 2013, but years later I now see that neurodiverse has been hijacked to mean anything that is different. The term Aspie, that was first meant as a non-disorder label for the autistic personality type was hijacked by the medical model.

The reason we need scientifically valid definitions of neurodiversity, and not just sweeping generalization about human diversity, is because the broader autism phenotype includes a huge amount of people that are not diagnosable with ASD, but still needs to understand themselves. You cannot begin to understand neurodiversity without being able to do scientific research on neurodiversity, and you will basically force people that want to research neurodiversity to use the broader autism phebnotype or other labels that implies we are researching a medical model.

Clementala said...

Hi Judy first of all I discover your life and work and more praise should absolutely come your way.

Secondly you write there is no more Anglo monoculture, and I would like to make a small opinion that there never was any Anglo monoculture anywhere, and yet it thrived through the ages. It would be interesting to try to follow this idea all the way back.
In America it was always a large diverse crowd. But they managed to make a dominant culture that is largely Anglo.
But did it come from England ? Let’s go. Ack even before there was a United States
England was itself a crowd, with Welsh Irish scots, and normands and Saxons and what else. And the elite was raised in French and, if possible, in France. And to go back before that is to go way back almost to the Vikings, and to be fair I think the medieval times in England are pretty confused.

So where does that leave those Anglo culture roots ?

It’s a mystery. I’m more enclined to think that uk subjects where exploited in extreme conditions for the island to compete with European powers, and that the artifices through which the domineering class showed their difference and mental or spiritual superiority over the filthy , only made everyone else to struggle as hard as they could to acquire even the most remote aspect of these elite clues. I would name « front lawn » as one of these inventions. The impact of such foolish ideas and the biological system that compels human to adhere to them to become a social specie is fascinating. Making a list of all these inventions that end up forming the Anglo dominant culture would end up being the frightening proof that human beings are fundamentally dumb and vain in magnitudes. The everyone at the bottom is not any better than the anyone at the top. It’s random domination. By some kind of chance japan didn’t come up first with industrial revolution and the unlimited pursuance of world riches.

but now it’s become the dominant culture in the USA, Canada, NZ, Australie, and from the hollywoodification of everything, it’s become everywhere.

I’m saying all this and it’s more a sun of questions that have poked my interest from some time , than any sort of answer.

From France, Clément. (Can’t proofread I ask for leniency on any unreadable bits))
Neeeways, cheer and happiness upon you !