Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Battle of the Two Caricatures

I've started realizing something important about conflicts of opinion. And that is that it's not just two people disagreeing. It's also a clash of caricatures.

Cracked magazine has an article named 10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On. This article argues that atheists and christians should agree on things like 'celebrating the death of a guy you disagree with makes you a dick', 'people can do terrible things in the name of either belief system', etc. It's a great article, in the fine tradition of social commentary thinly disguised as comedy.
Numbers 6 & 7 are especially important. Number 6 is 'we tend to exaggerate about the other guy' and number 7 is 'we tend to exaggerate about ourselves'.

Number 6 is the well-known tactic of 'strawmanning'. Rather than address the real arguments of your opponent, you paint them out as having much more simplistic, extreme and refutable beliefs than they do. In this example, christians portray atheists as wanting to live in 'one long drug-riddled blood orgy' and atheists portray christians as wanting to 'abolish all science and live in grass huts'. These strawmen may, in some cases, consist of actual opinions held by a minority but applied to the majority, and in other cases, may have been completely invented.
Number 7 isn't so well known, but it definitely exists. I've seen it many times. It's so easy to get drawn into saying things you don't actually believe, just to refute your opposition. For example, I know autism isn't entirely genetic. After all, if 60% of identical twins of autistics are also autistic and 92% are somewhere on the broader spectrum, that leaves 8% non-autistic and 32% 'cousins', despite them having the same genetic material as an autistic kid. Something has to explain that difference. But when I see someone telling people to chelate their kids because they're convinced that autism is caused by mercury poisoning, suddenly I'm saying that autism definitely completely genetic. And I hate doing this!

It's easy for me to see both sides on the atheism/christianity debate, as a low-key atheist with nice christian parents. But it's not so easy for me to see both sides when it comes to autism, because I'm a neurodiversity supporter and proud of it.
But post like this one remind me of the importance of seeing past caricatures. When a curebie parent says that while neurodiversity advocates are wrong about autism treatments, they're right about 'mercy killings', that's a wake-up call to me. Just like awhile back when I made peace with a curebie mother on a listserv after we'd been fighting over biomedical treatment of autism, or when the host of an autism conference featuring Ron Leaf (a person marketing ABA) spoke at a conference on inclusion about how angry she was when her son's teachers used restraints on him.

So, here are a bunch of goals that both curebies and neurodiversity people, as well as people involved in other 'hot-button' debates, should try to meet:
  • get an understanding for how & why the other side could believe what they do - a good enough understanding that you could write an article faking that viewpoint and have it be convincing (as an author, I've had some practice trying this)
  • find at least one person on the other side who expresses an opinion you agree with, preferably something relevant to your topic of disagreement
  • examine what, in your life experience, has led you to believe what you do - thinking back on my life, it seems pretty obvious that the autistic daughter of a feminist who didn't want anyone to call her child disabled would end up as a neurodiversity supporter, right?
  • identify at least one time that you strawmanned your opponent rather than replying to their actual beliefs (it's possible you've never done this, but I doubt it)
  • identify at least one time you said something you don't think is technically correct, just to disagre with your opponent (again, it's highly likely you've done this at least once)
If we can all do this, then maybe we can find our way to a solution that holds to what each of us finds important. Remember, pretty much everyone involved in the autism community can agree on one thing: we want good things for autistic people.


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