Monday, July 17, 2006

Making Up For Difference

In the book In: Difference (available at Diverse City Press), Astra Milberg has an article about preventing disabled people.Astra Milberg is a woman with Down Syndrome. Her article is called Of Mice And "When".
She doesn't want people like her to be prevented. I agree. But how she argues this viewpoint makes me uncomfortable. She says:

"I am one of the people that doctors have decided shouldn't be allowed to be born because they think I'm not smart. Well, I want to tell them that there are lots of ways of being smart. They may be swmart with numbers, with books and with test tubes. But I am smart with people. I am smart enough to know right from wrong."

I have no doubt she has those qualities, and that they are good qualities to have. But it seems to me that she is not challenging the underlying assumptions. Our society seems to believe that difference is bad. I've often seen minority people respond by pointing out the advantages of their difference, as Astra is doing. It seems to me like in order for a difference to be accepted, it must be proved to bring with it some kind of advantage. There is a well known folk song sung at Christmas, called Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. I'm sure most people know the story, but I'll repeat it anyway.
Most reindeer have black noses, but Rudolf's nose, as the title suggests, is bright red. In fact, it's so bright, it literally glows. For the "crime" of being different, Rudolf is ostracised and bullied. Then, Santa realizes that Rudolf's nose can help him travel through the fog. Rudolf is instantly popular.
I used to really like that story. But now, it gives me the same uncomfortable feeling as Astra's words. Why is that?
Rudolf's nose could be accepted because it had an advantage. But there's nothing wrong with a reindeer having a red nose, any more than there's something wrong with one having a black nose. Yet the red nose has to be better in some way to be viewed as OK.
Lisa Jean Collins raised this issue in her blog entry Making a Case for the Boring Autistic, about how autistics are expected to show some special talent to prove their worth. She says:

"Many of us have bought into the notion that if your child is autistic, you had better highlight (if it is obvious) or scramble around looking for (if it is not) what they are good at—what they can do—as if to make an apology to society for the fact that they are autistic."

Exactly. Certainly, that attitude is better than writing them off entirely. But it has two major problems with it. Firstly, the problem many have raised - what about those who don't have some kind of "compensation" for their difference? Lisa describes "boring autistics" - in other words, autistics who don't have the kind of talents viewed as part of autism. The equivalent for Rudolf would be a reindeer with a non-glowing colored nose. For Astra it might be an autistic person with Down Syndrome, or one with conduct disorder.
But there is a more fundamental problem with this attitude. If we leave the underlying idea that difference is bad unchallenged, and merely say "well, this difference has advantages", then each different group will have to fight the same battle over again.
And I doubt we'll ever run out of differences to be denigrated. After all, besides the variety in humans, there are other species on this planet. There may even be other planets with life on them, and the science fiction assumption that aliens will be basically humans with pointy ears or knobbly foreheads is a naive assumption. Not only will aliens, if we ever meet any, be very different in physical structure, their minds will be very different as well.


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