Animal rights and autism pride: Let’s heal the rift
- Published: 09 October 2010
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10 October 2010
Peter Singer and other activist-scholars have established the philosophical legitimacy of discourse regarding animal ethics; thus, animal ethics can no longer be dismissed as sentimentalism by the Western intellectual establishment.
Neurotypicalism privileges a form of cognitive processing characteristic of people who have a neurotypical (non-autistic) brain structure, while finding other forms of cognitive processing to be inferior, such as those natural to autists and nonhuman animals.
Specifically, neurotypicalism privileges vermal reasoning (i.e. reasoning that relies heavily on the brain’s vermis) over other ways of knowing, being, and experiencing.
According to neurology researchers, the defining difference in brain structure between autists and neurotypicals may lie in the development of the vermis in the cerebellum. A fully functioning vermis cerebelli, found in neurotypicals, allows neurotypicals to develop an “abstract concept of the world”.
Much animal ethics discourses are based on the unquestioned acceptance of this “abstract concept of the world” and that such a concept is necessary to advance the animal liberation cause.
This privileging of vermal reasoning over other forms of reasoning not only invalidates and makes suspect autist insights, but neurotypicalism also invalidates and makes suspect animal intelligence.
The neurotypical bias can be removed from animal ethics discourse by focusing attention on the lived experiences of nonhuman animals themselves. In other words, neurotypicalism is fundamentally speciesist because neurotypicalism insulates and inoculates people from the lived reality and needs of nonhuman animals, making empathy for and meaningful improvement in the quality of life for nonhuman animals difficult.
A neurotypical approach to animal ethics makes the correct usage of certain thought processes, ideologies, and methodologies more important than how one actually treats nonhuman animals.
Problems with the ‘Argument from Marginal Cases’ philosophy
One such example is the philosophical thought experiment known as the ‘Argument from Marginal Cases’ (AMC), which has been effectively used by Peter Singer and other animal ethicists to provide a philosophical foundation for animal rights.
Nonetheless, it retains a neurotypical bias toward the reasoning characteristic of neurotypical brain structures.
This argument rests on three incorrect assumptions about people with mental disabilities: First, infants and people with mental disabilities lack understanding. Second, vermal reasoning is more valuable than non-vermal reasoning. Third, infants and those with mental disabilities are incapable of reciprocity.
By using the AMC to frame the cause of animal liberation, Singer privileges vermal reasoning over other forms of reasoning, such as visual reasoning, which allows these other classes of beings to understand, to reason, and even to reciprocate, albeit differently.
Singer’s use of the AMC keeps intact the speciesist assumption that the rational capacities of neurotypical humans beings is the standard by which nonhuman animals are judged and given moral consideration.
The ideology of identifying certain people as “marginal cases” is problematic as it leads to the stigmatization of entire groups of people.
Stigmatization, in turn, can lead to discrimination, persecution, oppression, bigotry, and, in its most extreme cases, genocide.
The AMC is also implicit in activist literature, as indicated by several recent PETA campaigns, including “Milk Causes Autism” and “Fishing Hurts”. In the latter campaign, a sub-heading—“PCBs Will Make You Stupid”—alluded to the connection between PCB consumption in fish and an increase in intellectual disabilities.
Another example is drawn from the AskCarla.com column in which Carla gives a loaded and judgmental interpretation, which is far from objective or factual, about the worth of peoples with developmental disabilities:
“There are animals who are unquestionably more intelligent, creative, aware, communicative, and able to use language than some humans, as in the case of a chimpanzee, compared to a human infant or a person with a severe developmental disability, for example.”
When one holds onto an argument, despite significant contrary evidence, it is no longer a matter of ignorance; it is a matter of ideology based in disinformation. Neurotypicalism is such an ideology, indicated by the way use of the AMC transforms the animal rights movement from a life-affirming movement into a life-denying movement, in the sense that certain beings are now sometimes excluded.
Autists and people with disabilities are not ‘useless’
Animal ethicists still fundamentally contend that autists and others with disabilities are “useless,” that they cannot reciprocate, and that they are moral patients who are completely dependent on moral agents for their survival.
These objections to autist animal ethics are not cogent for a number of reasons. For example, nonhuman animals do in fact get significant libratory benefits from autists reaching out to animalkind. Consider Dawn Prince-Hughes’s lifework with gorillas; her work might not have happened, if she were not an autist.
I am another example. I identify myself as an animal rights activist and have published books which constructively address and sympathetically engage animal issues. I am a vegetarian, have recently started an animal ministry with http://www.allcreatures.org, and have been militantly against hunting for population control and the ethical hunting position since I was a youth.
I do not attend circuses, rodeos, or bullfights; I avoid wearing animal products when possible; and I do not hunt, fish, or trap. My practices reflect not only my principles, but also a fundamental difference in my mindset: I do not get pleasure from these activities.
Unquestioningly, nonhuman animals receive at least some liberatory benefits from my existence.
The ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ argument
Another issue – the identity politics argument – implicitly assumes that there are “deserving and undeserving poor,” revealing an acceptance of the implicit paternalism of the oppressor, and holding that some group’s issues are categorically more important than others.
This argument quantifies suffering, e.g., physical suffering is greater suffering than psychological suffering or more of this group died in a genocide than that group, rather than embracing everyone’s suffering as legitimate. This line of thinking enables oppressors to get two or more oppressed groups fighting among themselves, rather than uniting against their common oppressor.
Also, it assumes a scarcity of resources, compassion, and good-will that is available to help the marginalized, e.g., the unquestioned paradigm in economics of a presumed scarcity or an unquestioned cynicism in the power for individuals and societies to change.
The alternative is to negotiate with the oppressors to more equitably distribute goods and services, e.g., activism and moral suasion, now disproportionately controlled by the dominant group in society, e.g., neurotypical, speciesist power holders.
There is a much more persuasive way of framing animal ethics, which is also non-anthropocentric and non-speciesist, as well as mutually liberating, uniting, and empowering to both autists and nonhuman animals.
The linked oppressions model – its power and promises
Steven-Bouma Prediger describes “linked oppressions” as it relates to both the ecofeminist argument and the ecojustice argument:
“One might call [it] the fourth argument [in his typology for environmentalism] ‘poor and oppressed’ unite; since it posits a link between various forms of oppression”
I propose a variation of the linked oppression model, namely that there is a correlation between how autists are treated by neurotypical society and how neurotypical society, as a whole, treats nonhuman animals, and that the causes of autist pride and animal liberation are intricately linked, interdependent on one another.
Both oppressions have the same primary cause: the ideology of neurotypicalism. When those without a fully functioning vermis, including autists and nonhuman animals, do not conform to the wishes of neurotypical society, neurotypical society starts to interfere with, censor, and control those understandings or behaviors which do not conform to neurotypical standards or desires.
It also has the power to break down another powerful false dualism: the choice between preserving human dignity at all costs and giving the nonhuman world significant moral consideration.
This is a false choice, between being for Peter Singer?s “Argument for Marginal Cases” or being for Pope John Paul’s “dignity of man” argument. Each of these two approaches is inadequate.
Singer’s use of the AMC has already been dealt with. The other extreme is just as destructive and must also be rejected by autists and other peoples with disabilities. The “dignity of man argument” espoused by people like Pope John Paul II holds that the unique value of human beings must be preserved at all costs, in order to prevent such practices as abortion and euthanasia.
The dogmatic contention that humans are both unique and superior forces Singer and others to embrace the AMC in an attempt to deconstruct specieism.
The animal rights and the disability movements need a framework and strategy that draws on a synthesis of the “dignity of man” argument and the argument from “marginal cases.” Both extremes are harmful and counterproductive. The AMC is fundamentally oppressive to autists, while the “dignity of man” argument is fundamentally oppressive to nonhuman animals.
Both positions are fundamentally inadequate. Yet, these two positions are also fundamentally true. There is something intrinsically valuable about all human life. And, it is equally true that there is something intrinsically valuable about nonhuman life.
In essence, what needs to be preserved at all costs is the dignity of all life, human and nonhuman.
Once it is recognized that choosing between the rights of nonhuman animals and the rights of people with disabilities is a false dichotomy, it is possible to see that both groups are oppressed because they are not neurotypical.
The autist-animal connection
A fully functioning vermis does not make a neurotypical person superior to autists and nonhuman animals. The autist mind has its own gifts and virtues. Yet, neurotypicals believe that their fully functioning vermis makes them superior to and worthy of the conquest of all others who do not conform or measure up.
Let’s look at how this oppressive dynamic plays out, building a profile of the harmful effects of neurotypical society.
- First, neurotypical society sees autists and nonhuman animals as peripheral in terms of social justice. Autists and nonhuman animals are considered by neurotypical society to be the “undeserving poor,” versus homosexuals, women, the economic poor, or African-Americans, “the real poor,” which are considered legitimate, because they demand less and are considered more like the dominant society.
- Second, neurotypical society sees autists and nonhuman animals as expendable. If autists or nonhuman animals get in the way of the neurotypical agenda, they are sacrificed to the common good of neurotypical society. If he or she is disruptive, an autist is expelled from a community. If he or she is found to be a nuisance, a nonhuman animal is killed, such as the standard policy of wildlife managers of addressing overpopulated and invasive species problems through hunting and other methods of eradication.
- Third, neurotypical society patronizes and dominates autists and nonhuman animals. Neurotypical society looks down on autists and nonhuman animals and does not treat them as equals. For example, a dog is seen as cute and made obedient. An autist is treated like a little child, even when a full adult.
- Fifth, neurotypical society punishes autists and nonhuman animals when they do not conform. Animals are euthanized when they are seen as a threat to neurotypical society. Autists are subjected to powerful psychotropic medications and traumatic behavior modification training, in efforts to get them to conform.
- Sixth, neurotypical society oppresses autists and nonhuman animals by putting them into situations in which they are incapable of properly defending themselves, or even properly handling themselves, thereby causing them to perform poorly at best. For example, last year a pet chimp became violent under stress, because he ingested wine and medicine. Keeping the chimp as a poorly maintained pet, resulted in the chimp being drugged; neurotypical society then set-up a normally compassionate police officer to fatally shoot the chimp in self-defense, and to save the life of the owner.
In the past, I have been denied support which would have helped me to succeed. When I did not do well, despite much effort, institutions severely punished me. For example, a doctoral program I attended for one year would have been successful if I had received the accommodation of a reduced course load, which was the recommendation of Disability Services, but was departmentally discouraged by the program. Because I was discouraged from taking a reduced course-load, I did not make the necessary grades to stay in the program, and was asked to leave.
- Seventh, neurotypical society feels justified in violating the rights of autists and nonhuman animals with impunity. Because neurotypical society conceptualizes the autist and nonhuman animal as cognitively inferior to the neurotypical, neurotypical society believes that they cannot handle these rights.
- Eighth, neurotypical society privileges neurotypical ways of knowing and being over autist and nonhuman animal ways of knowing and being. Nonhuman animals are seen as inferior. Autists are seen as savants.
- Ninth, neurotypical society is suspicious of rational or intelligent behavior in autists and nonhuman animals. Perceived rational or intelligent behavior in nonhuman animals is dismissed as being anthropomorphic. Perceived rational or intelligent behavior in autists is dismissed as unbelievable.
- Tenth, neurotypical society is suspicious of and threatened by the special relationship autists have with nonhuman animals, which serves as a prophetic witness against the anthropocentrism and speciesism which dominates Western culture.
- For example, I have been targeted repeatedly because of my views on nonhuman animals. In Boy Scouts, the children used to tease me about my interest in birdwatching. Even today, I continue to feel like a target because of my beliefs about nonhuman animals.
- Finally, neurotypical society bullies and intimidates autists and nonhuman animals when an autist or a nonhuman animal engages in his or her natural behaviors. Autists are mercilessly bullied in school, and even into adulthood. I can easily become a target, and be repeatedly revictimized, whenever I engage in my natural behaviors as an autist. This is often sanctioned by neurotypical society through unresponsive teachers and administrators and unsympathetic social institutions.
Nonhuman animals are also bullied though more intensely physically violent, oftentimes lethal, means, as a result of neurotypical society’s propensity to sanction the practices of sport hunting, recreational fishing, bullfighting, and rodeos.
Bullying of autists is usually emotional, although not always, e.g., also can include beatings. Bullying of nonhuman animals is usually physical, although not always. For example, when a little girl chases pigeons in the park, the same underlying mentality is at work.
The purpose of bullying – whether her sports hunting or playground teasing – is to systematically and radically exclude a certain class of beings from the mainstream of human society, with the goal of dominating these beings, thereby giving them an inferior social status.
Bullying of autists and nonhuman animals are similar in that both are considered accepted practices to vent aggression, domination, and violent urges, because both classes of beings are considered other and inferior.
A time for alliances
Autists and nonhuman animals share a common plight at the hands of neurotypicalism, an ideology that privileges vermal reasoning. Consequently, autist activists and animal liberationists must unite or at least reach a truce.
This does not mean that PETA and other animal groups need to be a social service agency for autists and others with disabilities. PETA and the various animal movements can focus on giving nonhuman animals the best defense against speciesism and institutionalized animal cruelty possible, because these groups have precious little funding, resources, sympathy, and positive media access.
Nor do autists pride groups and individual autists need to agree with PETA and other animal groups on every issue or strategy.
Autists and the autist community should be free to develop their own positions and strategies, for addressing animal issues that provide an original, unique, thoughtful, important, and necessary, critique, ethic, strategy, and vision for animal liberation.
So, both the autist pride movements and the animal liberationist movement need to stop attacking and disrespecting out-of-hand each other’s positions, strategies and motives.
Both parties need to recognize that the plight of autists and the plight of nonhuman animals are fundamentally linked, and that both movements (autist pride and animal liberation) are fighting the same oppressor (neurotypicalism) and working toward the same goal of liberating the oppressed in a society which is fundamentally neurocentric, with each of the two movements offering unique gifts in their quest to ameliorate this injustice.
Daniel Salomon is a 30-year-old man with Asperger’s, who is also an un-apologized animal liberationist, a lifelong vegetarian, activist, freelance writer, independent scholar, and positive voice for animals and the earth in Christianity.
Daniel has a Master of Arts in Research from Andover Newton Theological School, in New England, coupled with a Graduate Certificate in Science and Religion, with a concentration in Religion and Ecology, from the Schools of the Boston Theological Institute. He graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s of Science in Liberal Studies, with concentrations in Biology, Environmental Studies, and Conflict Analysis/Dispute Resolution from Salisbury University, formally Salisbury [State] University, in Salisbury Maryland. Salomon in addition, has a Naturalist Certificate from the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, in Michigan.
Daniel is also author of four books which constructively engage these subjects: Rachel Carson in Carteret County, North Carolina, A Journey to the Edge of the Sea (Maryland: Rachel Carson Council, Inc., 1997) available through the Rachel Carson Council, Inc., written when Salomon was only in high school; Creation Unveiled (USA: Xulon Press, 2003) available at Amazon.com, an outgrowth of Salomon’s undergraduate research which is also available under the title, Creation Unveiled: the Implications of Girardian Theory for Environmental and Animal Issues (Amazon.com, Kindle Edition, 2010).
Daniel authored Christian Environmental Studies: An Educational Module with Syllabuses and a Sample Lecture (Amazon.com, Kindle Edition, 2008). Human-Animal Reconciliation: Franciscan Faith-based Interspecies Communications and Its Implications for Wildlife Management (Amazon.com, Kindle Edition, 2008). All three of his latest books are also available through Amazon.com UK and Kindle Store UK.
He currently lives independently in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his two parakeets Golda and Mordecai. More information can be found out about him, on the All-Creatures website, run by Reverend Frank Hoffman.