The Unselected

Geralt/Pixabay

To explain why I identify as ‘unselected’, it will help to begin with an imaginary (if all too familiar) scenario:

Well-meaning But Problematic Neurotypical Researcher, Professor of Controversial Ideas at the University of OxBridge, stumbles across a demonstration by Neurodivergent Neurodiversity proponents, where activists are raising awareness through a megaphone. First, he hears a bit about how scientific ableism has routinely portrayed Neurodivergent cognition as inherently deficient maladaptions, or broken mechanisms, and as a threat to Neuronormative Supremacy. A bit later he also hears one of the Neurodivergent Activists point out that, contrary to ableist representations, Neurodivergent people can, if supported properly, do pretty much anything Neurotypicals can, from being political leaders, to researchers, to whatever else. Some of them even say their disability can be a ‘gift’ or a ‘super power’ in the right circumstance, and emphasise that conserving neurodiversity is beneficial for society as a whole.

Well-meaning But Problematic Neurotypcial Researcher is shocked by the ableist injustices he hears of, and he decides to dedicate himself to being a Neurodiversity Activist. To promote what he thinks of as a Neurodiversity perspective, he begins writing articles and giving talks arguing that in fact, some Neurodivergent people – like Temple Grandin, he notes – have naturally selected neuro-cognitive strengths that make them just as good, in some instances superior, to Neurotypicals, at certain things such as inventing or computing. For this reason, he argues to anyone who will listen, Neurodivergent should be supported, to help cultivate their strengths.

In this scenario, it seems to me, Well Meaning but Problematic Neurotypical Researcher not only fails to help the neurodiversity cause. Rather, he actively harms it by taking up space and promoting what is, at best, a distraction, that ultimately misses the point of what the demonstration was about.

But what exactly went wrong? While it could be understood as a matter of epistemic vice (his presumptiveness and lack of epistemic humility is likely part of the issue), here I want to focus on the conceptual mistakes that are implicit in his understanding.  

For me, the key conceptual problem is that, rather than rejecting the underlying Social Darwinist paradigm of scientific ableism, he implicitly accepts the paradigm by basing his argument on the same assumptions. That is, by assuming that we mean Neurodivergent people should be supported because we sometimes have strengths that are the product of natural selection, he is still making a case which is based on a comparison of different neurotypes, and normative Darwinist assumptions.

One way of understanding the error is that Well Meaning but Problematic Neurotypical Researcher has mistaken a case of Neurodivergent activists promoting more empowering narratives on neurodivergence (reagarding our gifts or super powers), for an argument about why Neurodivergent people deserve disability justice in the first place. Or to put it another way, he mistakes 1) an expression of how things look from a neurodiversity paradigm perspective for 2) an argument for why neurodiversity justice should be supported.

My point here is that, once someone living in a world structured by ableism begins to adopt anti-ableist commitments, they will, among other things, increasingly begin seeing positive aspects of neurodivergent and otherwise disabled peoples or cultures which had previously been obscured and devalued by ableist ideology. They will also find these positives important to point this out, in order to correct overly negative ableist narratives. And so they will sometimes talk about strengths, gifts, super powers, benefits for group functioning, or whatever.

Importantly, though, the ensuing insights here are the expressions of having adopted a neurodiversity paradigm lens, they are not mean to be an argument for thinking that Neurodivergent people are as worthy as Neurotypical people in the first place. Indeed, the whole project of thinking of different neurotypes as being better or worse than each other, and the framing of this through a Darwinian lens, is a big part of what underpins scientific ableism.

So, on the one hand, I do think it is important to emphasise neurodivergent power. Hence, I have often drawn attention to this, and have even argued that our scientific knowledge production should focus more on this. But the argument is not that some neurodivergent people have strengths and therefore should be supported rather than devalued. In fact, the pointing out of strengths or societal benefits is not, in most cases, meant to be an argument for anything at all. It is just that having adopted an anti-ableist perspective, it becomes easier to see through the fog of ideology that obscures anything good when it is neurodivergent. The focus on neurodivergent power is, then, something that naturally follows from having made such a commitment.

And this explains why I prefer to identify as ‘unselected’, even if I also sometimes focus on emphasising Neurodivergent power. Of course, I do not know if the traits I value about myself are the product of selection or not. Perhaps some of my traits are products of natural selection, while others may be closer to biproducts or random mutations. (Some may stem from broken mechanisms, and if so I like them anyway.) But the point is, I do not really care if any neurodivergent traits were useful in prehistoric cave settings or if similar people invented primitive tools. It is likely that a great many neurodivergent traits were not selected at all. And so, when it comes down to it, I would rather identify as unselected, both for myself, and in solidarity with others who may also be unselected.

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