It's April, which means Autism Awareness Month. Most people who observe it follow campaigns put out by Autism Speaks -- "Light It Up Blue," the puzzle-piece ribbon, and so on.
Problem is, Autism Speaks isn't a great charity. A lot of autistic people hate it because its marketing material dehumanizes them, and because they spend their money on advertising and "awareness" rather than helping autistic people. When they do spend money, it's on research. Sounds nice, but since autism itself is probably incurable, people are concerned it's going to end up where Downs research is -- prenatal testing and eugenic abortion.
So, I find myself in a dilemma. Do I "light it up blue" and possibly offend autistic people who feel marginalized by Autism Speaks? Or do I do nothing, and let people think I don't care? It would help if people could agree on what color is supposed to mean autism acceptance, but I've heard colors from red to beige.
Of course what I've chosen to do is write 1000 very nuanced words on the topic, because blue-or-some-other-color-or-nothing is a very brief and easily-misunderstood message. But yesterday, at school, I saw a lady with some blue streaks in her hair. I complimented it, of course (it looked fab) and she told me it was for Autism Awareness Month. What should I say? Should I try to explain the complex reasons why blue is attached to Autism Speaks, and why AS isn't a great charity? Or should I just say that it's great, because it is great that she knows and cares about kids like my kid?
Well, I said it was great. Because I am pretty positive she didn't put blue in her hair because she wants autistic babies to be aborted. She put blue in her hair because she's worked with autistic students and likes them and wants to start conversations about the topic.
It's the same issue when I see people with disabilities on TV. Ideally, disabled characters should be written and/or acted by disabled writers and actors. They should be ordinary characters, neither angels nor villains. They should be allowed to show their true abilities, and the difficulties of their disabilities should be neither overestimated nor erased.
That's a tall order, guys! No matter how you do it, someone isn't going to like it. Some people don't like the autistic character in Parenthood. Some people don't like the autistic character in The Good Doctor. Some people don't like Sheldon Cooper (who isn't diagnosed with anything in-show, but who has the signs of autism) on Big Bang Theory. To which all I can say is, isn't it better that there are autistic characters, rather than having disabilities left out completely? Friends is a show with 100% white, straight, abled main characters. Is that better? Because if every time writers make a show with a disabled character, it causes furious outrage from everyone, they're going to quit doing it.
I'm afraid the internet age kind of contributes to this. A blog post that says, "I love Sheldon Cooper" doesn't get much traction. A blog post that says, "Big Bang Theory is nerd blackface" gets a lot more. Outrage gets clicks, and sometimes what makes most sense to drive traffic is to find ever-smaller things to get outraged about. And I wonder if this is really seeking after perfection -- will our posts somehow fine-tune everything to get rid of smaller and smaller problems -- or if it's so condemnatory of things that are merely good, that we will soon have no more good things.
Let's broaden this out from the topic of autism, because this is happening everywhere, all the time. I hear complaints of it mainly directed at progressives, because there definitely is a subculture within progressivism which does this incessantly, but the right does it too. It's where you define an in-group and an outgroup, and then you tighten the in-group more and more until almost everybody is out.
Take the March for Life. It was about one issue, abortion. That works, and it drives a lot of attention. But if it's about fighting abortion by electing Republicans, or fighting abortion and also the death penalty, or fighting abortion and also contraception, it becomes a much smaller, more niche kind of movement. If pro-life gays want to march with a rainbow flag, and they are told, "no, we are pro-life AND conservative AND religious," the net result is fewer people marching. Ditto with the Women's March -- if pro-life women aren't allowed to participate, then suddenly it's not really just about women. It's about pro-choice women, and that's a smaller group.
It ends up being the cult tactic I've written about before. I think I'm going to call it "forcing a jump." This is where groups demand a higher level of commitment than some members are giving, and require them to choose to jump in or out, over this new tightened boundary. So when Paul says, "If Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain," we can see he must have been addressing some disciples who believed Christ was not raised. He wanted them to jump--either believe that Christ was raised, or get out. The hope is that they will jump his way, but if they don't, that's fine too--let the group be smaller, so long as it is purer.
I've watched a lot of groups expand their causes and tighten their circles, and the net result is that the group gets smaller but the people within get more radical. The members inside get extremely polarized--you agree with them on every particular, or you aren't really allies. Hate Nazis, but don't agree with "punch a Nazi"? You're not really anti-Nazi enough. In fact you're part of the problem. You're like those people who sat back and let Hitler get elected. Perhaps we should punch you next.
Personally, I find it terrifying when one of these internet mobs closes in around someone. It happened to me when I asked a bunch of pro-vaxxers for good sources to research vaccination. It also happened when I said, in a crowd of pro-choicers, that abortion is a difficult moral issue which isn't easy to answer. It happened to Simcha Fisher when she talked about Charlottesville but didn't condemn racism strongly enough--silly her, she thought that, as a Jewish person, her anti-Nazi credentials would speak for themselves.
And I kind of get it, because I've watched threads where someone came in asking an innocent question and 200 comments later, it turned out they were already an expert on the topic and were just trying to draw people into a contradiction. I've seen the "I'm on your side really but I'm afraid of what other people might think" opener, and the "admirable people on both sides" false equivalance, and these are sneaky little tactics which can look a lot like innocent bystanders. But. If the enemy disguises itself as innocent bystanders, we still can't shoot anything that looks like an innocent bystander. The result winds up being that in some spaces, you have to run in with your hands in the air shouting "ALLY! ALLY! 100% CONVINCED OF EVERYTHING YOU THINK ALREADY!" or else you're going to get piled on. Heck, even after years in some of these groups, when everyone "knows" you are an ally of theirs, the second you question anything, you can still get the same treatment.
I guess I'm talking about way too many things in here. I'm talking about negativity, and about extremism, and about tribalism. I guess I just dream of a world where baby steps are appreciated, instead of declared Not Good Enough, where a nuanced position is admired rather than demonized as Not Really On Our Side. I thought when I got out of the right wing, I'd arrive at a land flowing with milk and tolerance. I have been disappointed. I still can't find anybody who's willing to take people where they are. Alas, both the left and the right have serious issues and the center, if there is any such thing, seems to be mostly full of people keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. Online, of course, these problems are all magnified. The one place I know of where people are really rational and avoid these fanatical purges . . . is overrun with the alt-right.
I don't know what steps to take. I guess I would like it if more people would commit to a few basic points:
*appreciate the good in a person or initiative when it agrees with you partially, before nitpicking the places where it doesn't agree;
*found movements based on a few core issues, and encourage people from a wide variety of viewpoints to participate;
*take anything that looks like it might be good faith, as good faith, and wait to be proven wrong before attacking;
*practice nuanced, careful consideration and explanation, rather than polarization, and praise others who do;
*take the time to find people who disagree with you who are willing to reach across the divide in good faith;
*criticize even movements and groups you are part of when they behave badly, instead of only criticizing opponents.
I think if we try to do these things, we might not get any more perfection, but we might encourage a bit more goodness.