I wrote a post a week ago about the problems with defining “Neurodiversity.” The questions I posed in that piece remain un-answered (and perhaps that is because there are no answers; I will discuss that and its consequences later in this post). I was given to think that I could expect some answers from the particularly articulate and thoughtful Mark Stairwalt, from Shift Journal, which directly and proudly links itself to neurodiversity.
What I got instead, was repetition of the central problem I pointed out in the first place; but this time the problems I’d identified were presented as something to be proud of; that the lack of definition and answers about the neurodiversity movement and neurodiversity itself, is a strength rather than a weakness.
I – perhaps not surprisingly – think this is neither enlightened nor helpful. I regularly encounter these types of arguments with my students, and have had to explain why it is so important to attempt definitions, and why the claim that there is no definition is itself a definition. This might not be obvious, and the importance of it might not be obvious either. So, for the sake of clarity – and with the aim of trying to elicit some answers to my original and serious questions – I shall endeavour to explain.
To say that something – such as neurodiversity – lacks a fixed definition is itself a claim. A disputable, and disputed, claim. It is not a “meta-claim”, by which I mean, a claim that absorbs or explains every other attempt to define neurodiversity. It does not sit above other definitions or attempts at definitions, it sits along-side them. It can be wrong; the question remains: Is it?
It’s like me claiming a bike is a vehicle, and you claim it isn’t, and a third person claims the definitions of bike and vehicles are ever-changing and unfixed (concluding that there is no one definition for “bike” or “vehicle”). The person who makes that last statement is not outside of the contest for definitional clarity, they are part of the contest, just as much asserting their view-point and rightness as the other two.
The search for definitions and clarity is not a fool’s game, made up of people who do not understand the flux of the world and the fuzzy edges of certainty. There are some people who are over-fixated with certainty, to the point that they sacrifice accuracy by ignoring the fuzzy edges and flux. But there are also people at the other extreme (and Mark would seem to be one, and proudly so), who sees truth and reality as always changing, always referential, and never absolute. Both extremes make error. They are doing what I have referred to before as either ignoring or fixating on the penumbra, which is just a fancy word for the fuzzy edges of words, categories and “truths:” If you ignore the edges you make the error of over-simplifying matters to the point of overall inaccuracy. But if you focus too intently on the edges, you make the error of thinking there is no centre. Relevant to our purposes, that would be like saying there is no core definition or purpose of neurodiversity (or the neurodiversity movement) just because there is some disagreement around the edges about its precise application or wording.
For example, we can identify a car when it has four wheels, and is newly off the construction line, but at what point does it stop being a car? When it has no wheels and is rusted by the side of the road? When it has all its parts but it is squashed into a scrap heap cube? And we know a car is a vehicle, but is a bike, is a skateboard? When people say these confusions mean we can’t define “car” or “vehicle” they are over-focusing on the penumbra and ignoring the truth and relevance of the central instances.
(If you’re interested in reading further my thoughts about such issues, I direct you to two previous posts: “Language and Autism: The impact of penumbra and generalized instances, on debates about the existence of, and functioning levels within, ASD” and “Law, Science, Burdens of Proof and Contextual Truth.”)
This is not pretty word play and pointless philosophical musings. This has consequences. Especially for the neurodiversity movement, and indeed any movement or terminology linked to an effort to change behaviour, attitudes and beliefs. If a term becomes attached to a rights movement – like neurodiversity is – then the term can (and has) quickly become short-hand for a particular (more complicated) viewpoint and ideas. As that happens – and if they term is not defined well – it can in turn be easily misrepresented and attacked. That’s called a strawman argument, and it can be particularly effective and powerful in this context:
If a term is redefined by people who want to stop a movement for what ever reasons (they perhaps want to stop the accomplishment of a particular aim of the movement which counters their own aims), they can claim it stands for something it doesn’t, then attack the latter. Let me give you a very clear and common example directly in point. The neurodiversity movement is often linked to efforts to extend acceptance and accommodation of autistic people. But others want autism to be fought and wiped out, not embraced. So it suits their purposes to cast the neurodiversity movement as extreme; as accepting of all mental abnormalities no matter how devastating to the affected individual, and as anti any treatment to lessen the impact of autism itself. If the neurodiversity movement is indeed in favour of these views (and it is not at all clear that they are, as I discussed in my original post), then the attack is valid. But if this is a distortion of the movement and its aims, then the attack is a dangerous and misleading strawman which undercuts the other aims of the movement in the process.
If neurodiversity remains undefined in the face of such challenges, then it cannot fight them off, and its aims and achievements are in danger. So my questions are only pretty and pointless philosophical musings if you don’t care about the real world consequences of changes in actions, attitudes and beliefs. It is precisely because of reality that these philosophical musings matter.
It seems to me that there is a way forward from the mess. The start, is to separate out the definition of the word neurodiversity from the Neurodiversity movement (capital N). The second, is to declare if there is a central, or many, neurodiversity movements. The next would be to be very clear about the aims and beliefs of any particular Neurodiversity movement. Since there are such extremes within what a movement could be aiming for – from general awareness, to full on acceptance, to extensive accommodation, denial of treatment or criminality of treatment – it appears to me that it would be best to be extremely clear about what you’re trying to achieve and why, instead of simply adopting the term “neurodiversity” (which is the general conclusion of my original post). However, it is clear that there are some people and organisations which claim to be the neurodiversity movement, despite the fact that they are in contention with others who claim the same. It is a mess. An unhelpful one. And thereby my call for clarity and pointing out the specific confusions in order to aid the road towards that clarity.
So, while I do genuinely appreciate Mark’s valiant (and beautifully expressed) effort to answer my questions – by effectively saying they didn’t need answers – I remain unconvinced. I think the answers are worth seeking, and I think they matter. If the truth is there are no definitions here – that it is ever-changing flux as he suggests – then the term “neurodiversity” loses much of its force for change (though not all of it), and remains an easy target for straw-man attacks aiming to undercut even its most widely-acceptable and agreeable aims.
If the aims and beliefs of neurodiversity matter, then defining neurodiversity (and Neurodiversity) also matters.