If you are culturally well adjusted to modern society, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you don’t notice and by the things that you take for granted. “Normality” is like the air you breathe as a mammal, or the water that you’d be swimming in if you were a fish. The hump of the bell curve is the God of Normality.
Life under the hump of the bell curve
Culturally well adjusted people live their entire life under the bell curve, without noticing the complex constellation of data points that must be aligned to qualify for “normality”. If you live under the hump of the bell curve, the God of Normality has granted you:
- A relatively happy childhood that you possibly look back to with fond memories
- The ability to easily make friends within the culture you grew up in
- Relationships that conform to the powered-up social templates prescribed by the God of Normality
- The desire to seek, and the ability to find and maintain employment in a system that worships the religion of the bell curve
- The desire to be managed by a good “leader”
- The latent capacity to become addicted to the experience of wielding social power over others
The neurodiversity movement is a human rights struggle
The complex constellation of lived experiences of neurodivergent people does not conform to the God of Normality. If you are neurodivergent, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you can’t help notice on a daily basis, and by the many things that you can’t take for granted. “Normality” is experienced as a continuous energy drain, as all the many things that demand conscious attention, which actively need to be pushed and held in place to fit under the bell curve – ultimately a futile endeavour. Rather sooner than later, you crash and burn, under circumstances that are considered “normal” within the religion of the bell curve.
For of hypersensitive Autistic people, even for those who seem to be able to “hold it together” on the surface, with minimal externally visible support needs, having access to a safe space to retreat, and access to a community that does not believe in or pretend to believe in the God of Normality is a foundational prerequisite for human wellbeing. There are many ways of being human that do not fit under the bell curve, and many ways of collaborative niche construction that don’t require “leaders” or routine use of coercive techniques.
Our best chance of being heard is if we are recognised as a community and as a culture. Our struggle for human rights is made difficult in a healthcare system that only looks for sickness and disease at the level of individuals, and not within the institutions of our society. We need systemic change. We are all in this together. Our “civilisation” is not providing anyone with a healthy and nurturing environment. The institutionalised (“normal”) avenues for effecting change are fundamentally broken.
All powered-up “civilisations” have characteristics of a cult. This realisation is frightening for culturally well adjusted people. But neurodivergent, culturally maladapted people are in good company. The cultural incoherences, paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and collective traumas of powered-up “civilisations” have been understood for over at least 2,000 years:
“The way most people nowadays go about governing their bodies and ordering their hearts and minds is like what the Border-guard described: they hide from what is Heavenly in them, separate themselves from their inborn natures, destroy their true dispositions, kill their own imponderable spirits. Because it is what everybody else does, they leave the clumps of their inborn natures unsmoothed, so that their desires and hatreds, those bastard children of the inborn nature, become its overgrowth of reeds and bushes. At their first sproutings these do provide support for our bodies, but eventually they tug at and finally uproot the inborn nature itself, until it leaks and oozes and spurts, its juices flowing indiscriminately out, erupting with scabs and sores and tumors, burning with fever and pissing out grease.”– Zhuangzi – The Complete Writings
Normality is a socially constructed illusion. Autistic people are biologically incapable of maintaining the cognitive dissonance associated with culturally prescribed powered-up “normality”. Not only do powered-up “civilisations” suffer from the learning disabling characteristics of a cult, they also routinely spawn smaller cults and gangs that seem to defy and oppose the dominant cult[ure], which actually manifest equally or even more oppressive pyramidal social power structures, offering new recruits an “escape route” out of the frying pan into the fire.
The emergence of neurodivergent cultures
Understanding the emergence of Autistic and neurodivergent cultures requires leaving behind the God of Normality, and imagining the possibility of de-powered forms of creative collaboration.
The de-powered Open Space format was first explicitly described by Harrison Owen. He started to make use of Open Space in the mid 1970s in the healthcare sector, and observes that Open Space regularly catalyses paradigm shifting collective learning outcomes that are not achievable with other formats. If we replace the toxic language of busyness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, we can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.
The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors, and the corresponding illusion of control to a far greater extent than most people realise.
Life denying industrialised monocultures are hell bent on replacing the beautiful diversity of life with the machine metaphor. In a recent interview on “The Brain, Determinism, and Cultural Implications” Robert Sapolsky takes aim at the illusion of “normality”, and comments on human biological diversity towards the end. A timely interview on one level, but in terms of framing, I just wish Robert Sapolsky would not use the anthropocentric metaphor of “biological machines”. Instead he could simply talk about biological organisms, to acknowledge the orders of magnitude in complexity differences that lie between biological entities and human constructed machines, and the corresponding complexity of emergent phenomena that lie far beyond human comprehensibility. This would steer away from the incorrect conclusion that lack of free will equates to complete predictability of human behaviour.
Lack of free will does not imply lack of imagination. In fact, in the absence of free will, the capacity for imagination is continuously put to use – this is cultural evolution – continuously working around attempts of control – continuously spawning diversity at the margins.
Once events obviously beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, humans will rediscover that co-creating beautiful works of art is the ultimate antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence. On this note, here is a good interview with Pat Kane, a writer, musician, activist, and futurist.
The machine metaphor is no match for the big cycle of life, for the love of life that resides in all living beings. The machine metaphor will fade away as the world de-powers, and as the era of fossil fuels comes to an end.
We are documenting Autistic culture in our articles, and we are centring Autistic lived experiences via participatory Autistic research, by actively supporting Autistic research projects, by coordinating Autistic peer support, by catalysing the co-creation of NeurodiVentures, and by curating useful tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people.