Monday, October 15, 2007

Pitting Women Against Girls: Thoughts on Feminism and Disability

So I'm going to do something really radical and blog about something other than books today. Hang onto your hats.

Something I noticed when I first read about Ashley X on feminist blogs, and that I see now reading about Katie Thorpe, is that the feminist community seems to be conflicted over these cases. Some bloggers thought the girls' rights had been violated, others thought the caregivers should have the freedom to do whatever they think is in their charges' best interest, and still others were not comfortable enough to make a judgment one way or another. The extent of this diversity, and the intensity of the disagreements, surprised me, as I had thought this was a fairly straightforward instance of these girls' rights being ignored because it was convenient to ignore them and their disabilities made it impossible for them to advocate for themselves --- in other words, sexism and ablism. Case closed, right?

What I have come to find, though, is that several feminist narratives are at work in these stories, and it's along those pre-existing lines that the feminist commentary fractures. Yes, there is the paternalistic medical system, with its history of pathologizing the female body, particularly the reproductive organs. There's also the traditional role of women as unpaid caregivers, both of children and of infirm adult relatives. Indeed, caregiving is still primarily women's work, and is almost always either unpaid or underpaid. And finally, there's the sterilization divide: white women who want sterilization can't get it, while women of color find it pushed on them. (It's worth noticing that one of the blogs to come out aggressively opposed to the Ashley Treatment was the Women of Color Blog, which does go into the fear of forced sterilization).

Another thing that goes into it is the fact that nothing about gender is neutral in our culture. Ashley's parents specifically mentioned a fear of rape as one of the reasons they didn't want her to mature --- they thought (probably mistakenly) that she would be less likely to be raped if she didn't look like a woman, and they also wanted to make sure she couldn't be impregnated by a rapist. Just being a woman in our culture makes you prey to a wide range of Very Bad Things, from institutionalized, bureaucratic sexism to individual, personal types of victimization like stalking, domestic abuse or rape. Maybe her parents thought they could fool society, or nature, or whomever, by disguising their daughter as not-a-woman. Not that that excuses it, but if that is part of the rationale, what a sad commentary on our society.

There's probably enough material in all those feminist archetypes for every woman to find some part of her own story echoed in Ashley and Katie's story, which is why we see such a clamor of voices. Women who've grown up fearing forced sterilization, women who are primary caregivers or work in healthcare, women with disabilities and women who have experienced some form of violation by a health professional (e.g. birthrape) can all identify with some element of the stories. So, I've come to believe, the problem isn't that feminists aren't identifying with this story, but that there is so much they can identify with. And there aren't a lot of easy answers there --- we demand humane care for people with disabilities, but we have to be aware that that's a burden that will fall disproportionately on women. We ask for sterilization on demand, without being second-guessed or told we'll change our minds, but we also need to remember to ask not to push sterilization on women who don't want it, regardless of what the doctor thinks is "best" for them or their potential children. This is not to say that any of these things is impossible, or that we shouldn't agitate for these things. We should agitate for them all, and for change in society such that would make them all go together, rather than seem contradictory.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tape Recorders and Decoder Rings: Thoughts on Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation

Animals in Translation got me thinking before I even opened the book, largely because of its subtitle, "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior," and the analogy it suggests can be drawn between domestic animals and autistic people. I was skeptical that either of those (very heterogeneous) groups had enough universal cognitive traits to draw any meaningful comparisons, not to mention any worries I might have had about those comparisons being overly anthropomorphic (for the animals) or dehumanizing (for the people).

While this analogy does indeed comprise the main premise of the book,
Grandin does a variety of things to make it work, and to avoid either anthropomorphizing her animal subjects or objectifying her human ones. Of these, the most striking is the way she draws narrow, specifically-defined boundaries around her analogy, marking out a small number of areas of similarity between autistic and animal perception and processing. Those areas are:
  1. Hyperspecificity --- this term, she says, comes from autism research but it equally applicable to animals. It means the person, or animal, is so detail-oriented that even when they're dealing with categories of things, those categories are usually very specific and narrow, making generalization difficult.
  2. Sensory immediacy --- also related to the importance of detail in animals' and autistic people's lives; while most people filter what they perceive to get a general idea, autistics (and animals) have to experience what's around them in great detail. As Grandin puts it, animals and autistic people are dealing with the world in terms of "raw data," while normal people are actually seeing their own mental model of the world, which may be simpler and cleaner, but doesn't include everything there is. That's where the phenomenon of "inattentional blindness," or not seeing what's in right in front of you, comes in.
  3. Simple, intense emotion, coupled with a lack of "mixed emotions" or ambivalence.
  4. Visual thinking

The book keeps coming back to these traits to explain a wide variety of the animal behaviors that puzzle farmers, owners and trainers, and to Grandin's sharing those traits to explain her success in solving the problems that baffle so many others. While describing her work as a consultant in the meatpacking industry, she stresses the importance of putting herself in the animals' place, walking where they would walk, even ducking her head so she sees what they would see. While she does this, visual details that would spook the cattle jump out at her, so she can easily tell the plant's operators what the problem is. This brings us to another important constraint Grandin places on her analogy: she limits its scope to what she's been able to verify empirically. Her predictions of what an animal will need in its environment to be happy, and of what kinds of things scare them, or what types of training will succeed or fail, are almost always borne out, and she can draw on a lot of peer-reviewed animal research to support her ideas. She also tells us that her expertise in animal behavior is not purely instinctive; she's had to develop it over the years, fusing her awareness of how her own brain works with the theoretical and practical knowledge she's acquired over the course of her career. "I wasn't any horse-whispering autistic savant (as a girl)," she tells us in Chapter 1, "I just loved the horses."

Another thing she does that strengthens the central analogy between animals and autistic people is show how a normal human's thought patterns and cognitive biases can work against understanding animals. Normal humans are very abstract thinkers, quick to generalize, and very verbal, while animals and autistics are concrete, visual, hyperspecific thinkers. In a section on animal welfare, Grandin contrasts the clear, simple ten-point checklist she uses to audit meatpacking plants with the much longer checklists verbal thinkers tend to devise. Her checklist looks for outward signs of distress in the cattle or gross mishandling by the workers, while the verbal thinkers usually want to peek into every aspect of the plant's operation.

She also directly addresses the problem of anthropomorphism, which she says was a cardinal sin when she went to college, in behaviorism's heyday. She draws a distinction between blindly supposing an animal's mental states to be like a human's, as when people believe a dog feels "guilty" about messing on the floor, and being mindful of the animal's point of view, as she tries to be.

Overall, the book is a primer on animal handling, with a lot of side trips into the areas of animal intelligence, psychology and brain research. It's organized into seven chapters, each one dealing with a broad topic like "Animal Aggression" or "How Animals Think," and each chapter is divided into small sections devoted to a small aspect of that broad topic. Colorful anecdotes are her preferred method of demonstrating the general principles she lays out, featuring both human and animal characters. Her writing style is very direct and literal, with very few metaphors. If anything, her writing is more notable for its "unpacking" of popularly used metaphors --- particularly in the chapter on "Animal Feelings," she'll describe research on the biology of emotion in animals to show the literal truth of the sayings. In a section titled "Love Hurts," she details research on opioid receptors in the brain and their relation to social behavior, and in the last paragraphs of the preceding section she tries to tie research on the body's temperature-regulation system and its possible role in social behavior to metaphors of affective warmth or coldness. I am not well-informed enough to assess the soundness of those links, but I think her choice to include them shows a concrete, literal approach to metaphor that fits right in with what she describes as the core traits of the autistic mind.

Though the whole book is filled with variations on the central analogy, I think the last two chapters, "How Animals Think" and "Animal Genius: Extreme Talents" make explicit what I think of as the essential message of the book. These chapters summarize research findings that animals can solve problems, use language, and even develop incredible talents that very few people could. Though "skeptics" who doubt those findings are periodically invoked, Grandin admits that not enough is known to determine how much animals' brains can do, or how sophisticated their communication systems are. She seems to invoke the Other Side not to much to debate them as to use them as foils, pitting her own optimism and empathy against their anthrocentrism.

If the history of animal research is anything to go on, we probably don't even know what we think we know, since every time researchers think they've proved animals can't do something along comes an animal who can.

I think autistic people are included in this assessment, too, since she refers to research on their abilities along with the animal research, and expresses regret that their talents are not put to more use by industry. This, to me, is the most powerful result of the analogy she's built her book around: this recognition of both animals and autistic people as having been overlooked. The analogy hasn't blurred any lines between the two groups, or simplified her portrayal of them; it's only an admission of how little is really known about either, and how much both have to offer a world that's historically only acknowledged one kind of intelligence.