Autism and the Sacred
One of the reasons I have been fascinated by the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is his idea that sacredness plays a crucial role in building groups and societies:
The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
Haidt warns that the mechanism of binding people together with sacredness is so strong that it may become impossible to be objective about sacred objects or beliefs:
If something is a sacred value, you can't make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can't think in a utilitarian way. You can't sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into "intuitive theologians." That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.
You can see sacredness at work most clearly in religion, of course. In Christianity, as in Hinduism and many other religions, there's a very explicit vertical dimension running from God at the top to the Devil at the bottom. Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it's not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin's ideas began to spread. There's a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something's gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. They went the other way. They became even more literalist, more fundamentalist. The bible goes up, Darwin goes down.
Of course, this makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.
And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines. Here's an image of a magnet under a piece of glass, with iron ore shavings spread on top. The shavings all fall into line. Within a moral force field, deviance is deeply disturbing. Apostates and heretics must be banished or executed.
Haidt believes that "morality binds and blinds," bringing us into teams who fight for our sacred objects and are incapable of tolerating criticism of them. His book The Righteous Mind applies his ideas mostly to differences between political liberals and conservatives (with somewhat mixed results).
There are two reasons why I think these ideas may be especially important to the autism community. The first is that I think autism can often be a disability of sacredness. Some of us develop routines or interests that are sacred to us and baffle others. Some of us get fired because we are immune to workplace moralities and need to be banished as heretics. We seem less dependent on others to develop a sense of what is sacred to us, and less able to adapt our sense of the sacred to those around us.
Using the idea of sacred objects has been useful to me in being able to express myself without offending people quite as often. I think other autistic people might benefit by asking themselves what other people around them hold sacred, how that varies from their personal beliefs, and how to start working around that.
The other reason I think we need to start talking directly this is because of conflicting beliefs about what should be sacred have shattered our community into warring and cannibalistic factions. We sacralize everything. It is impossible to talk about too many topics without offending too many people.
Think about it.
We sacralize autistic people as victims, of caregivers and thugs who kill them, of a society that fails to care for them, of bullies at work and school, and of vaccines that "injure" them.
We sacralize treatments. You are not allowed to criticize Risperdal in some places and facilitated communication in others. Some people become so opposed to drugs that they prefer to see autistic people suffer painful electric shocks instead.
We sacralize words. People attack others for calling themselves "people with autism," "autistic people," and "aspies."
We sacralize diagnosis. People view changes to the diagnostic code with horror and base their views of themselves and others around who is diagnosed and who is not.
We sacralize individuals. St. Temple of Grandin. St. Simon of Theory of Mind. St. Alison and St. Ari and St. Jenny and all.
We sacralize parenthood, especially mothers, to the point where many of us have been willing to excuse parents who kill their children.
We sacralize our own sensitivities with "trigger warnings" and poems, simultaneously sacralizing our own insensitivity by calling all complaints about our behavior "ableist" or "the argument from tone."
We sacralize attitudes, about cures, about causation, about science itself.
We sacralize beliefs about autism and disability:
"Autism is a socially constructed disability."
"Autism is a word that should only be used to refer to people who meet my definition of disability."
"Autism is a horrible, life-destroying disability."
"Autism is not a disability."
"The only disability is a bad attitude."
If a shared sense of the sacred binds some communities together, maybe this is why we are so fragmented.
And maybe just understanding that a little will help make it easier for us to come together where we can.