I have written before about how discovering my needs made me realize that society rejects non-normal needs, and the negative consequences that this has. In that article I mentioned that we live in a society that treats certain needs as more valid and natural than others. Quick recap from “Rejected needs and societal structures“:
An easy example can be taken from how people view autistic versus allistic (non-autistic) needs.
To stereotype a little:
- Allistics need you to look them in the eye for emotional validation when you speak with them, autistics need to look away in order to process information when you speak with them.
- Allistics need spontaneity, autistics need routine.
- Allistics gain comfort and information through social non-literal social exchanges such as “how are you – good”. Autistics need exchanges to be literal for understanding.
Both the autistic and the allistic person has “demands” on what the other person does, and yet at best we see only the autistic person as the person with needs, or at worst we see the autistic person as a person with unreasonable demands. This regardless of the effort the autistic has put in to accommodate the “invisible” needs of the allistic person.
This has effects on how both the autistic and the allistic needs are seen. We may compare the experience with swimming with or against a current – the current being a metaphor for which needs are treated as “normal” and thus for the support you are automatically given in society. (see “the hidden brain” https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/04/09/the-hidden-brain-shankar-vedantam/)
When you are swimming against the current and nobody acknowledges that there is a current you attribute your struggle to yourself and see yourself as defective. The autistic thus starts to see their needs as invalid, as me and my sister did.
At the same time the allistic’s needs and dependence on society are masked. When you are swimming with the current, and no one has told you there is a current, you don’t notice that you are being helped and that you would struggle and need help if you were swimming in the other direction. You attribute your success to yourself, not the stream.”
When the person swimming with the invisible current meets the person swimming against it
In this article I want to talk about the two ways in which privileged people (those who are swimming with the current) tend to react to the declared needs of non-privileged people (those swimming against the current).
Throughout my teenage years I made myself easy to handle for with-the-stream (privileged) people because I denied my needs, was extremely independent, and did not ask anything from anyone. I watched others with similarly non-normal needs be rejected, and I did not want to give anyone that kind of power over me. While this saved me from a lot of conflict and rejection in practice this made it difficult to associate with others as equals because I wasn’t showing my full self.
Lately I have been choosing to be more open about my needs and have gotten to experience first hand the kind of direct rejection that I used only to observe in others. The advantage of this is that I have realized that privileged people (and non-privileged people who have internalised this way of thinking) have a couple of very predictable ways of reacting when against-the-stream people make it clear what they need:
- Acting like the need isn’t there
The first predictable way of reacting to a declared non-normal need is acting like the non-privileged person is mistaken about the need. This is sometimes thought to be due to the ignorance of the non-privileged person but often due to some kind of personality flaws of theirs, eg. they have a vendetta (angry man hating feminists), or they are in it for the attention (non-binary people), or they want to find an excuse for their laziness (people with mental health problems or learning difficulties) or they are just “too negative” or “too emotional”.
A natural response is then to ignore the person or give the person well-meaning advice not to focus on the “need”, as if it were an unhealthy obsession of theirs. The most harmful thing about this approach is that it takes the authority away from the against-the-streamer: they are not treated as the best judge of their needs. It states “I know better than you what you need” Such treatment has huge consequences for the ability to trust both yourself and others. Some examples:
- When I took issue with the way disabled people’s confidentiality was handled in my college they acted like I was a single “angry trouble maker” and there was no problem.
- My father once told me that he shut down a discussion about gender equality at work because focusing too much on it was impairing women’s performance.
- When I first developed an undiagnosed illness people told me not to “obsess” about finding a diagnosis because it was “probably just stress”.
- I once got caught in high waves and signalled to my father on the beach to come help me. He saw me and ignored it. Later he told me he would have come “had I needed it”.
A special case of this is the insistence that we ought not identify as autistic or disabled, that we are too negative if we identify with such different needs. Let me explain why this is problematic: I am disabled whether I identify with the label or not. Arguing that I ought not identify with my needs does nothing but show me that the person I’m talking to does not believe in my needs. T
People believe that I will limit myself through reminding myself of my disability but because they don’t believe in my needs they don’t understand is that am more limited by not reminding myself of my disability because then I push myself too far and blame myself when I cannot perform what everyone else can.
The problem is if we focus only on the negatives, regardless of whether you have been validated or not. Validating difficulties does not cause you to focus more on the negatives, rather the opposite, when you have a name for them you can more easily make adjustments and move forward. You cannot ease another’s pain by telling them to ignore it. It doesn’t work and if you are a cause of their pain it is an insult.
- Acting like there is a real need but it’s not your problem to deal with
Because people who are swimming with the current don’t see their own dependence they may very well decide that when others show dependence this signals that they should not be considered responsible adults, or even that they have reduced worth as a person.
These privileged people see the problem as lying with the non-normal person, not society, and feel that society shouldn’t have to adapt. These are the people who respond to accommodation requests with “that’s taking things a bit far, isn’t it? We can’t accommodate everything, where will it end?” What they’re not seeing is that society is already adapted, it is adapted to the needs of the privileged.
These people see non-normal needs as real, but as somehow reducing the person’s right to participation. They may thus act like the person is simply too fragile to participate in society on equal terms. This can cause them to advice or force the person to leave a role, or not include them in the first place.
Taken to its extreme, this is the kind of reasoning which caused us to lobotomise disabled people, to put them in institutions, to exterminate them in the holocaust. In short, the kind of view that causes us to view disabled people as worth less.