Sunday, May 31, 2015

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" - Understanding Privilege and Guilt vs Responsibility

I'm sorry.

Anyone who knows me knows I utter those two words far more than is probably humanly healthy. Ordinarily, it tends to be about stupid things that I needlessly beat myself up over (since apparently while self love comes easily to adult me, I still have a tendency of holding myself to a ridiculously high standard). Tonight however, I'm saying it because I think I've finally had the concept of social responsibility driven home for me.

Before I continue, I'd like to reiterate that I have always had an understanding of this concept on an intellectual and moral level. I've always understood that it is the responsibility of those who do well by society's various standards to help those that do not. On a moral level, I've also always believed that while an individual member of a traditionally oppressive group may not hold any personal guilt in how the oppressed are treated by his or her peers, they do hold a responsibility as a representative of that group to at least attempt to make things better.

The thing much as I say truthfully that I've always understood this, I don't think I've gotten it more than I do tonight.

My lovely girlfriend this weekend embarked on what I've been told was an epic trip to the small northern town she calls home for the annual Pride festivities. As a fellow activist and believer in equality, my thrill at her going was only matched by my disappointment that I could not also be there fighting the good fight. The weekend was filled with fun and inspiring celebrations of diversity in all its forms, but one speaker in particular gave me knots in my stomach and almost made me tear up when my partner told me about it.

The speaker in question was a transgendered individual who transitioned from female to male. Anyone familiar with such things knows how difficult that can be, and how unaccepting society can still be to what many consider the most misunderstood and misrepresented members of the LGBTQ community. Apparently, the man spoke with much courage and light about his dark past and the difficult journey he faced in coming to terms with who he was. One period he mentioned that was especially dark was his time in middle school. Now, as I've said before, I also had dark times during that period of my life, but nothing I or many have been through can compare to the challenge of coming out as transgendered. This speaker mentioned how he had been bullied not only by peers but also by the administration at the particular one principal who made his life a living hell.

The kicker here is, he went to middle school at one of the schools a certain family member of mine was principal at, during the very time she worked there.

When I realized this, my stomach contorted in disgust and I proceeded to apologize profusely to my girlfriend. For her part, she was amazing and consoled me, telling me I could not control the actions of my family members. It was at that point that I came face to face with the concept of social responsibility. The fact remained that while, yes, I could not be held personally responsible for the actions of a member of my family (and thus could not and should not share the guilt), I do share in the responsibility for the situation because we are both representatives of our family.

I know what you are going to say dear reader, because its an argument that has been used time and again in similar situations involving racism, sexism and countless other judgmental isms. “You shouldn't take the blame for something that someone else did because you didn't do it yourself!” The thing is, this statement is both correct and incorrect. To understand how that's possible, one has to understand how we are all impacted by privilege in various forms. If you are a member of a traditionally privileged group, whether it be being male, straight, white, or any other state of existence that gives you an elevated status in the eyes of society, then while you are not guilty for the crimes of your fellow members of that group who may lack your level of enlightenment, you are nonetheless responsible for their actions.

Consider this example. I work for a medium-sized telecom company. Like most companies, the cost-service ratio is a mixed bag, and we naturally don't do well by 100% of our customers. When someone comes up to me at my workplace with a ridiculously high bill or another beef with some policy instituted by my superiors, the first thing they see is yours truly wearing his company uniform and standing behind the counter. In that moment, while I am not at fault for the particular policy that the customer has called into question, I am still responsible for at least attempting to help the customer in some way since I am still a representative of my company. Many people intuitively understand this in a retail or employment context, but find it more difficult to apply the same reasoning to issues of social justice because quite simply, it hurts to think that someone we may be connected to did something bad, and we don't want to be saddled with the guilt because gosh darn it, we are good people! This, dear friends, is emotion talking. Logically, the same argument applies in both situations.

So, to the awesome-sounding transgendered man who gave the truly inspiring talk at small-town Pride, I am terribly, humbly sorry from the bottom of my heart. In fairness, I don't know exactly what happened during those years, nor could I ever hope to understand how it must have felt. I will say that the member of my family in question is by no means an evil person, and has made great strides in terms of acceptance and belief in equality, but we are all of us human and prone to making mistakes and letting the dark sides of our nature through. I will not make excuses for her or anyone else, but I will take responsibility as a privileged member of the same family and say that I do apologize for what you may have gone through. While I have no doubt that the awesome person you have now become is due to both good and bad times, as is true for all of us, no one should ever have to endure that. You are awesome and beautiful just by virtue of being a human on this planet, and the fact that you have come through with such light just enhances your awesomeness by a factor of a billion. One human to another, even if I've never met you, I just want to say that dude? You rock!

I realize this post is not directly related to neurodiversity, but I think the underlying message is an important one for us all to consider. Every word, action and thing that comes from us directly impacts those around us. We must be vigilant and remember that, in the words of Uncle Ben from Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I am sure that my family member never intended to have such a negative impact, just as I am sure than many who are part of a privileged group do not intentionally want to seem arrogant as they attempt to wash their hands of the mistakes of their ancestors and fellow members. Unfortunately, it is rarely that simple. If it was, we would not have many of the complex social justice issues we now face as a society. While we do need to move onward and upward and leave the past behind us, we must also recognize that moving past the guilt often does and should involve embracing the responsibility of cleaning up the mess and putting the pieces back together. It's not an easy journey to make, but one I believe every member of our species capable of doing.

After all, if we want to build that better world, its where we need to start.

Yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Autism in Hell's Kitchen: Disability and Neurodiversity Rights in Marvel's Daredevil

Good evening to all of you out in internet land! Recently I, like many of you, have become a huge fan of the various movies and TV series published under the Marvel banner and based on their comic books. The stories are great fun, and after all, who doesn't remember growing up with the adventures of Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and other such mighty Avengers? In particular, Marvel recently released their Netflix original series Daredevil, and strangely enough it sparked some thought in my brain about how disability and neurodiversity tends to be portrayed on TV and in other media.

Surely, none of us are strangers to it. While watching a favourite TV show or movie, or reading a book or magazine, a character is presented who has a visible or invisible disability. Who doesn't love that? After all, its nice to see marginalized groups represented in mainstream media, isn't it? Indeed it is, dear reader, but there is of course a dark side to this. More often than not, media portrayals of things such as the autism spectrum tend to present aspies and autistics in one of three lights; negatively (the character lacks any humanity whatsoever), sympathetically, yet condescendingly (“Aww the poor dear, he struggles so much with that tragic condition!) or proudly, yet condescendingly (“We're so proud of him! He's come so know...for someone with his condition!”) The point is, while media coverage is good, typically, mainstream presentations of autism and aspergers (and indeed any condition which differentiates people from the crowd) tend to reinforce prevailing stereotypes against those who are different rather than shatter them.

I could come up with a laundry list of fictional characters who fall victim to this trope, but thankfully one show's characters I could not lump under that group are those of Daredevil. Indeed, it feels as though the entire show is one big love letter to disability pride. Matthew Murdock, the lead character of the show and alter ego of the titular character, is an attorney working in New York's dangerous Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, attempting to make things better for the people of NYC's impoverished areas. He is also blind, having lost his sense of sight due to a chemical spill at nine years of age. While in most traditional disability narratives, Murdock would probably be afforded sympathy by viewers and writers alike, this is not the case in Daredevil. As a result of losing his sight, Murdock has honed his other senses to a razor sharp degree, and uses them to effectively see without use of his eyes. This enables him to fight crime and bring justice to the people of Hell's Kitchen by night, while using his intellect to do the same thing through the legal system during the day. What I like most about Murdock's story is that it very much parallels the developmental path of many mild aspies and autistics (including yours truly). Essentially, while certain aspects of being on the spectrum are in fact a disability (seriously, being able to distinguish between angry face and serious face? Ugh!), it is never a black and white thing and also comes with many gifts. I can testify that in my own admittedly mild case, while I was slightly handicapped in reading emotional cues based on facial language, I developed my ability to analyze other aspects of a situation and so almost make up for it. I have my moments where I fail, but heck, even Matt Murdock still needs to read brail right?

And I haven't even gotten into the series' big bad yet...

If the positive commentary on disability starts with the Daredevil himself, it reaches its next level with series baddie Wilson Fisk. Portrayed in the comics as the big, muscular bald and highly intelligent leader of New York's biggest criminal empire, the series' version of him follows almost the exact same path. Played by Vincent D'Onofrio on the Netflix series, the live action version of Fisk is also a recluse, one who is visibly uncomfortable in social settings and who, besides his close friend and assistant James Wesley and lover Vanessa, has no expansive social network and a very regimented daily routine.

In short, Fisk is on the autism spectrum. And I couldn't be happier about it.

Now, before any of you start screaming that making a villain autistic effectively ruins the reputations of anyone with any Autism Spectrum Disorder, hear me out. Yes, Fisk is a recluse. Yes, he is visibly uncomfortable in social settings, and yes he has a small circle of close associates, but these are never portrayed as any form of impediment to him. In fact, These traits, when combined with Fisk's clear and shrewd intellect, and his inner conflict between the moral and ruthless sides of his soul serve to make him one of the most interesting and, dare I say, human villains currently existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, Fisk has both good and evil in his soul, just as we all do. Whether neurodiverse or neurotypical, blind or able to see, we all have the conflict between two metaphorical wolves within us; one of good and the other of evil. The fact that Fisk is presented (though never announced on screen) as an autistic with the same inner turmoil and complex character development normally reserved for non-disabled characters is a beautiful testament to the fact that, whatever else we may have to deal with in life, we are all of us humans first.

Marvel's Daredevil is therefore a show that hits a lot of the right notes. While my inner geek is jumping for joy at its tie-ins with the greater MCU, my disability rights activist is also doing the same mental fist-pump for all of the positive portrayals of disability that lie within. It's a great show in its own right, and I seriously can't wait to see where the series goes (I haven't finished watching it yet!). Even still, there is something super compelling about the concept of a blind super hero with highly developed senses fighting the good fight for the poorest of NYC against an autistic villain who is brilliant, evil and a cunning crime lord while also being oh so human.