Thursday, February 13, 2014

Violence And Autism: The Moral Justification of Violence

(This essay constitutes the second part of a three part series on Violence and Austism. Part one, a prologue to the series can be found here. Trigger warning: This post will contain discussions on violent crime, with references to filicide)

“Dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed” 

I want to jump out of "Autism Mama" mode and into one that I haven't taken on in a very long time... Zita, "Sociology Geek" mode.

I have something to talk about, and it's not a pretty subject, but it is one that desperately feel needs to be addressed. I need to talk about violence. Specifically, violence towards Autistic children at the hands of their parents.

I don't want to talk about "why" it happens, at last not in the specific sense, or even how to prevent it right now- we will talk about those in my next post.

Instead, I want to talk about "how" this happens. How does a seemingly 'normal' parent go from "love" to "violence"? And, of equal importance, "how" do we, as a society, find a way to justify it, ignore it, and pretend that it is not happening?  

I want to talk about a word that is often tossed around in these dialogues, but seldom really explored as a concept:

"Dehumanization: The act or process of reducing people to objects that do not deserve the treatment accorded to humans."

Dehumanization is usually an ongoing process as opposed to a single act, and is a central theme in many violent crimes. It is most usually associated with war-time actions, as its characteristics are very clearly evidenced in highly militarized context, but it actually occurs in every day life on a variety of different social platforms. Dehumanization happens every day; it happens all around us...

When a woman is called a "fat cow", she is dehumanized. 

When a child is called a "wild animal", she is dehumanized. 

When a Cree man is called a "savage beast", he is dehumanized.

My son is being a "bear".... My sister is a "bitch"....

All of these terms, often deeply ingrained in the social subconscious, serve to minimize the human experience of the other, thereby creating a psychological distance between "them" (the subject) and "us" (the authors). 

The process of dehumanization is generally considered to take on two separate and distinct forms. The first is animalistic, and refers to the act of drawing a distinct parallel between the human being or sub-group in question and an animal, thus denying the human being's moral scope, intelligence, ability to self-control/self-regulate/self-determine, etc. Each of my examples above are examples of animalistic dehumanization patterns that occur in our every day language.  

The second form, mechanistic dehumanization, "occurs when the features of human nature (e.g. cognitive flexibility, warmth, agency) are denied to targets. Targets of mechanistic dehumanization are seen as cold, rigid, interchangeable, lacking agency, and likened to machines or objects."

One needn't work too hard to draw the parallels between the models of dehumanization and both the medical and social jargon used to describe Autism Spectrum Disorder, a neurological difference that is characterized by "difficulties in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts." Of course, socially speaking, that definition is often reduced down to the epitome of dehumanizing phrases: that those with Autism have had their "soul stolen" away from them.

After all, can there really be any quality more human than to possess a soul. As James Allen put it,  "A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life."  Within this context of 'soul' is housed our autonomy, our moral character and our capacity for reason. 

Who are we without our 'souls'

Many bloggers, much more prolific and better able to speak on the Autistic experience than ever could, have tackled the subject of the dehumanization of Autism and why it's wrong. I'm going to let these advocates speak for themselves and encourage you to read at least the following blog posts to get you started:

"Dehumanizing" - Emma's Hope Book

"Non-Speaking Autistic Activist Responds to Suzanne Right of Autism Speaks" - Amy Sequenzia

But, as I mentioned earlier, I want to talk about the "how"- the actual process of dehumanization, and how it seeps so deeply into thesocial  subconscious that we hardly notice it happening. 

As such, I would like to introduce two additional concepts that are deeply connected to the dehumanization process and that are, in many ways, equally responsible for the violence against our Autistic children.

Infra-humanization and Demonization

Coined in the early 2000s by Jacques Phillipe Leyens, Infra-humanization refers to the "tacitly held belief that one's ingroup is more human than the outgroup." This is known as "ingroup bias". Beyond simply seeing the ingroup as being superior, infrahumanization actually moves towards the denial of human qualities, specifically love, empathy, cognition, functionality (Ha. Yup.) and consciousness. In short, infrahumanization values their experience of the human essence as being superior (if not exclusive) to any other human experience.

(See where I'm going with this...?)

What is particularly interesting about the concept of infra-humanization is that studies indicate that the more the 'outgroup' attemps to prove its humanity, the harder the 'ingroup' will rally against it and the more distinctly the lines between the two will be drawn.

In fact, this division can grow so significant as to lead to a third branch of the dehumanization process: demonification of the victim (or the 'outgroup'). The victim is seen not only as deserving of their punishment, but actually becomes perceived as the aggressor. Any action taken to protect and/or defend themselves is seen as an overt and deliberate attack on the ingroup. The victim becomes the enemy.

In their article "Dehumanization, demonization, and morality shifting: Paths to moral certainty in extremist violence", psychology researchers R.S Giner-Sorolla, B. Leinder, and E. Castano (1) outline how "moral uncertainty surrounding violent acts can be reduced, encouraging direct and indirect support for violence, before and after the fact" in extremist violence situations. They outline three specific pathways that can allow for moral reconciliation of violence:
  1. By dehumanization or depersonalizing victims, removing them from moral consideration.
  2. By demonizing victim: both removing them from moral consideration, and making it a moral duty to punish them.
  3. By morally shifting: moving the focus of judgment from harm and fairness to moral concerns favoring the ingroup. (1)
And through these three mechanisms, the ingroup is not only able to further justify the actions that have been taken (which, under any other context would be deemed heinous), they become actively engaged in implicitly or explicitly condoning further acts of aggression in the same vein. 

Now, many of you may already be making the logical leaps between what I have just discussed and the growing crisis of murders/attempted murders being perpetuated against our Autistic children, but for those who haven't, let me break it down a little bit for you.

1- TREAT THEM AS LESS THAN HUMAN: The world is told (by parents, practitioners, and even- in some cases- Autistic people themselves that Autistic people aren't really like human beings because they don't behave in the way that we have outlined as the parameters for 'human behaviour'. From the medical/practitioner point of view, this includes- among other things- labelling Autistics in terms of cognitive and adaptive functioning (low/high), describing them in terms of animalistic and mechanistic labels which trivialize their humanity, forcing them into prescriptive "treatment" programs that are fundamentally hinged on 're-wiring' their brains and/or on obtaining compliance based results.

From the legal point of view, it includes stripping Autistics of their rights to bodily integrity and self-determination, including but not limited to administering onto them body interventions otherwise applicable only to animals: (such a de-teething, de-barking) or, even more terrifying, invasive, untested treatments that can lead to illness or death.

Society- for their part- shuns, abandons and prays for a cure. At best, Autism therapies and treatments are mostly focused on 'normalizing' this outgroup population so that they are less obviously "Autistic". At worst, some people advocate euthanasia.

2- DEMONIZE THE VICTIM: It is extremely difficult to justify such extreme positions on a population largely comprised of young children. It upsets our frail sense of justice and ethics. So, to help the ingroup sleep better at night, we invent a monster. We take all the most challenging, most mysterious (ie: scary), and most different (ie: "inhuman") elements of the neurology and we create a superbeast poster child for Autism.

"THIS IS AUTISM" we scream. "BE AFRAID".  It will come and "steal your child".

And the lies begin. The lies about how Autism will destroy your home, your bank account, your other children, you marriage (myth vs fact)...The lies about how all Autistic children are violent and aggressive, and how you need to fix them before it's too late.

And all of a sudden, "Autism" has taken on something different than how it is defined. All of a sudden, it is no longer about a child's (or an adult's) brain. It is an entity completely enemy to be combatted.

We write posts about how hard it is to live with Autism (despite the fact that those writing these posts seldom actually "live with Autism" and are more living with someone who lives with Autism). We martyr ourselves on the alter of "Autism Parenting" (this, despite the fact, that children parents of Autistic children are far from the only ones who have to face the financial and social implications of parenting a child with severe disabilities.)

We post videos of children in meltdowns (oftentimes brought on by extremely contentious therapeutic practices), and make comments about how they are "wild" and "savage" and "dangerous". We show these to the world saying "Look at what we deal with. We need to stop Autism now."

This enemy that we have socially constructed must be stopped. The child must be saved. 

And all of a sudden, all of these invasive tactics seem so much more justifiable to the ingroup. There is a monster to be battled against, by any means necessary.  The person becomes secondary to the condition (ironically, since this is usually about the time that we would also start seeing pushes towards "person first identity", further distancing the child from the 'beast'). Combatting the enemy, by any means necessary, becomes the primary focus.

And what of those in the outgroup who aren't so keen on seeing their neurology demonized? What of those who are uncomfortable with the incessant attacks on their humanity?

First, we try to convince them that they are broken. First, we try to recruit them into self-loathing by propagating myths designed to perpetuate the culture of fear. We tell them that we can not love them, not for who they are any way. That we love the idea of who they could have been, but not who they are as they are.

When that fails, we attempt to discount them by saying that they are imposters in the outgroup, not really affected at all. That they can not speak for Autism as a whole because their cognitive abilities, language, daily and executive functioning levels are simply too high to be representative of the group. In essence, they are too 'human'

And when that approach fails, and they outgroup persists in insisting upon their rights?

Well, they become the enemy too.

All of a sudden, conversations like this one are allowed to take place: The Femininst Breeder Will Educate Autistic People About Autism.

And when the Autistics themselves, as anyone under attack is prone to doing, they will be further demonized.

Slowly, but steadily, the ingroup convinces itself that it is the victim.  That the outgroup are the real oppressors because they risk upheaving the perfectly laid out world order.


Having managed to convince itself that the outgroup is part of the enemy, and that the ingroup is at a very real risk of being further victimzed by them, it is a small but steady leap towards "justifiable" violence.

After all, at this point the ingroup has already determined that:
  1. Autism is the enemy.
  2. People with Autism are 'absent', 'stolen', 'soulless' and otherwise subhuman. 
  3. Autism makes people dangerous. 
  4. Anyone with Autism who denies that Autism is the enemy is also the enemy. 
  5. Autism can "get you", any time, any where, any one- it must be stopped.
  6. Autism must be eradicated, by any means necessary. 
And, in its twisted logic, the conclusion is clear: the life of a person with Autism is not equivalent to the life of a person who does not have it.  How, then, is it difficult for them to conclude that: 

     6. Violence towards those with Autism, in the efforts of eradicating Autism, is justifiable.  

And just like that, the moral paradigm has shifted, and what would have been considered horrific under any other circumstance is considered completely "understandable".

So, when something truly horrific like what happened to Issy Stapleton happens, our social subconscious has already been shifted towards justification.

"She did it out of love..."

"She needed more supports..." (a phrase that I will tackle in part 2)

"I understand her pain..."

"Maybe she thought that Issy would be better off..."

She is supported, emotionally and financially, because she is a member of the ingroup. We ignore the rage of those who are part of the outgroup. They are the enemy.

And the cycle continues.

Sure, society grieves. It is sad when children are hurt. It is sad when they are in pain.

But it not sadder than when they have Autism. Nothing is sadder than a child with Autism. 

And just like that, an entire society becomes complicit in the attempted murder of a child.

So who is responsible for tragedies like what happened to Issy?

I guess that's the point of this entire heavy-handed post...

We all are.

(In part two of the series, I will examine in more detail at implicit cognition, and its impact on violence justification. I will also address the question of  how to prevent these types of acts of violence in the future.)

References, not in hyperlinks:

Castano, Emanuele; Giner-Sorolla, Roger (2006), Not quite human: Infrahumanization in response to collective responsibility for intergroup killing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 90(5), 804-818.

Kelman, H. G. (1973), Violence without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehumanization of Victims and Victimizers. Journal of Social Issues, 29: 25–61. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1973.tb00102.x

Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71,364-374.

Waytz, A. & Epley, E. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 70-76.