Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Culture shapes

on 2011 May 31

Imagine a cathedral with many people in it. The space has a central region and many alcoves. Here is a depiction of culture using this analogy.

The black dots are people, who mainly cluster in the middle. The outliers spread at lower concentrations as they get further from the norm. I’m coming at this from an autism perspective, so I’m thinking of the fringes as autistic people, but the outliers could be anything atypical. Cultures tend to collect people towards the center, but they don’t draw everyone in equally.

In the next picture, there are three concentric circles. Each circle represents a different idea of what “normal” is. It is an arbitrarily divider that draws the line between normal and the rest of us. If you define normal to be circle #1, then you may have only included slightly more than half the people in your definition of normal, and excluded the rest. Circle #2 includes more people as normal and circle #3 includes the most.

Measures of autism rates differ so much partly because of where they decide to draw the circle for that particular study.

So far the pictures look at culture from the outside. But here’s a new idea – looking at it from an outlier perspective:

The pie slice in this view represents the field of vision of the outlier. He can’t see into the neighboring alcoves, so from that person’s perspective, the vast majority of people are highly clustered and the other outliers are mostly invisible. Therefore, the outlier perspective has the most in common with circle #1 in the previous picture (and less in common with circles 2 and 3). The actual ability of someone in that position to find similar minds could be highly restricted by the misleading viewpoint.

While a drawing doesn’t prove anything, perhaps it enlightens the way a culture can maintain dominance even when only half the population fits it or buys into it. The outliers feel as though they are in alcoves and their viewpoint is restricted to observing the culture’s center.

Another way to look at it is here:

This is an image of two social maps that I made to explain isolation of autistic youth, even within a program specifically designed for them.

The social map on the left represents the dominant culture in the main cloud and four autistic participants, who are each connected to a counselor, but not to each other. On the right, the connections remain, but the participants are also connected to each other and have developed a new separate culture, or sense of group identity.

I find that the left side is a closer representation of what is actually happening in schools and other programs for autistic people, because there are so many teachers or counselors, and they try to make the autistic people mainly talk to the typical people, instead of to each other.

The dominant culture is very “fix-it” oriented and many people may have the drive is to conquer and assimilate those who appear to be independent, different, or nonconforming, the way the Europeans have tried to assimilate native Americans into the dominant culture. In other words, don’t allow a separate group to develop outside the mainstream. One can argue that the natives are better off to assimilate into the conquerors, and in fact some of those that did are wealthier than those still living on the reservations. In the same way, a widely held view is to bring autistic people out of “their own world” and into the shared world of the dominant culture, and thus “fix” their autism.

Today, many people realize that it was wrong to try to destroy native cultures, despite the possible advantages to those who “converted”, because we now have a belief that people ought to be free to be who they really are. In the same way, autistic people have a way of being independent of social norms, and to allow that freedom is to allow them to be who they really are. The desire to make then conform in order to help them be successful always has to be balanced with the value of letting a person be who she really is.

The very strucutre of culture (whether viewed as a cathedral or a cloud) isolates people who are different than the norm. One of the most important ways to remain who we are is to change the map, so there are no isolating alcoves, and so there is space for more than one way to be.

One response to “Culture shapes

  1. I wonder if the “pie” view sometimes swings like a metronome as when we talk about “bellweather” states in politics?

    The images assume that “normal” doesn’t move. (isn’t dynamic).

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