Free speech, bridge-building and stuff

Image shows a a scene of purple leaved trees surrounding a wooden bridge, overlaid with white text reading 'Building bridges'

My last post ended with me asking how do we build bridges across the spectrum?

There is a slight irony in this as I am an inveterate bridge-burner in my personal life. When faced with hurdles in relationships, friendships and other social interactions, my instinctive reaction has always been to move on and leave it behind, never to return. I didn’t really understand why I did this until I started exploring my autisticness and it seem fairly obvious now that I just didn’t have the social and communication skills to repair and re-build those relationships.

I worry endlessly about screwing things up with other people if I do or say or think the ‘wrong thing’, whilst also being incredibly annoyed at myself for thinking like that. It’s so easy to get into situations where a minor disagreement escalates into major conflict as tensions rise and views become more polarised, particularly when strong opinions and personal experience are involved.

In truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever get better at fixing the broken bridges in my personal life, but I really do want to work towards building bridges across the various positions within the autistic and autism world. I believe that it is this conflict between positions and the challenging of orthodoxies which drives progress and improves knowledge.

I see this bridge building as a sort of Hegelian Dialectic process, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, operating on a number of levels and platforms: from the challenges to orthodox autism science research posed by critical autism studies; to the way ABA and other ‘traditional’ autism interventions are questioned and criticised by autistic parents/activists; to challenging accepted terms and categories and beyond. We are in a period of conflict, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for within the dialectic model it is this period of tensions and dialogue which provides the opportunity for building bridges, joining and working together.

Most people with a foot in the autism world, autistic or not, academic or not, parent or not, teacher or not, clinician or not, whatever and whoever, have a fundamental aim to make things better for autistic people. [Since this post was published I have been reminded* that there are rather too many scientists and researchers with little care for the ‘subjects’ of their research, for whom autism as a topic is of greater interest than autistic people. However, their detached interest doesn’t give them a free pass, we have to find ways to bridge this gap] What ‘making things better for autistic people’ means can vary dramatically, from those who want autistic people cured across a broad swathe of positions to those who see acceptance and societal adjustments as the key to improving autistic lives.

How do we reconcile dramatically different perspectives? Should we even try?

I think we should. But we have to start by understanding what brings people to positions we find uncomfortable, hurtful and sometimes quite horrific. And we also have to consider that sometimes new ideas can be considered hurtful to those who are invested in existing ideas and knowledge. We have to think carefully about how we present new stuff and criticise old stuff without it feeling like an attack on people’s sense of being.

I want to be absolutely clear that I don’t want to hear people saying horrible things about autistic people, I don’t want to be misrepresented and I don’t want autistic people to be the butt of jokes but I don’t think we can move forwards unless we engage with people who think and do and say these things. I certainly don’t think demonising people helps anyone, and I think we have to start with open and honest dialogue which means people need to be able to speak freely and be given the space and time to articulate their positions.

I never thought I’d be writing about free speech on this blog, and it’s not really something I think about very often. But a lot of my writing comes from my personal tensions, often, like my last blog, between the personal and pragmatic on the one hand and the intellectual and idealist on the other. The concept of free speech presents me with yet another tension: how do I reconcile my wish not to be hurt, misrepresented and laughed at with my belief that people should, as far as is possible within the confines of the law, be able to express their opinions and beliefs?

A twitter discussion this week has prompted me to explore this by working through my thoughts here on my blog. A bit risky, as I know it’s a controversial subject, but I’m doing it anyway. I want to make it clear that my perspectives often change and that what I say today I may disagree with at some later point. But right now, this is my position.

The twitter trouble arose as some autistic advocates/activists expressed their discomfort at the choice of keynote speakers for an autism research conference taking place in the UK later this year. Particular concerns were raised about the presence of an American autistic speaker and writer who has previously expressed views that some autistic people consider harmful to autistic well-being and antithetical to the aims of the neurodiversity movement.

The discussion moved on to broader themes of providing a platform to speakers who might present what are considered to be harmful views and opinions, and where do we draw the line. I realised that my ‘draw the line’ was perhaps a considerably higher bar than some others. Fundamentally, I believe that free speech is absolutely vital to democracy and progress. This does not mean I believe there should be no limits on what can be said, as I do not support the right to freedom of speech which incites crime, and I think balance is always preferable, but I do struggle with calls to suppress opinions which might be considered offensive or upsetting, just because they are offensive and upsetting.

The PARC PDA event I spoke at which led to my last blog post presents an interesting personal example. The other 2 speakers have expressed opinions, and published articles, which some in the PDA community consider to be hateful and harmful, yet there was little challenge from the non-PDA autistic community, indeed, many welcomed the debate. Should I have declined my invitation to share a platform with people who have been accused of hateful and harmful ideas? I don’t think so. Should we refrain from saying things because some people might find them hateful and harmful? I don’t think so to that too. Were those other 2 speakers hateful and harmful? No, they weren’t, they were challenging theories and practice on a theoretical level and that’s a key part of academic discourse and the production and evolution of knowledge.

In an academic context, such as the PARC PDA event, the ability to examine and interrogate what we know and what we think we know, without limits (but within the law of course) is vital, and should be expected. But what about other contexts?

Does my ‘draw the line’ line change according to context?

The more I think about this the more I realise that my line isn’t fixed, instead it can flex and adapt to context. Fundamentally, I support people’s right to think and express whatever they want (within the law), and I support people’s rights to hold views and offer opinions which I find abhorrent; but I also expect organisations which have specific aims and values to uphold those aims and values when, for example, putting on events and providing a platform.

My problem with the examples I’ve provided above isn’t so much that I don’t think they should be allowed to think, do and say what they did, because I support their right to do that. My problem is that what was said went against the stated aims and values of the organisations concerned.

The NAS claims to be the ‘leading UK charity for autistic people and their families’ which ‘campaign[s] for a better world for autistic people’. Kibo claim to want to ‘advocate for under-represented voices’ and ‘seek to broaden the social impact’ of their work. I believe that the NAS failed on both occasions to uphold their own values by providing a platform for speakers whose content most certainly did not contribute to a better world for autistic people, and that Kibo’s failure to consult and involve autistic mothers resulted in the very opposite of advocating for and amplifying under-represented voices.

But how do I square my doublethink? Can I really uphold free speech whilst also wanting some context-specific restrictions?

I think I can.

I believe that academic and research events, along with other events whose purpose is to encourage critical thinking and dialogue, must be able to present wide-ranging perspectives, and here my ‘draw the line’ is at its most liberal. Our universities and research bodies must have the freedom to push the bounds of knowledge, and sometimes this will be uncomfortable. But even uncomfortable material can and should be explored and disseminated to high ethical standards, it just takes some effort.

Events like NAS conferences, which have a broad focus and are often aimed at both specialists and non-specialists seeking ways to improve understanding and practice, need to consider more carefully how speakers’ material supports the organisation’s aims and values. Where a controversial speaker is booked, and controversy should not be seen as automatically bad, consideration should be given to how they present their material, perhaps instead of giving keynotes they could be included as part of a balanced panel presentation with more time available for discussion. Autistic people are often vulnerable and it is important that the ‘UK’s leading autism charity’ does not promote views which contradict and undermine its stated aims.

In many ways, fictional representations should have the most freedom to explore complex, challenging and controversial topics and ideas, but this can be problematic when material is presented as a representation of a marginalised social group. Fiction can be incredibly powerful and reach people in ways that other means cannot, and fictional characters often have a lasting impact that real-life descriptions and accounts do not. It’s not hard to see the impact of Rainman on popular notions of autism, how many of us have been asked what our own or our child’s savant skill is? My issue with Kibo was less about their poor characterisation and more about the hypocrisy of claiming to be socially responsible and representative, claims which added weight to the authenticity of the character.

What on earth does free speech have to do with building bridges?

We can’t even begin to build bridges between disparate viewpoints if we can’t talk openly and honestly about our positions. If people hold back for fear of upsetting or offending those with other perspectives the bridges will be built on shaky foundations and won’t last. We have to start from a position of laying our cards on the table and working out our shared goals. We all want to improve the lives of autistic people and that’s a bloody good place to start.

* thank you to Caroline Hearst for suggesting improvements to this post

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