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Culture as Disability Forum

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Welcome to the forum
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2003-06-13 16:50:01 :
Link to this Comment: 5756

I don't remember for sure who first showed by the McDermott and Verenne article, though I know it was someone in our bi-college education program. Which is part of the point. As a neurobiologist, I'm unlikely to have myself run onto it. Its a failing of our fragmented academic system that people working in one area don't readily see things by people working in others, no matter how relevant they may actually be. Hopefully, in some small way, we can help set that right by making the article available here.

I've used "Culture as Disability" for several years in a freshman seminar course I co-teach, and talked about it in a variety of other contexts related to education, mental health, and neurobiology (among other things). What seems to me most important is the clarity with which the essay reveals a problem we all OUGHT to be aware of and somehow aren't (because of how embedded we are in culture?). Of course, it is true that when cultures define certain things as good/essential, they are necessarily defining other things as bad/undesirable. Of course individuals are stigmatized not because of anything intrinsic to themselves but rather because of the norms of the cultures within which they find themselves. Its obvious, but how often do we think of it in the particular concrete cases where its relevant (like students in classrooms or ADD or ...)? "Culture as Disability" nails this point in a way no one who has read it can ever forget (I hope).

Perhaps even more important, "Culture as Disability" defines a new very interesting problem: can there be a culture which does NOT disable/disadvantage ANYONE in it? My guess is that the absolute answer to this question is no, but that's a conclusion substantially bleaker than another one that can be reached in response to the essay. One can take the essay as a challenge to "get it less wrong", to contribute to the development of cultures (and cultural values) which do a much better job of avoiding disadvantaging/disabling individuals than any that have existed to date. Perhaps by learning to genuinely appreciate human diversity, rather than just paying lip service to it in the interests of fairness, we can meet that challenge.

That's what intrigued me about "Culture as Disability" and why I'm glad to have it here. But there are lots of other ways to think about it, and it is from the ways lots of different people think that the best human stories emerge. I hope everyone stopping by will contribute their own thoughts.

Initial Response
Name: John Dalto
Date: //2003-07-10 08:06:52 :
Link to this Comment: 5898

While I had skimmed this article once before, this represents my first complete reading of "Culture as Disability." It's quite an impressive article. My initial reaction mingles admiration and approval with resistance. I see it as both representative and summary of a trend in education that I've been aware of for some time, but have never seen so clearly delineated. It definitely inspires me to give it a second reading, and I would appreciate hearing how others perceive it. To that end, today I'll print out a hard copy in class.

Playing the devil's advocate, I'd like to consider my initial resistance. It's based on what I've seen happening in education since the Sixties: there's been a pervasive "dumbing down." This same tendency is evinced in the culture at-large. I suspect that it's inherently an inevitable historical phenomenon linked with increasing prosperity: American culture is in decline. Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne might not agree. They might argue for some kind of progressive cultural amelioration as we have become more appreciative of diversity. After all, we now recognize seven or more kinds of intelligence. Their point of view is somewhat evident in what I perceive as their cavalier dismissal of literacy. That's not to say that they are entirely wrong, or that their indictment of labelling isn't right on. Whereas, they focus on the "disabling" that has been taking place, I would focus on the "enabling." We increasingly want to avoid telling it like it is. Of course, they can rightfully critique facts or norms as relative; appreciation of cultural relevatism is warranted. In my initial resistance, I recognize that the potency of their critique is manifest in my immediately wanting to read an article that provides counterpoint.

some more thoughts ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2003-07-10 22:08:17 :
Link to this Comment: 5917

John is a Philadelphia high school English teacher and participant in the Brain and Behavior Institute for K-12 teachers at Bryn Mawr College. More reactions to and comments about the article are available in the Institute forum archive. There was an ensuing rich conversation which lead to some interesting ideas for how to move toward a non-disabling culture in the arena of education (and perhaps more generally).

Must cultures disable?
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2003-11-22 17:06:45 :
Link to this Comment: 7367

I'm delighted that Herve Varenne has taken up the challenge of thinking about whether "Culture as Disability" is inevitable or whether instead understanding the problem may point to a way out of it. His new essay is available on-line at his website.

A brief excerpt, which can't convey either the full flavor or the full argument but hopefully will whet peoples' taste:

"My take on "culture as disability" suggests that the reformist task will never be complete–if only because the reform will become policy, will escape the intentions and understandings of those who promulgated it, and will be used by others for predictably unpredictable achievements. Personally, I fear utopias most even as I yearn for them: the worst of humanity may have come when some have attempted to reshape the world according to any of the many magnificent utopias human cultures have produced"

And a brief response, with the same objective. Herve has given me and others a lot to think about with his new essay.

Nope, no utopias. But perhaps a way to outgrow our current problems, by giving up beliefs in utopias and the consequent arguments about what they are and how to get to them?. Very much looking forward to the continuation of this conversation, with further growth in mind. And the thought that our survival as a species may depend on its outcome.

Addendum: towards new kinds of
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2003-11-23 10:12:58 :
Link to this Comment: 7370

Serendipitously(?), Jim Martin, a colleague in our Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, yesterday evening sent me an article ("Telling the Truth About Power" by Jean Baker Miller) that bears on our conversation in an interesting way.

Baker writes

"In growth-fostering relationships, facilitating the power of one person does not mean less power for the other. That kind of thinking usually follows from the notion of a "zerosum game" or from patriarchal, power-over thinking. This is still how most institutions operate. However, we can begin to envision the ways of reframing the power issue. The answer does not lie in flipping over whoever is in power so that subordinates gain more power but continue operating in the same old dominant-subordinate framework. The answer is to search for a new structure altogether, one of mutual empowerment. This transformation would change life for all of us." This calls up for me a favorite passage from Albert Camus' The Rebel: The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself; but in no case, if he is consistent, does he demand the right to destroy the existence and the freedom of others. He humiliates no one. The freedom he claims, he claims for all ... He is not only the slave against the master, but also man against the world of master and slave. Therefore, thanks to rebellion, there is something more in history than the relation between mastery and servitude. I think that there is a close link between a commitment to individually and collectively "getting it less wrong", and a commitment to "mutual empowerment", to there being "something more in history than the relation between mastery and servitude". My guess is that each necessarily implies the other. At the very least, they are commitments that would motivate similar changes to make cultures less disabling in known ways. And perhaps different phrasings are exactly what's needed to speak to different people in a diverse community.

the discussion continues ...
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2004-01-31 13:24:52 :
Link to this Comment: 7845

Rich and generative conversation based on "Culture as Disability" yesterday in two different venues: Making Sense of Diversity: A Conversation at Bryn Mawr College and the Graduate Idea Forum (also at Bryn Mawr). Visitors might want to check in at on-line forums at those places to see what ideas develop there.

For me personally, it was a chance to think more about the challenge presented by "Culture as Disability": can one make cultures less disabling and, if so, how?. The following is a sketch of one line of approach. Thanks to all for the discussions that contributed to it.

My sense is that the "standard" approach is "incremental": recognize groups that are being disabled by particular cultures and then try and put into place offsets/compensations that address those particular cases. While this approach has demonstrable successes, it also has problems. Among them is the problem of the standing of members of those groups (are they being given special privileges? are they being supported despite their failings?) and the question of "why?" one is advocating/promoting change? Out of a sense of decency? fairness? rights? entitlement?

So, maybe we could try a different, more global approach? If I read "Culture as Disability" correctly, the argument there is that no one (and no group) is INTRINSICALLY disabled/deficient. People and groups of people are simply different from one another and whether one calls them disabled/deficient is entirely a function of circumstances/cultural norms. McDermott and Verenne arrive at this conclusion from anthropological considerations, and I am inclined to reach exactly the same conclusion from biological considerations: people (like all organisms) are different from one another. Furthermore, the differences are most appropriately seen as a desirable feature, not a problem. "Diversity is thus fundamental to successful biological organization for two reasons: a profound mutual interdependence of variants in the here and now, and an even more profound dependence on variants to meet the challenges of the future."

From this starting point, the issue is not the incremental one of recognizing disabled groups and adjusting the culture to provide for them. Instead, what is needed/wanted is a more substantial change in the overall values of a culture, a change such that cultures refuse to measure people against one another or against some single standard and instead accept the proposition that all individuals have an equal and intrinsic worth but one that is different for each individual. What follows from this would be a culture in which adjustments are made for all individuals (and hence for groups) not because individuals are "disabled" in some way but rather because they are uniquely abled.

Could we get there? Isn't it "human nature" to measure onself against others? against some abstract standard? Perhaps it has always been so, but "I am, and I think, and therefore I can change who I am," and cultures ARE the product of individuals, and so it need not always be so. Perhaps we, as a species, are ready to move beyond ideas of "fairness" and "rights" and "absolutes" and value/enjoy the rich diversity that is both our birthright and the key to our future? In so doing, we could in one step eliminate most of the "disablings" cultures are prone to, and create a new kind of culture in which the only "disabled" people are those who are not themselves able to appreciate the value of differences.

Name: Bob Banist
Date: //2004-06-08 09:10:03 :
Link to this Comment: 10070

i am very impressed with your site, and the sympathy that you give to people like us, thankyou i appreciate your sympoathy
Thankyou again
Bob Banister

Name: Alexander
Date: //2004-06-08 09:12:15 :
Link to this Comment: 10071

Thankyou for the happy comments which focus on the positives of being disabled, as i am. Thankyou for the empathy you have for us.
Alex Taylor

Name: V Ramaswam
Date: //2006-02-01 04:14:16 :
Link to this Comment: 17909

I came upon "Culture as Disability" by sheer chance. I reached Serendip, which had carried the RAY McDERMOTT and HERVÉ VARENNE article. Serendipity indeed! For something happened yesterday, which makes this essay particularly pertinent to my concerns. For the first time I awakened to the notion that culture might be a disability or a debilitation or affliction, that binds us to set ways, fundamentally curtails our freedom, reduces us to passive entities instead of active, conscientious, ethical, aesthetic choice-exercising agents. I was having an intense discussion / argument with a close friend in Israel, about the Palestinian question and the recent electoral victory of Hamas. My (woman) friend, who is an educated, modern, secular, professional and intellectual was trying to explain to me "the Jewish mindset". A convivial, erudite, cosmopolitan, rational person, she said: "I am a jew". That brought to mind Daniel Pearl's supposed last words. But it did not sound heroic to me. I was deeply dismayed. As if that was not enough, she added: "if it's me OR them, it will be ME. i can tell you that for sure. it's in their hands". I felt its time for Jews and Israelis to move beyond this in this new century. Otherwise going on talking about the Jewish mindset, esp. in the face of Palestinian suffering, is horribly narcissistic. Maybe as I'm not a Jew I can't understand the Jewish mindset. But to much of the world, talking about this peculiar Jewish problem - would really appear idiotic, insular, narcissistic, obsessive, paranoid, and at odds with the world and the times. All that is the national ideology of Israel, ingested like mother's milk by all Israelis! But can that attitude prevail indefinitely? I do know some Jewish people who do not feel any special Jewish identity, do not feel they must have a homeland, do not feel they have no home anywhere else etc etc. And its not that they are rootless, identity-less individuals; rather their identity and struggles are based on other things. Just because that mindset is there does'nt mean its a good thing! It should be flushed down the toilet (along with so many other mindsets prevailing in the world)! The suffering of the Jews - like that of blacks in the US - has been part of my education. But atrocities have been committed on so many others as well: the native Americans; the aboriginals of Australia (every last one was killed in Tasmania); during the 1940s a few million Indians died of a man-made famine under British rule. Regression to tribalism - is what the persistence of the Jewish dilemma strikes me as. I don't hold people responsible for their nation, nor am I resp. for mine. In fact I strongly oppose my nation on most counts. I would like people to be free of any flag-waving tendencies; their patriotism should be expressed differently, through their personality, their way of life, their work. It should be implict, in the uniqeness and richness of their personality, rather than explicit, in statements and slogans. Speaking for myself - this "tribal" / narcissistic attitude is also to be found in so many (Hindu like me) Indians. But I can see how pathetic this appears to an outsider. And I don't feel traumatised to discard parochial thinking and a tribal identity in favour of a universal human identity, and be concerned about "human rights", "social justice" etc. I am reminded of the lines by our national poet Rabindranath Tagore: Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-- Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. Can we not be equal human beings on the face of the earth, entirely alike, yet each unqiue by virtue of the little patch of soil we grew in? Can we not cast aside our little obsessions and attend to larger, common problems of all humanity? ..... Several years ago I had written about "development as cultural rape". I realise there is no basic contradiction between defending culture and denying it as I now did. Each view has its place in its context. The (rare) individual who can discard his cultural garment, and the individual (like most people) who abides unconsciously in implicit ways defined by the culture - are different persons altogether, at different levels of evolution. Interestingly, one can find the rare individual even in very humble settings (like Kabir the Southasian weaver / poet / sage). Only someone who is culturally rich, steeped in his / her culture, who does not have to even think or talk about his / her culture, can confidently discard a garment. Someone who sees his / her culture only as something to grasp will keep it on. That rare individual who is able to transcend his / her culture - would also, I expect, not trample upon others' sensibilities and sensitivities. ..... I continued thinking on this subject of voluntary embrace of tribalism with much agitation for a long time. Finally, I let it lie, preferring silence to pointless argument. And then I came upon the "Culture as Disability" essay! I was particularly struck by the concluding lines in the "Culture as Disability" essay the withering scorn of Balzac's slave boy, the ways they resist being made into less than they could be, or less than they are. Anthropological work must begin with, but not stop with a celebration of their resistance. For their resistance to what they cannot ignore also reveals the hegemony of all the institutions that originally constructed their problems. I would add: being bound in following set ways, even of resistance, we ensure that THE act of resistance, the mother of all such acts - never ever happens. And hence the culture and the hegemony lives happily ever after. cheers! V Ramaswamy (rama) Calcutta / INDIA hpp@vsnl.com

more on indivduals and cultures
Name: Paul Grobstein
Date: //2006-08-27 10:22:07 :
Link to this Comment: 20221

I share the thought that the "culture as disability" perspective is relevant both to the problem of cultural conflict and to thinking about the relation between cultures and the individuals that make them up. For more on this theme in the case of "autism", see being different. Temple Grandin wrote in Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism "The more I learn, the more I realize more and more that how I think and feel is different" Maybe that's what we need more of to beat both the cultural disability problem and the problem of conflicts between cultures?

in profundo......
Date: //2006-12-04 01:32:46 :
Link to this Comment: 21252

Name: khalif
Date: //2007-02-11 01:03:32 :
Link to this Comment: 21448

Culture as Disability is interesting subject to me
although i though i will see in it the idea of cultured limitations
that. means society produces same kind of people academically
no creativity, no differences in thinking

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Name: Webmaster
Date: //2007-04-26 12:33:42 :
Link to this Comment: 21711

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