“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ”
Aristotle – a long time before I was born.
What was Aristotle trying to say when he said this?
Is being social really key to being human or is society and humanity separate?
What kind of social was he talking about and by the same token, what level of anti-social is enough to be labelled ‘sub human or indeed Godlike?’
I’ve just finished reading Steve Silberman’s best seller ‘Neurotribes’ and as such the issue of sociability is something I’m ruminating on intently today.
So I’m not the most social person in the world but neither am I the worlds biggest loner. I can be comfortable in crowds, at parties and even in noisy shopping centres if I need to be but as I’ve got older and more self-aware I’ve realised that the further away from my comfort zone (alone or with people I know very, very well) I am, the more I daydream / zone out/ go AWOL. Even just writing this now makes me draw a link immediately between the two states – this may well be the key to where and why my Attention Deficit disorderliness exists – a way of coping with a world that I don’t much care for but realise I have to participate in (and yes, sometimes it can be fun). Well, that might be at least a part of it, makes sense to me especially since it has become so ingrained in me that I don’t consciously decide to opt out of being somewhere, I just find myself gone for a while, usually when I realise I’ve put my keys in the fridge, locked myself out or thrown away the letter instead of the envelope. Big, important stuff like that.
Attention Deficit is my big hitting Neurodiversity tick box but it isn’t the only one. Even when I’m not floating around in my imagination I’m not entirely sure I fit in (and yes, I know that everyone thinks that from time to time). It doesn’t bother me much now but in the past I’ve questioned whether I’m a ‘real’ woman for not liking shopping, cooking, babies, pink, nail polish, gossip magazines, girly dates and so on and so forth. It sounds silly writing it and I’ve now got plenty of friends that are equally ‘weird’ but you would be surprised at how often ‘society’ tries to put us back in our box, resisting that does take its toll and does not go un-noticed in terms of energetic output.
So that’s that really.
Back to Sociability.
Even though I quoted Aristotle at the beginning of this piece, I’ve not read enough of his work to have a well-rounded idea of what he was getting at and accept that I might be making assumptions about what he said that are entirely based on my own bias. Just thought that was good to know!
A group of people living together in a more or less ordered community.
A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
Needing companionship, best suited to living in a community.
A personality trait, the ability to be fond of the company of others. Tendency to seek out social contact.
Reading all of these and thinking about that Aristotle quote I start to see how much grey area there could be in this social/ humanity equation.
Let’s start with being social, living in society that includes interacting with people you don’t know.
It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that people may exist in a society, respect or at least adhere to the rules and participate usefully without necessarily enjoying it or feeling it to be the ‘best and most essential part’ of being human. For example I live on a street with neighbours that I can occasionally hear and often see. If I was brutally honest I’d rather not see or hear my neighbours ever and I would absolutely really love it if they never saw or heard me either – I like my home to be my retreat and for me, a retreat has to be private. But that is not the case. My neighbours are, on the whole nice people, interesting enough, helpful, fun and kind. I accept living this way because I like my house, find it conveniently placed and comfortable. I also accept that it is better for me to put in some effort to build my street community (as much as I can muster) rather than putting that same effort in pretending that nobody else exists (hiding from neighbours is not an emotional energy-saving plan). So does that make me social and more importantly does that prove I’m human or do I need to relish and thrive in it for that diagnosis to be mine?
The dictionary definition of ‘social’ seems to encompass any type of desire for human interaction thus leading me to conclude that Aristotle might have been referencing both the person who only enjoys the company of their family at the same time as the person who likes nothing better than living in a communal house so busting at the seems that there has to be four people to a bed just for sleeping!
So we can be social but not gregarious and live and participate in a community while holding a preference for our own company. I wonder if we have forgotten that in our modern, connected, can’t-live-without-a-crowd life?
I am indeed fond of company but on my own terms and in bite sized chunks. When I fantasize about my ‘perfect’ day’ it would most often be a fantasy where I’m alone or have only my immediate family participating along side me but not demanding things of me – like toddlers tandem playing in their own little worlds. This attitude plays out in my ‘real’ life, I take myself off for 1-3 hour solo walks through the forest, I love working from home with only the radio for company and am extremely comfortable with travelling solo.
So what does this mean in the context of the above book?
Well I wonder if somewhere along the line, we (community) became so focused on trying to create the perfect society that we forgot to appreciate the difference between the two, firstly that community may develop organically but that society is more strategically planned (man-made/ constructed especially now given we have a variety of birth control at our fingertips, can parent together or alone and can pretty much ‘design’ our families to suit ourselves) and secondly, that society can be designed to accommodate and celebrate all sorts or individuals that naturally constitute a community just as long as it shares and achieves a common goal and assuming it has the (political) will.
I see it like this:
People might have naturally settled around a natural spring or water course because all people, whatever their personality share the need for fresh water. In doing so they become a basic community. That community may or may not have shared any other communal traits but over time the fact that they shared the same space, experienced the same fortune in weather and witnessed each others lives would have (possibly) built some type of society. At some point that society may have expressed a desire to get organised and appointed a leader or leadership structure. Over time I feel it is likely that these ‘natural leaders’ would have been elected from the handful of people in the community who were most charismatic, most able and that most looked and felt like leaders. In the western social narrative that was the point when the quote from Animal Farm rings true:
All Men Are Born Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others.
And that brings me back to the book Neurotribes.
The dominant social narrative throughout modern history is one of easy and insatiable socialization of which the ultimate achievement and success is measured in ones fame, popularity and fortune. The more the better. The Kardashians are just about past their prime now but they epitomise the magnum opus of such thinking and are no doubt just the modern-day incarnation of leaders and society builders that have gone before them.
This narrative is not one that celebrates or even makes room for neurodiversity, especially not of the types seen at the end of the spectra described in the book Neurotribes. But that is not un-expected and neither is it particularly illogical, we have to focus our attention somewhere and with people the easiest place to target is the place where most people ‘sit’. In mathematical terms this would be the mode (assuming that all members of a community were sampled so that an accurate distribution of society were presented for analysis).
Mean – Typical average.
Median – The middle value or ‘type’ in a range with all others being ‘deviants’ to one degree or another.
Mode – The configuration that is most common.
But rather than think that a logical, strategic plan of action was developed around serving and ‘talking to’ the middle in the hope that both ends are so tiny and insignificant that they will look after themselves it looks like there was no plan at all! After reading Neurotribes it looks more likely that ‘other’ in terms of brain wiring/ brain operating systems were, in the past (and even, to some degree still today) thought of as nothing more than defective, to be pitied, exterminated, locked-away, fixed, medicated or otherwise marginalised and ignored.
And that, I find, is significant especially when we look at the other part of the Aristotle Quote that society precedes the individual.
Wait a minute?
What does that mean for the neurodiverse growing up in a world that has, until very recently shunned any type of ‘other’ brain?
On a macro level the family is the first, most basic and most crucial unit of society and as such, I find it easy enough to accept that the family precedes the individual in as much as the family and its culture moulds the individual ‘potential’ into ‘person’. It is interesting that this fact wasn’t given more consideration during the dark years where Autistic people were mis-diagnosed as feebleminded and put away in institutions with minimal love or hope for a productive and meaningful future. Within that framework it is especially cruel that for many years Autism was blamed on refrigerator mothers. God I’m glad I wasn’t alive ‘then’. I’d have been permanently angry and distressed! It is also interesting that Professor Asperger recognised the need for these softer, encouraging forms of interaction and consequently unlocked the key to the gifts and beauty of his ‘little professors’.
Alternatively, if we focus on society being the bigger picture – the newspapers, the streets, the shopping malls, the politics and the popular, if we only celebrate and publicise the mode (neurologically speaking) where does that leave our neurodiverse families? Feeling inadequate? Misunderstood, Under-valued? Worthless even? We are back to where we started only instead of the powers that be taking our neurodiverse children and locking them away we are silently gaslighting diversity out of our community and encouraging the different to stay quiet and invisible so that we might all just carry on as ‘normal’? It’s no wonder that people are depressed and feeling anxious.
Something has to change. Society has to change. We have to wake up to the diversity that is all around us.
Within the pages of this book I see the potential for it to stop and stop now.
Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes shows us that we (as a society) were wrong to pass over neurodiversity. That those of us who deviate significantly from the norm in terms of neuro programming are more ‘different’ that ‘defect’ and need acknowledgement and love more than medication.
And I think that because of this book we’ll start to get it!
For so long we have readily accept diversity in appearance, musical preferences, food taste and more so why not go the extra centimetre and accept that we (humans) come with a variety of operating systems that all have their own unique features and (drum roll…..) benefits?
Personally I have come to see my own Attention Deficit Disorder as a positive and enjoyable part of being me. In fact, after reading this I’m less inclined to see it as a disorder at all and nor do I feel the need to use the word deficit – if anything, it enriches my life AND my thinking. I’m not yet sure what words I’d use to describe how my brain adds colour to my life and how my neurological difference from the main stream has contributed to my own feelings of strength, purpose, beauty and value, maybe I’ll find those words in 2017, maybe they will open the door to more self-discovery or maybe I don’t need them at all.
Whatever happens both for me personally and for the world as a whole I think it will be a brighter and more productive place if we celebrate, support and include (in whatever sense of that word makes sense for people) every brain into the fabric of society.
Now more than ever we can’t afford to waste a brain!