[Kerry] Soups and ladders

So many conceptualisations of human behaviour and traits seem to be based on hierarchies. I really don’t think that people and their brains are as hierarchical as some people claim they are.

I recently read a blog entry by Kaninchen Zero at FWD/Forward on ‘intelligence’, and how it’s an ableist concept. I do think that there are differences in the ways in which brains process information, but arranging people as ‘normal’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘stupid’ often becomes a value judgement. People judged as ‘stupid’ are inherently worth less than those considered ‘intelligent’, and therefore deserve a lower quality of life, which I simply can’t stomach. When I was younger, I had a lot of ableist ideas about people with intellectual disabilities, which I’m quite embarrassed about now. For instance, like many members of the general public, I thought it was acceptable for parents to abort foetuses that might have profound intellectual disabilities or Down Syndrome. Fortunately, I was thoroughly schooled by other people, and I’ve learnt to check my own privilege in situations like this.

I don’t think that it’s necessarily constructive to force people into social hierarchies based on their perceived intellectual functioning. There’s a lot of privilege associated with being considered ‘intelligent’ in society: people listen to your ideas with actual interest; they don’t automatically switch their brains off when you try to tell them how you feel; and you’re less likely to be met with condescension and ridicule by people in power.

There are a lot of ableist expectations associated with it, as we’ve experienced, and as other people have mentioned in the comments to Kaninchen’s post. You’re expected to be able to have a command of basic life skills, to live a certain lifestyle and to be able to communicate in a way that’s understandable to other people. We were guilted for ‘being intelligent, but not applying ourselves’, and people were confused that we could grasp foreign languages and had a large vocabulary, but struggled with a lot of basic living tasks. We struggle with maths, and feel guilty about it because it’s considered more ‘intelligent’ to be mathematically gifted. ‘Intelligence’ can be used as a bludgeon against those who are neurodivergent, but are able to do well on IQ tests and academic ‘achievement’ tests (eg the SAT, A-Levels, Baccalauréat, Abitur).

I don’t feel that human beings’ abilities can be organised into such linear, clearly defined hierarchies. There’s no ‘ladder of human value’. Rather, I conceptualise these sorts of things as being a bit more soup-like: nonlinear, with traits that coexist with each other without being neatly organised into profiles of ‘normal’, ‘stupid’ or ‘intelligent’ people. It’s fluid. It’s disorganised. There are people who are brilliant at totting up figures and writing symphonies, but struggle with spelling. People who win spelling bees and write polished essays, but have problems planning their budgets. People can name the stars and paint the sky from memory and make pies and build relationships and do the washing-up—and all those things, and more, have meaning. The fact that they exist, in and of itself, has meaning. Our humanity, our existence, our lives: that’s what gives us value. Functionality isn’t a ‘package deal’. There’s no ladder of value; there’s no Great Chain of Being. Just us mixed-up, complicated people.

With hierarchical views of intelligence and human value, where do you draw the line? When do people become ‘unworthy of living’? That’s not a decision I feel free to make. Who am I, someone with ‘intelligent’ privilege, to decide whose lives are worthy of being maintained, when I know I’ll be spared on those grounds? For me to decide that is simply unjust—do I know what’s going on in their heads? Can I determine, objectively, whether another person ‘deserves to live’ or not, especially when they’re already socially oppressed because they have difficulty with a particular set of skills that’s associated with ‘intelligence’? What if I turned it around, on people with brains like ours in which we’re considered ‘intelligent’, but struggle with daily living tasks like cooking and cleaning? Should we have been aborted or euthanised because we, too, lack skills that are seen as vital? Obviously not, and neither should these people. Again, there is no ‘hierarchy of human value’, and we need to abandon the illusion that there is.

This is tangentially related to mental hierarchies, but I can’t relate to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As much as I like his positive, humanistic mindset towards human cognition and needs, as opposed to Freudian/psychoanalytic obsessions with sex and negative experiences during childhood, I feel as though my perception of needs doesn’t fall in that neat hierarchical structure that he constructed. For instance, worries about self-actualisation or belonging may occur when there are threats to the more immediate physiological needs. For instance, we get very little sleep these days, but the need for belonging, affirmation and self-actualisation is parsed in my head as ‘just as important’. In more dangerous situations, there was still the desire to have our identities affirmed—this is more related to the trans issues than plurality, at least in this case—and to feel as though I belonged with other people. It’s sort of a soup of needs rather than a linear hierarchy.

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