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Paul Grobstein's picture

Cultures, individuals, and "broken brains"

Thanks all for rich conversation that certainly moved along my thinking about culture, individual differences, and "broken brains" as an issue.

What most impressed me was the number and vehemence of arguments to the effect that culture can/should/must trump individual differences, ie that even if "disability" is not a property of individuals but a description of their relation to cultural norms, the appropriate remedy is necessarily to correct the individuals, ie to fix "broken brains". Among the arguments I heard was that people who weren't comfortable having to fit into a particular culture should move elsewhere, that culture was a product of evolution and that those who couldn't adapt were by definition defective, that it is easier to change people than to changes cultures, that changing people was the more obvious route when you actually wanted to help particular individuals, and that some deviations (eg, pedophilia) were so self-evidently destructive that they were inconsistent with communities of any kind.

There seemed to be a strong general presumption that cultures can't be changed, as one participant voiced it. Indeed my sense was that many people felt not only that it was hard to change cultures but that there were good reasons why they are as they are. And at least some felt that efforts to change culture were actually misdirected and should be resisted. Other classes have had quite different reactions to the "Culture as Disability" article, often taking it as supportive of their own existing commitments to social change. The upshot is that I can't help but wonder what kinds of prior experiences cause one to see the article and its arguments one way or another and, in particular, how the Neural and Behavioral Sciences concentration influences this. Maybe it encourages a perspective that things significant for behavior exist only at the cellular level, or at least doesn't provide experiences that might challenge such a presumption?

Perhaps relevant along these lines is a question put to me during the conversation along the lines of "As a scientist, we want to know the answer. What is it?". As the questioner and others probably noticed, I declined to give an answer. But I had then and since some thoughts that might perhaps contribute to further conversation. The idea that "one ... will be less abled than the other [in some aspects] and will be more abled in other aspects" seems to me indeed a "valuable point", one that one might well build on.

The objective, it seems to me, is not in fact to eliminate differences among people, to bring everybody to the same state (by, for example, giving special treatment to some and, perhaps, handicapping others). The objective is instead to find a way to think about the inevitable differences among people (and among groups of people) in a way that doesn't lead to unnecessary, and indeed counter-productive, interpersonal and inter-group conflict. And the "everyone is both less able in some areas and more abled in others" seems to me a good starting point for that. What that principle in turn implies is that we all potentially have something to contribute to as well as something to gain from everyone else. Difference, in these terms, is not "disability" but the potential for mutual empowerment, for gaining things by interaction with others that one might not be capable of alone and contributing things to others that enhance them in ways they could not have done by themselves. None of us are in fact capable of living independently of others, and that interdependence is an asset to our lives rather than a failing in them.

McDermott and Varenne are, in "Culture as Disability", quite skeptical about the possibility of creating non-disabling cultures, as the class by and large seemed to be, but I'm not (see the discussion continues). That's not to say I think that moving our culture (or any other) in a direction that thinks of peoples' differences first as potential assets rather than disabilities is easy, but I do think it is both a desirable and an achievable aspiration (see Diversity and Deviance).

With regard to the immediate issue at hand, "broken brains", it seems to me a step in the right direction is to take seriously what seemed to me from our discussion a common dissatisfaction with the DSM and the general "medical model" approach to mental health that underlies it. Useful as the normative approach may (or may not) have been for other areas of medicine in the past, my sense is that it has serious and clear shortcomings in the area of mental health (Models of Mental Health: A Critique and a Prospectus), among them the idea that differences can be clearly recognized and treated as "disabilities", that mental health care is based on "broken brains" that need to be fixed.

An alternative perspective for doctors and therapists (and teachers?) would be to recognize that behavior is always an interaction between brains and cultures, and so to conceive themselves always as a change agent not only for individuals but also for cultures. And to recognize that the most important starting point in dealing with individuals is the presumption they are always a collection of more and less good things rather than defined by a particular problem for which only the doctor/therapist (and teacher) has the solution. In so doing, they would avoid encouraging people to develop a sense of themselves as flawed, and contribute instead to people developing a more realistic sense of both their own agency and its limitations. Finally, doctors/therapists (and teachers?) might in fact find that their jobs are more satisfying to themselves by virtue of what they learn from those with whom they interact that they might not have discovered themselves.

Looking forward to hearing more about what others saw/heard/learned form our last conversation ... and to seeing where we all go with it next.

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