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Cultures of ability

Paul Grobstein's picture

"Culture as Disability," a 1995 essay by Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne has been on my mind for more than a decade.  In it, McDermott and Varenne argue compellingly (for me at least) that human cultures have interrelated bright and dark sides.  By promulgating stories about what individuals in a given culture should aspire to, cultures provide individuals with a sense of motivation and achievement,  The same stories, however, also "disable" other individuals, by setting standards of achievement which they, for one reason or another, can't adequately satisfy.

an incentive to reconceive human culture in some very fundamental ways?

I've always felt, and continue to feel that the notion of "disability" as a relation between cultures and individuals rather than an intrinsic characteristic of individuals is a very important one.  But there has always been, for me at least (and I think some others), a sort of fatalism in "Culture as Disability"  that I find troubling.  Must we accept that "disabling" is a regrettable but inevitable and uncorrectable characteristic of culture?  Or might we take the essay as as incentive to reconceive human culture in some very fundamental ways? 

This issue, noted in an exchange with Varenne in 2003, has come to a head in connection with several course discussions (cf Subjectivities and objectivities in classrooms and beyond and Depression, illness, culture, and cultural change)  and conversations over the past several weeks.  And I now think I can sketch the outlines of what it would take to create a non-disabling culture both in particular contexts and more generally.  Moreover, I think the prescription has some intriguing implications for thinking about how to avoid "disabling" tendencies not only in cultures but in individual lives as well.

By calling people "disabled" or "ill" or having "special needs," we identify particular people as different from the rest of us (the "non-disabled" or "well" or "normal").  We tend not only to isolate them from the larger culture but also to diminish them as individuals, identifying them by their difference rather than seeing the difference as one part of a more complex identity.  And we treat them as having diminished agency, as needing help, in contrast to the rest of us.

difference ... is "normal."  We are all different.

All of this follows from seeing differences between human beings as something unusual and needing to be corrected.  An alternate perspective begins with the recognition that all humans are different from one another in a variety of ways,  that all humans have multiple characteristics with some being more and some being less useful in particular contexts, and that no human has complete agency - we are all always in one way or another in need of help from others.  From this perspective, difference is not something remarkable.  It is "normal."  We are all different.

Difference is the opening to possibilities yet to be conceived

And this in turn opens the possibility of thinking about differences in terms other than "needing to be corrected."  A strong argument can I think be made that differences are to be valued rather than treated as a problem (cf Diversity and deviance).  Much of the robustness of many biological systems and human social organizations reflects the mutually beneficial interaction of differing perspectives and expertises.  And differences among organisms and among people are at least as important as similarities in the creative exploration of possible new forms of existence.  It is from conflict, not from agreement, that new things arise.  Being different is a good thing.   Difference is the opening to possibilities yet to be conceived (cf On beyond a critical stance and Making sense of the world: the need to entertain the inconceivable).    
Yes, but ... We often speak out of both sides of our mouth, saying how much we value difference until it gets in the way of something we're trying to do and/or think someone else ought to be doing.  Don't we need some minimum level of agreement to get anything done?  to get things done most efficiently?  The answer to both questions is probably yes, if we know in advance what we're trying to get done.  But how about if we are living in a universe (as we seem to be) in which what we're trying to get done is pretty much up to us?  A universe in which deciding what to get done is part of our creative role? 

We create and recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor to it.

In that case, what we could do is to collectively decide to do what is made available by what people around us are good at doing.  Instead of looking at each other in terms of deficiencies, we could look at each other in terms of strengths and construct our sense of what we're trying to do based on that.  We are trying to do whatever the particular collection of people who make up our culture is able to do well.  And we constantly adjust what we're trying to do to assure that everybody in our culture plays a meaningful role in what we're trying to do.  We create and recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor to it.

That strikes me as interesting opening, a potential path to a culture that not only doesn't disable but might in fact be maximally efficient at bringing humans together to ... create still more satisfying forms of human culture.  Could it be done?  I think many of us actually have some experience with it working in small groups, among friends and within families, perhaps in neighborhoods and some social organizations.  And I think some classrooms are successful that way, and more could move in that direction.  Could we have larger cultures of this sort?  It would certainly require changes in political organizations and economic systems, but maybe that's not such a bad thing?  And perhaps if we took a grass roots approach, the needed political and economic changes would follow naturally as more and more people discovered for themselves the satisfactions of living in cultures build on diverse abilities rather than deficits.

by learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves we could as well contribute to bringing into being a more humane culture, a culture of ability rather than disability?

This line of thought intrigues me not only because it suggests a new way of thinking about culture but also a new way of thinking about individual lives.  It is not only other people that we tend to evaluate in terms of deficits rather than strengths, it is also ourselves.  We are prone to getting preoccupied with things about ourselves that we are less good at rather than things we are better at, evaluating each by some measure of how they contribute to a larger task that we have set ourselves.  Perhaps we could instead think of ourselves as a community of parts each of which has particular strengths and then shape our lives towards what can be achieved given that assembly of strengths?  Adjusting our goals as our strengths change?  By building on strengths rather than trying to correct deficiencies, we might actually lead more satisfying and productive individual lives.  And maybe, by learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves we could as well contribute to bringing into being a more humane culture, a culture of ability rather than disability?

My thanks to my colleagues in the Evolving Systems project and the Slippery Brain Sodality for conversations reflected in this set of thoughts, and to, among others, Lucy Kerman.  Reactions and related thoughts from any one interested are welcome in the forum area below. 

For some more on these themes, see




Paul Grobstein's picture

the need for a culture of abilities

New relevant materials:
The self, mental health, and category making (22 April 2010)
"I try to stifle those qualities that will make me seem "Other." Do we not all do this to a greater or lesser extent?"
Deconstructing and reconstructing cultures and individuals (29 March 2010)
"Perhaps the trick here is to recognize that shared subjectivities are actually no more certain than individual subjectivities, and that shared subjectivities don't replace individual subjectivities but are best thought of as adjuncts to them."

alesnick's picture

The question of what we are trying to get done

It's interesting and fun to think that our work is in fact the creation of lively, difference-appreciating cultures, rather than, primarily, to "get things done" within the difference-rigidifying cultures (and communities of mind) that McDermott and Varenne depict.  This vision of our "work," which is also exploration/inquiry/play, also makes sense to me insofar as I see little evidence around me or in "the historical record" for there being a clear indication of our having "the answers" about what to do to "fix" the disabling cultures.