By Dr. Maskil David Cycleback
(David Cycleback is Director of Center for Artifact Studies, a member of the British Royal Academy of Philosophy and the Oxford University Philosophical Society, and is author of the peer-reviewed university textbooks “A Concise Guide to Neurodiversity,” “Nature and Limits of Human Knowledge” and “Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems.” Ordained in interfaith and a practicing Jew, he attends both a synagogue and a UU congregation.)
“Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.”– Albert Szent‐Gyorgyi
“To be Jewish is to ask questions”– Edgar Bronfman
My work is in cognitive science and epistemology, or the study of brains (human, non-human animal, artificial, etc.) and the nature and limits of knowledge. One area I study is neurodiversity in many contexts. I am also type 1 bipolar and on the autistic spectrum and have experienced a lifetime of issues surrounding neurodiversity and the relationship between those with brain disorders and society. As I believe the only practicing Jew, I also bring a different theological perspective to my UU congregation (But don’t we all!)
Liberal religions– such as Progressive Judaism, interfaith congregations and Unitarian Universalism– should be natural places to support neurodiversity. However, I feel that the national Unitarian Universalism’s turn to what I perceive as dogmatism, groupthink and expectations of ideological and political conformity undercuts this potential, and is making UU inhospitable for different thinkers.
Neurodiversity is the natural diversity of ways human brains function. It is compared to biodiversity where diversity of skin and hair colors, body types, physical abilities and genders is natural. Just as one should expect and appreciate diversity in biology, one should expect and appreciate diversity in brain functioning. Likely no two brains function exactly alike. Even within the parameters of what is considered “normal” there is great diversity.
While neurodiversity is centered around what is pathologized as disorders, brain function is influenced by many factors. These include culture, ethnicity, education, religion and personal experiences. In the paper ‘Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,’ Professors Robert Austin and Gary Pisano write, “Everyone is to some extent differently-abled (an expression favored by many neurodiverse people), because we are all born different and raised differently.” Neurodiversity and multiculturalism are intertwined. (Austin and Pisano 2017).
Cultures and societies have traditionally considered their “normal” way of brain functioning to be the correct way, and have dismissed, tried to cure and even persecuted those who think differently. However, all forms of thinking, including ways accepted by society, have trade-offs, situationally good and bad qualities, positive and negative aspects. What is pathologized involve both functional deficits and positive, practical skills.
Many great scientists, artists and thinkers had mental disorders, and their different ways of thinking were integral to their original work. The great mathematicians and physicists Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac are believed to have been autistic. Van Gogh and Caravaggio are believed to have been bipolar. Jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden was schizophrenic. Franz Kafka was schizoid. Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were dyslexic. The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia caused him great social and functional troubles, including his dropping out of society, hallucinations, delusions and involuntary hospitalizations. However, he said that when the delusions were under control, his unique way of thinking contributed to his mathematical discoveries.
There has been a growing awareness and appreciation of the diversity of brain functioning. Just as biodiversity is healthy and important to the species, so is neurodiversity. Societies and progress need different thinkers. The pioneering Australian sociologist and autism rights activist Dr. Judy Singer sees the neurodiversity movement as a social justice movement comparable to racial, gender and LGBT+ justice movements.
The neurodiverstity movement believes it is important to remove the stigma from mental illness and to consider all people as whole and important, not defective. One of the problems for people with disorders is a lack of self-esteem due to how people and society consider them.
College of William Mary neurodiversity scholar John Elder Robison writes: “As an adult with autism, I find the idea of natural variation to be more appealing than the alternative—the suggestion that I am innately bad, or broken and in need of repair. I didn’t learn about my own autism until I reached middle age. All those (pre-diagnosis) years I assumed my struggles stemmed from inherent deficiencies. Asserting that I am different—not defective—is a much healthier position to take. Realizing the idea is supported by science is even better.” (Robison 2013)
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NEURODIVERSITY IS ABOUT DIVERSE VIEWS AND PERSPECTIVES
Along with celebrating and incorporating the diversity of brain function, thought and perspectives, one of the keys to understanding neurodiversity is to know that there is a great diversity of thought, views and perspectives not only within human beings at large, but within each demographic.
For any demographic, there is no one voice, no one view, no one theory, no one language, no one way of looking at the world. Respecting any demographic is knowing and respecting that there is a wide variety of philosophies, views, political persuasions, language and opinions in the group. Disability, race, gender or nationality isn’t an ideology or a political position. Someone who advocates for wheelchair accessibility might be a Democrat or a Republican. A saying about the autistic is “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
Traditionally, liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism and interfaith congregations have been places condusive for diversity of thinking, not just for those with mental disorders but everyone. Within the framework of UU’s 7 principles and Right Relations, UU has been about the diversity of views and faiths, personal paths and interests of UUs. This is what attracted me to my local UU congregation.
I practice Judaism in part because of its respect for diversity of views, interpretations and questioning. The Torah is the foundational text of Judaism. However, Jewish interpretation and use of the Torah vary widely, from Jews taking it orthodoxically to metaphorically to as an ancient historical and cultural artifact to not using it at all. And they are all considered equally Jews! Rabbis teach laity, including children, that questioning is a way to deeper understanding. Catholics and fundamentalist Christians often find Judaism disconcerting because Jews are not taught to intellectually “submit” to a fundamentalist orthodoxy, the Torah or God. A tradition of Passover is that children ask adults questions and the adults answer respectfully. The word Israel itself is Hebrew for “wrestling with God.”
I’ve half-joked to my UU friends that “Judaism is more UU than UU.”
However, I have witnessed UU at the national, organizational and seminary level moving away from religious liberalism. I have seen trends toward top-down orthodoxy, groupthink, and expectations of ideological and political conformity. I have seen shaming and shunning of people who express different viewpoints that fall well within the parameters of UU’s 7 Principles.
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LANGUAGE AS A TOOL OF CONTROL
All areas have jargon, from religion to science to baseball. Jargon has a functional purpose, but it is also associated with groupthink, conformity and cliques. The UUA’s Widening the Circle of Concern is not only doctrinally self-described as a “theological mandate” for all congregations, ministers and UU, it has all the expected ideological jargon: white supremacy/white supremacy culture 53 times, harm 69 times, centering x15. microaggression(s) x21, accountable x54, complicit x11, dismantle/dismantling x17 colonize(ed/ers) x, intersectionality, erase/erased, etc.
Seattle psychologist and ex-Evangelical Christian Valerie Tarico writes that the woke “insider jargon” is very similar in nature and purpose to the insider jargon of Christian Evangelicals (Tarico 2019).
I understand the need for some to have a shared group language. However, someone who communicates in this language is expressing an ideology. A religion or congregation that speaks in these terms is speaking in an ideology. Those who expect you to use their ideological language are trying to create ideological conformity.
Control of language can be a power move and a mode of indoctrination. Notice how the phrases such as “upholding white supremacy,” “you’re exhibiting fragility” and “racist” are sometimes used as weapons to bully and guilt UUs, and to shut down discussion.
In her essay, ‘Language as an Instrument of Totalitarianism.’ Alexandra Kapelos-Peters writes, “In order to maintain its power, George Orwell claims that a political regime uses language to produce a reduced state of individual consciousness in its residents. As it structures and places limits on ideas that an individual is capable of forming, language is established as a type of mind-control for the masses. The primary purpose of political language, to Orwell, is to eliminate individual thought and expression.” (Apelos-Peters 2003)
Political theorist Saul Alinksy famously said, “He who controls the language controls the masses.”
While all UUs should work to be conscious of fellow UUs’ linguistic sensibilities and avoid using obviously universally felt offensive words, freedom of thought and beliefs requires freedom of language.
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Despite its sloganeering, the new UUA political paradigm is not about centering minority groups but a particular narrow ideology.
If they really wanted to center races, genders, the physically or mentally disabled, they wouldn’t enforce ideological conformity. Expectations of ideological, political, language and religious conformity are oppressive of minority and marginalized groups. It is also the antithesis of multiculturalism.
Educator Irshad Manji said, “Just because I’m gay, just because I’m Muslim, doesn’t mean I think any particular way,” and says that “honest diversity” requires a diversity of views. (Manji 2019)
Glenn Loury and Thomas Sowell are intelligent Black voices and perspectives. No matter what the color of their skin, the UUA and UU World would never center or platform ther voices. John McWhorter is a Black academic who many UUs champion and whose views fall well within the UU’s 7 Principles. However, as a critic of “woke culture,” his writing would never be published in UU World. Irshad Manji is a liberal feminist lesbian Muslim immigrant whose championing of the diversity of voices resonates with many UUs, including at my congregation. However, as a critic of Critical Race Theory and identity politics, her voice would never be centered by the UUA.
This all is why I think the UUA’s and UU World’s rhetoric about “Centering the voices of minority groups” is disingenuous and false. It is about centering those who agree with a particular narrow political paradigm. A longtime member at my local UU congregation recently said, “I find it hard to tell new member candidates that ours is a non-doctrinaire faith.”
I am a non-conformist, independent thinker, a Jew who asks questions, and a champion of neurodiversity and the neurodiverse movement. This is why I joined a UU congregation eight years ago, and why I no longer identify as a UU.
Austin R & Pisano G (2018), “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage”, https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage
Kapelos-Peters A (2003), ‘Language as an Instrument of Totalitarianism,’ https://www.alexandrakp.com/text/2003-03/language-as-an-instrument-of-totalitarianism/
Manji I (2019), “Irshad Manji: Diversity Based On Labels Is Not Diversity At All | Think”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo4OBDmlkRY
Robison J (2013), “What Is Neurodiversity?”, http://psychologytoday.com/us/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity
Tarico V (2019), “The Righteous and the Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way”, https://valerietarico.com/2019/01/24/the-righteousness-and-the-woke-why-evangelicals-and-soci%20al-justice-warriors-trigger-me-in-the-same-way
There’s a long history of White people giving a megaphone – or a cable show, book deal, or political appointment – to Black people who minimize the severity of racism, while they also complain about perspectives that are very common among Black people, like wanting to end White supremacy.
Complaining about wanting to end White supremacy – or about the ways that UUism is trying to go about it?
I observe White people complaining about Black people who speak out against White supremacy both inside UU spaces and in the larger world around us.
White people who do that in UU congregations have a high risk of being ostracized or shunned. After all, this is a denomination that has white and asian-free “safe spaces” at its General Assemblies.
Good point, Jacques.
I agree, Jacques. People shouldn’t self-servingly cherry pick a voice as a proxy for all Blacks. It’s dishonest when the Right does it, and it’s dishonest when the Left does it. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
So we don’t have to center all Black voices, just the ones approved by the UUA?
It would be logistically impossible to “center” all Black voices, but if White UUs are amplifying Black voices because they minimize racism or White people’s responsibility for it in a way robustly at odds with most Black people, that’s not a healthy practice.
So if some black person says, “Racism, quite obviously, has not been vanquished in American life,” do we center them or not?
Dr. Maskil, I share your concern of the intolerance of differing views within UU’s. A major reason for me to connect with UU’s initially, was the belief I can find support & safety, in my pursuit of spiritual growth. In getting to know many UU’s over the past 20 yrs., I feel like we are a religious starburst. We might be very different & apart from each other, but a common factor is that we have all moved out & away from where we started our religious quest. Looking forward to the annual August Atlanta Universalist Convocation, where I can… Read more »
> I understand the need for some to have a shared group language. However, someone who communicates in this language is expressing an ideology. A religion or congregation that speaks in these terms is speaking in an ideology. Yes, many people who share beliefs also want to communicate with each other and, yes, towards that end it helps that they have shared ways of describing shared beliefs. That’s good as far as it goes. However, yes, it can mean that it is harder to communicate with people from different groups / different ideologies. > Those who expect you to use… Read more »
Thank you for raising the issue of neurodiversity. Though autistic people differ greatly from each other, as you point out, there are some traits associated with being “on the spectrum” that for me, at least, make this conversation even more difficult. For example, I tend to use and hear language very literally so the categorical statements so common in this work get me upset. I got in trouble a lot as a kid for challenging adults when they used them. But the reason for my challenge is that they didn’t make sense to me, not because I wanted to trip… Read more »