Intellectual Freedoms Support Diversity

“Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.”– Albert Szent‐Gyorgyi

My work in cognitive science and philosophy focuses on brains (human, non-human animal, and artificial) and their relationship to knowledge, beliefs, and behavior. One area I study is neurodiversity in humans. I am also bipolar and autistic and have experienced a lifetime of issues surrounding the relationship between those with brain disorders and society.

Neurodiversity is the natural diversity of human brain function. It is comparable to biodiversity where diversity of skin and hair colors, body types, and physical abilities is natural. Just as one should expect and appreciate diversity in biology, one should expect and appreciate diversity in brain function. Likely no two brains function exactly alike. Even within the parameters of what is considered normal, there is great diversity.

While neurodiversity is commonly centered on what is pathologized as disorders such as autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit disorder, brain function is influenced by many factors. These include culture, ethnicity, education, innate personality, and personal experiences. In the paper ‘Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,’ business 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. Mental illnesses and physical disabilities exist across all demographics, including all races, ages, sexes, and nationalities. Racial and ethnic minorities and people from other cultures often talk about being frustrated in the dominant culture and having to code-switch. This exists for people with disorders, with them often feeling misunderstood and masking their natural behavior and personality to be accepted.

Cultures and societies have traditionally considered their “normal” way of brain function to be the correct way and have dismissed 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 involves both functional deficits and positive, practical skills.

Many great scientists, artists, and thinkers had mental disorders. While causing them functional and social issues, their different ways of thinking were integral to their work. Ye (Kanye West) is bipolar, as likely were fellow troubled artists Van Gogh and Caravaggio. The great mathematicians and physicists Isaac Newton and Paul Dirac are believed to have been autistic. Jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden was schizophrenic. Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were dyslexic. The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia caused him great trouble, including auditory 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 growing awareness and appreciation of the diversity of brain function. Just as biodiversity is important to the species, so is neurodiversity. Societies and progress require different thinkers. The Australian sociologist and autism rights activist Judy Singer sees the neurodiversity movement as a social justice movement comparable to the racial, women’s, and LGBT justice movements.

The neurodiversity movement believes it is important to remove the stigma from mental illness and to consider all people as full 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 and 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.”


Neurodiversity is about diversity of views

A key to supporting people with mental disorders is to know that there is a great diversity of views within every demographic. As with every race, ethnicity, sex, and nationality, people with mental disorders have a wide range of political and social views, philosophies, artistic tastes, and personalities. There is no one view on issues of pathology, medical treatments, and the neurodiversity movement. A saying about the autistic is, “If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person.”

While well-intentioned, modern social justice activism that is illiberal, dogmatic, and expects conformity in ideology, politics, and language oppresses the very minorities they are trying to support. Enforced groupthink is the antithesis of supporting diversity. 

Extremist social justice movements that falsely claim they represent the “one, authentic voice” of a demographic and shout down all dissent create misperceptions about minority groups. Not only does such toxic extremism not represent the views of most minorities, but it hurts the cause.

Reject the new victimhood culture and infantilization of minorities

Everyone should be aware of bigotry and uplift previously marginalized voices. We all have much to learn from others. However, sensitivity and accommodation can swing to the extremes of fanaticism.

Sociology professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning research how there is a new victimhood culture on some university campuses and elsewhere. They have written how extremist social justice activists have created a new caste system where those who deem themselves most “marginalized” are morally and socially superior to others. It’s a system that prizes being a victim.

Hallmarks of this victimhood culture are taking offense and expressing outrage at perceived microaggressions, censorship of opposing views and trying to prevent heterodox speakers, demanding safe spaces, politically correct language policing, publicly calling out and shaming perceived heretics, and characterizing people with different views as inherently bad.

New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that safe spaces, excessive focus on microaggressions and the idea of being emotionally harmed by words and ideas are not only bad for education but mental health. University campuses that are illiberal and intolerant are emotionally and educationally stunting young people, setting them up to fail in life. Cognitive therapy 101 is that avoiding your fears and anxieties only worsens them. Anxiety and depression are on the rise among young people. Psychologist and child behavior researcher Valerie Tarico writes, “Given these dynamics, it shouldn’t be surprising that some activists develop habits that can be hard on psychological and relationship health.”

As an attendee at a local Unitarian Universalist congregation, one example of this new infantilization that I have witnessed is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s scrubbing away of perceived harmful words. It removed so-called ableist words such as see, hear, walk, and stand from its publications. It changed its slogan “Standing on the Side of Love” to “Siding with Love” because it felt the word stand was harmful to the physically disabled.

This removal of “ableist” language is counter to the views of most people with mental and physical disabilities. Many disabled people find not only condescending but offensive the extreme sanitizing of language. A quadriplegic congregant told me that removing the word stand from “Standing on the Side of Love” was the most idiotic thing he’d heard of, and he would continue to say “stand.” A disability rights lawyer permanently confined to a wheelchair told me that this excessive sanitation of language is promoted by people who mean well but who never asked most people with disabilities what they think and want.

Most people with disabilities understand and use metaphors. Being disabled doesn’t mean being stupid or wanting to be considered as a child.

Some students and young minorities are taught that their subjective feelings are truth. They are taught that it is wrong for their emotional reasoning to be questioned and even to be asked for evidence supporting their opinion.

The idea that anyone’s emotional perception is objective and an unquestionable statement of truth clearly is false, in particular considering that different people of the same demographic have different and often countering views. Not only will other bipolar or autistic people have different views than mine, but I can be wrong on autism and bipolar topics and people without disorders can have important insights in the area.

I am Jewish and Jews have all sorts of views on any given topic, including Judaism and Israel. To treat my particular opinion or feeling as “unquestionable truth” is dumb, including to Jews. Some Jews will respond to my opinion on a Jewish topic, “Certainly not! I disagree with what David says.”

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter says such infantilization of minorities is dehumanizing and, in the case of racial minorities, racist.


Victimhood culture and infantilization damage communities

Communities where people and their social and moral worth are based on immutable characteristics, and not on their personal character and merit, are what societies should be moving beyond. Caste systems should be relics of the past. Communities that do not allow the expression of a diversity of thought, communities where people are intimidated into silence and unable to express their personal truths, are unhealthy and dysfunctional

This article argues for the open exchange of ideas, and freedom of speech and expression. It argues for the importance of listening to and learning from others’ perspectives and ideas to expand our knowledge and understanding. These are essential for democracy, education, a collective search for truth, and healthy societies, communities, and personal relationships.

Having and maintaining liberal, tolerant communities and institutions that support the respectful exchange of ideas are not passive activities. Illiberalism and censorship don’t always come in the form of edicts or rules from authority. They can come via groupthink and crowd following, peer pressure, and going along to get along. Self-censorship is censorship. They can come from a culture that doesn’t actively foster freedom of expression and dialogue. Economist and historian Thomas Sowell wrote, “Freedom is unlikely to be lost all at once and openly. It is far more likely to be eroded away, bit by bit, amid glittering promises and expressions of noble ideals.”