I’m finally almost done reading Mark W. Moffett’s The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall and in one of the last chapters one particular passage struck me in an unexpected, unintended way, although my thinking about it remains messy.
“In the village [Pygmy] demeanor changes dramatically: they walk slowly, say little, seldom smile and try to avoid eye contact with others,” says Barry Hawlett, an anthropologist, describing a subservient bearing which primatologists will instantly recognize among rank-conscious baboons, and which the rest of us have come to accociate with broken minorities.
This got me thinking about how bodily and behavioral language could be interpreted this way instinctually, even in circumstances where it is not the result of a deferential subservience to a majority population but, say, simply the result of neurology. You see where I’m going here.
Many autistics, certainly this one, walk slowly, say little, seldom smile, and avoid eye contact, and if such bodily and behavioral language is interpreted generally as that of a broken people that might be why autistics are viewed as broken people whose behaviors must be changed in order to “fix” them.
What I mean is that if we’ve become programmed to view certain behaviors as proof that a person is not behaving as they normally would, not just because of social norms but because of an evolved instinct to read body language in a certain way, the danger is that we assume all such behavior to be unnatural, and some exhibitors of it in need of “saving”.
I don’t make eye contact with you because I am broken, cowed. Maybe it looks like subservience and maybe you think I there’s no reason for me to be acting subserviently. The point is I’m not. I don’t, e.g., make eye contact with you because it hurts to do so. It’s simply how I behave. It’s simply me.