Stanley Fish on Autism

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Kristina Chew at Autism Vox discusses the latest Stanley Fish post at the NYT blog. For those who are unfamiliar with Fish, he's probably the most prominent American postmodernist in the academy today. He doesn't really accept any truth about normative matters, at least nothing independent of the conceptual system of those who are doing the thinking and speaking. There's no standard of morality, justice, fairness, impartiality, goodness, badness, or anything else in the general vicinity.

There are clearly things he doesn't like, and according to his view there's nothing that I can say to criticize him for holding negative attitudes about certain behavior, at least if that criticism is to be legitimately what I think criticism is. There's also nothing he can do to criticize me legitimately. Technically, if criticism is allowable within my scheme then it's ok for me to criticize, and the same is true for him. But such criticism isn't what we normally mean when we criticize. It in fact has no truth content, if truth is about the facts about right and wrong, good and evil.

So it's not surprising that I'm going to find Fish's comments on autism to be the most unhelpful ones I've ever seen. I prefer those who think they can "get their child back" (as if the kid in front of them either isn't their child or isn't a child at all) by engaging in a certain diet or preferring death to autism by refusing to keep their children safe with vaccinations. At least those people have something to talk about. They admit to holding views that can be subject to examination, even if many of them ignore any such information that might refute their preconceptions.

I think there's a very interesting argument to be had about whether autistic people are disabled to the point where they would be better off being healed or whether they're fine the way they are and should be taken seriously when they insist that they wouldn't accept a cure if it were found. Fish is right to point out the parallels with deafness, since many similar issues arise there. That's a good discussion to have, and you may end up answering differently for the two conditions. They're not exactly parallel.

But here's an argument that just won't do. Pretend that there are no norms and that any discussion of someone as abnormal is just a power play. Then argue that it's illegitimate to call people abnormal because there's no agreed-upon notion of abnormality. Fish doesn't quite draw that conclusion, but I think it's what he's suggesting. The reason he doesn't draw it is because he's too smart to do so. He knows it would be inconsistent, because such a notion relies on what legitimate and illegitimate, and he can't allow such a dichotomy. It can't be illegitimate to call people abnormal, because that presupposes that some things are legitimate and others aren't, and any such claim is really just a power play. Of course, he doesn't really avoid the problem by saying that. Calling something a power play means he's positively attributing to it a property and saying that the person doing it has a certain motivation. That's something his view doesn't allow him to do, since you can never have access to someone's intentions.

So you're left with a big muddle, as is always the case with a thoroughgoing relativism that's supposed to apply to everything and yet by its own standards can't apply to everything, since it's all relative. As I said, I'd rather see people citing falsehoods that can be responded to. I'm more comfortable writing a post like this, because it's in my field. Fish's view is a philosophical one, and I'm at home pointing out the inconsistencies of his Sophistical view (and I mean that literally; his view is a variant of the one Plato summarizes from Protagoras the Sophist in his Theaetetus dialogue). Nevertheless, I have much more respect for the ignorant, anti-intellectual posturing of Jenny McCarthy on this issue than I do for the very smart but very foolish (in the biblical sense) Stanley Fish.

I do have to say, though, that I appreciate his intellectual honesty in admitting that the argument he presents applies as much to NAMBLA and laws against murder as it does to racial or gay rights issues. He denies endorsing the argument at the end. But he says there's no theoretical difference between the NAMBLA or murder argument and the racial discrimination argument. The logic is the same, he says. He's right if you start with his premise that all sense or normality, goodness, morality, and justice are mere social constructs that have no basis in genuine moral truths. Without that, you really can't distinguish between what's wrong with a man who gets a young boy to go through the motions of consenting to sex and what's perfectly ok with interracial marriage. You're done once you accept Fish's premise, and there's no room for debate or even for drawing conclusions, which is why he doesn't do so. As I said, he's very smart compared to the average college student relativist, who doesn't know when to stop and gets tied up in knots very easily. But what he's doing is just as foolish, perhaps more so because he's got less excuse. After all, he's the smart, privilege, better-educated one.


Thank you for this; it explains the comment you left on my weblog more. It seems to me, too, that Fish could have made the same argument without reference to autism; he is not (as McCarthy is; as I am) so invested in it. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

This topic hits home with me, since it correlate on the subject of deafness. I might blog on it today.

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