We don’t really need sci-fi tech to discover alternative realities. There are already billions of them right here on Earth inside our heads. We all inhabit a subjective frame of reference based on our experiences and the things we’ve learned, and any form of human communication involves at least two frames, with both similarities and differences between them.
As an autistic/ADHD woman, I often find myself hyper fixated on the dimensions and subjectivity of language and meaning because I think it helps me to understand both myself and the people around me. I want to try and elaborate on why I think this is important, and how it causes harm to ignore it.
There was a point when I believed myself to be totally rational and objective. But this model of the world made me severely depressed. It meant I could only understand the bullying and social exclusion I experienced as a punishment that I deserved for being a Bad Person. I had to learn to overcome it, to recognise my own subjectivity and try to find a healthier way to see a world that’s not binary.
The work of Terry Pratchett has been immensely helpful for me in this, and there’s one quote in particular I want to focus on here:
“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”
This isn’t just a beautifully written piece. It is in accordance with some of the most up to date research on human consciousness (despite being written well before it). )
Human beings are not rational creatures. We are rationalizers. We have to create narratives to process the deluge of data we are exposed to in our day-to-day lives, and we like the simple, easy narratives a lot more than the complicated, awkward, true ones.
One of the simplest and most appealing stories is the idea that (some) human beings are perfectly rational and objective, and that we inhabit some kind of meritocratic natural order that ensures everyone gets what they deserve. To me, this dynamic is at the root of so many of our problems in society. But it is incredibly difficult to challenge it in practice.
The problem is that if you think you are rational and objective, you will assume that anyone else who qualifies as such must share your frame of reference and understand your words in exactly the same way you do. That means that when differences of interpretation come up, as they inevitably do with human beings, that difference can only be seen as some kind of malicious attack to be ignored and dismissed. If they were being reasonable they would agree; but they don’t, so they can’t be.
Unfortunately, there’s been centuries of academic scholarship working to try and rationalise and justify this mindset as an inevitable product of the immutable natural order that represents the pure. absolute truth of the universe. It is nothing more than a rationalisation for privilege and selfishness.
I think we need to learn to challenge and overcome this dynamic. But it comes with inbuilt defence mechanisms that can be disturbingly effective. It’s so much easier to externalise the problem and see it in other people than to see it in yourself.
Our instinct is always to reject the idea that we could have caused harm. It doesn’t feel good to sit with it—It feels horrible. We want to make that feeling go away, and we are so strongly encouraged to do that. But we can’t fight back against fascism and the rise of the far right by doing it ourselves.
We cannot assume that the words we use will always mean the same things to us as they do to other people. That makes this whole communication deal a lot more difficult and complicated. and that can be a real pain. But we cannot afford to keep ignoring it.
I want to try and illustrate this by focusing on the word Normal. A lot of people seem to identify with the concept, and that means that they start to use it as a synonym for Good/valid/safe/OK. My perspective is the opposite of this. I see Normal as a cage that almost killed me.I couldn’t believe that I fit into this set of valid humans so I started to believe I wasn’t. But if I try and explain this to people, they will tend to skip over bits of it and assume I am saying they deliberately tried to kill me and become outraged. That isn’t my point. I know people don’t consciously want to cause harm when they use it. They just want to make sense of the world and their place in it. But that doesn’t prevent this thinking from causing harm.
Understanding the origins of Normal and the appeal and power of these narratives through neurodiversity and decolonial theory has been massively helpful for me. I didn’t struggle and hate myself because I am inferior. I struggled because I live in a society built on white supremacy and the idea that the natural order ensures that everyone ultimately gets what they deserve; where people assume that dehumanisation only comes from the dangerous minority Other without recognising that that is a form of dehumanisation in itself.
I want to be able to discuss the way these systems and structures affect us and our relationships and our language. But I don’t want people to think I am a monster for doing that. I can’t achieve that on my own. I need help. I spent years hyper focusing on social and professional norms to try and avoid being seen that way but I can see now that it is not a problem that just exists in me. It is everywhere. It becomes invisible. It becomes ‘common sense’.
But we can and should be doing so much better than this. It is possible. It isn’t easy. Learning to recognise subjectivity and reframe perspectives to avoid replicating this dynamic has taken me years but it is worth it. It all makes sense now.
Yong, Jose C, et al. “Not so Much Rational but Rationalizing: Humans Evolved as Coherence …” ResearchGate, Nov. 2020, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/346653015_Not_so_much_rational_but_rationalizing_Humans_evolved_as_coherence-seeking_fiction-making_animals.