Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The World Doesn't Revolve Around You

This was, I think, the single most-repeated phrase my parents had during my childhood. It was also my least favorite thing that they said when they were displeased, with the possible exception of the word "sass", which seemed to morph into whatever they meant it to be, in order to describe any behavior they took objection to. "The world doesn't revolve around you" was pretty easy for them to use, since it worked in a variety of situations.

For example, if you see two children fighting, it will become obvious after a moment or two which one is refusing to do what the other wants. If you're too busy to investigate the nature of their fight and to decide whether the refusal is reasonable, you can simply tell the child who is resisting that the world does not revolve around zir, and the conflict goes away.

Similarly, if you regularly take three or four hours to grocery shop and your child makes the process even longer by throwing a temper tantrum every time that you try to drag zir along, then you can simply remind the child that the world does not revolve around zir, and that the kind of selfishness that leads children to resist spending three or four hours in a loud, poorly lit, and chilly warehouse store where food smells collide as departments join each other is not acceptable.

I get why they did it. I know that they were trying to focus my attention on the idea that other people have needs and that I needed to try to conceptualize them. It just sucks that they used exactly the same phrase when they wanted to let me know I was genuinely selfish that they used as an excuse to force me to do things that I found intolerable. It would have helped, too, if in both cases the phrase was not resoundingly stupid.

The misunderstanding of social cues, motives, and emotional expressions can lead autistics to display behaviors that seem selfish on the surface, but that are not always motivated by self-centeredness. At the same time, and I'm speaking from personal experience, when our process of conceptualizing the motives and needs of other people is not yet well-developed, there can be real issues of self-centeredness and even solipsism. It's very easy to start suspecting that other people are cardboard cutouts or shadow-puppets when you don't understand any kind of pattern to their behaviors. Both the outward appearance of selfishness and internalized selfishness that stems from trouble understanding the motives and needs of others does need to be addressed.

The problem with the phrase "the world doesn't revolve around you", even when it's used ONLY to call attention to seemingly self-centered behavior, is that it is an obvious statement. Of course the world does not revolve around us. If it did, then we would not be told that we're being selfish whenever we act out to stop ourselves from having to experience agonizing discomfort. We would not be expected to perform in situations where performance would only exacerbate the discomfort. We would be expected to learn to socialize and to be polite, but not to conform to expectations of behavior that stem from a subconscious language that is agonizingly difficult to mimic when you don't understand it.

Telling us that the world doesn't revolve around us is not telling us that we're being selfish. It's reminding us of the futility of trying to speak our dissent and putting us in our place to minimize our demands. Even when the motive is good, even when the use of it is limited to times when our behavior is actually in need of some correction or change, it doesn't fit the purpose it's put to. In those cases, discussion and teaching is needed, and "the world doesn't revolve around you" does not invite that discussion, it just dismisses the person and commands them to end their behavior. It does this because it carries two subtextual implications that are impossible to ignore, even for very literal-minded people:
  • "The world does not revolve around you" (it revolves around me because I have the power to take what I want from you).
  • "The world does not revolve around you" (because I'm choosing to put my needs before yours, so shut up and quit making it difficult to do so).
The phrase is especially problematic because it is an inherent dismissal of a worldview. When it's used against autistic people, especially children, it minimizes the unique challenges that they might face, and it lumps real sensory and social challenges and actually problematic behavior into the same category. Even if it is not intended to do so. If we are led to believe that demanding our needs be met and asserting what they are is expecting the world to revolve around us, then we learn not to speak up or to speak out when we are uncomfortable.

This is an area I have particular experience with. The constant, dripping repetition of the fact that the world did not revolve around me led to my attempts to suppress the expression of my own needs. Instead of asking for what I needed, I assumed that everyone would be shot down the way I was. It was a reasonable expectation, after all. Rules were rules and we were all expected to live by the same ones. When that proved not to be the case, for instance at school, and I started to see other students negotiating extensions to projects, being allowed to change the topics of their research work, or getting homework excused for extracurricular activities, it seemed like favoritism to me. After all, when I refused to work because there was so much noise I was getting a headache, I was told to suck it up and that everyone had to do the assignment. What was the difference between my inability to finish because of obstacles in my life and theirs?

Well, the difference was that the world did not revolve around me. It wasn't set up to make my assertion of my needs easy or accessible. It dealt me a hand where the real expression of my difficulties was nearly indistinguishable from excuses used to avoid work, and where my assumption that everyone else experienced the same discomfort, challenges, and problems I did led to my feeling like a failure. After all, everyone else managed to white-knuckle their way through the terror of talking to new people, and they prospered because of it. The fact that I was too much of a coward to do so haunted me.

Now, I understand that that was not the case. I was not experiencing the same thing as everyone else. I had unique challenges that other people could not be expected to understand, motivations that they could not reason out, and emotional expressions that they could not decipher. The reason why this was my problem and not theirs was simply because "the world doesn't revolve around me".

It doesn't revolve around them, either. It's time to make that known. It doesn't revolve around the neurotypical. It doesn't revolve around the white, or the male, or the cis, or even those who fit easily into a gender binary. It doesn't revolve around 'Murrikah, and it doesn't revolve around a church or a mosque. It's a neat little top, revolving around itself, and all the rest is just people scurrying about on the surface, trying to trick other people into thinking that their needs are "normal" and that anything else is a special privilege.

It's time to put aside worldviews and frames and to focus on the fundamental principle that truly divides privilege from an assertion of need: dignity. Dignity is the fundamental human right from which all others flow. If your behavior, beliefs, or political opinions are designed to justify denying someone else their dignity, then you need to turn inward and fix yourself. If you don't, then the rest of us are not obligated to hear you out.

The world doesn't revolve around you.