The single most important thing about any person is their humanity.
No matter what other characteristics define them – their race, gender, age, neurotype, health, sexual preference, career, level of education, immigration status, religion, whatever – every single person is human, and by virtue of being human they are entitled to respect and dignity.
Years ago, I stumbled across a few MRA and white supremacy outposts online; I remember reading through their blog archives in a kind of shocked daze, disbelieving that people could actually hold the opinions presented there. Authors attempted to use social and biological science to prove racist tenets, or to claim the superiority of the “alpha male” type over women and more “feminine” men (often just decent and courteous men). Careful rational examination of their source material could show where they were wrong, but the sheer volume of output would make that a full-time job – with little or no reward, given that they’ve already shown their disregard for real science or actual facts.
Since then, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases against the old and sick (e.g., assisted suicide), the LGBTQA community, the homeless (e.g., park bench design), illegal (and often legal) immigrants, and Muslims have risen and fallen through the headlines of the news cycle. Every time there is a group of people who try to make themselves appear and feel superior and, more malevolently, entitled by virtue of that superiority to demean, belittle, and discriminate against groups they deem inferior. We, the employed, do not wish to see or even think about the unemployed; we can provide for ourselves, they cannot so they must be lazy and shiftless, and thus do not even deserve to sleep on a bench where we might see them. We, the citizens, obviously deserved to be born in this nation with all the opportunities we have; those immigrants who were so stupid as to have been born elsewhere shouldn’t be allowed to come here and steal our opportunities. We, the heterosexual, are so uncomfortable with trans and homosexual individuals that we must clearly be the only natural and moral beings here – never mind our promiscuity and infidelity, we are the ones following God’s sexual plan for humanity, and those who disagree should be silenced and kept apart from each other.
And recently, as I’ve been reading through the online communities dedicated to respectful parenting and disability advocacy, I’ve begun to encounter childism and ableism in all their ugliness.
This week, when the horrible story of the Turpin family came to light, the comments I read on the New York Times were straightforward and predictable: this is why homeschooling should be prohibited, or, at least, more strictly regulated. My own coworkers have made the same comments in response to the simple fact that Arizona requires no academic testing of homeschooled students. Similarly, in the past, when horrible stories of bullying or sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers have surfaced, or when poor curriculum choices are exposed, the comments in the homeschooling community are equally predictable: this is why you should never send your children to public school! The issue at the heart of many of these comments is: who is entitled to control children. Does the state get to control children’s activities, in an attempt to create productive future citizens? Or does the family get to control their children, as the creators of and providers for those children during their development? In other words, both sides are coming from a position of childism, even as they claim to have children’s best interests at heart.
The whole philosophy of unschooling, in contrast, rests on the premise that children are not partial persons, or potential persons, but full persons deserving of the same respect and autonomy as adult persons (recognizing of course their individual needs and limitations). As fellow humans, they should have freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all standardized education or into the molds envisioned by their parents. They should have the liberty to use their time as they choose, to eat the foods they like when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tired, to play outside learning to control their own words and actions instead of sitting inside following adult directions all day.
(If you instantly picture children running wild, gorging on junk food, playing violent video games, watching stupid cartoons, and staying up all night, you may have some internalized childism or an incomplete understanding of unschooling. Children who are exposed to beauty and goodness, and given the opportunity to develop maturity and moral character, will resonate with those things just like adults will, since they are equally made in the image of the God of beauty, righteousness, and truth.)
But even in the unschooling community, there is uncertainty when it comes to children with special needs. Since my son most likely has autism or another developmental disorder, I noticed the number of parents commenting that they were unsure of how to maintain that level of freedom and respect while making sure that their children accessed all of the “services” and therapies needed to help them fit in and appear neurotypical. I noticed it even more in the public school setting, where an extremely strong emphasis was placed on accessing services now so that my son would be “caught up” to his peers in time for kindergarten. I picked up on it in the special needs ministry at my church, when the parents’ support group had a meeting about “grieving” over your child’s autism diagnosis as if there was some loss to you in not having a neurotypical child. And I discovered it for myself when I found a thousand support groups for parents of autistic children but hardly any communities for autistic adults. Their voices went unheard.
And in some dark corners of the Internet, some people made it even worse by painting adults with Asperger’s/autism as narcissists and psychopaths, incapable of parenting without emotionally neglecting or abusing their children, and inherently capable of committing the next mass shooting. Maybe they vented some frustration or boosted their own sense of self-worth by saying these horrible and untrue things about others, I don’t know. But I don’t really care. I think of Morenike, the autistic mother of autistic children who loves and advocates for them fearlessly and tirelessly, and who almost had her children removed several years ago, and I wonder what role this type of ableist stigma played in her situation.
And I am thankful beyond words for Ally Grace, another autistic mother of autistic children, who is an unschooler on top of that, and whose stories have helped give me the courage to let my children develop at their own pace and in their own way, with the pressure of needing to conform to some external, arbitrary, socially-defined metric – as well as the courage to be an unschooling parent despite my own social limitations.
I think as all the different “-isms” of discrimination come to light, society will slowly be forced into being more respectful and more accepting of those who are different, of those who may need more help or accommodation given the way the world is set up, but in the meantime there is a fairly vicious backlash of those who seem to think accepting the other somehow diminishes their own status or worth. They are the ones who create the websites in the dark underbelly of the Internet, and they are wrong. To receive another human being with dignity and respect, with courtesy and kindness, regardless of the differences between you and them, allows your own humanity – the image of God within you – to shine forth in beauty and power, even as it elevates their humanity. We can ascend together; we do not need to climb to the heavens on the downtrodden backs of the other.