|Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo|
Reynolds offers pointed analysis on the touted benevolence of tolerance and assimilation, which can “[grant] differences a share of the public space only so long as they do not disrupt or cause inconveniences to a dominant group’s way of life.” That doesn’t mean all tolerance is bad. But it does mean that when tolerance becomes the prime ethical law, there is an inevitable consequence: toleration is granted by those in power, that is, those who set the identity of the group. Reynolds doesn’t hold back: “Normalcy operates as a cultural system of social control. On one account, it is simply a way of ordering and bringing meaning to the everyday world shared by a group. It is unavoidable and itself good. There is, however, an insidious undertow that accompanies it, working to draw all into a certain caste or type….To state it plainly, the ‘normal’ is relative to a group’s values and aspirations, and conversely so, what is attributed ‘abnormal’ (disease, disability, etc.).”
The cult of normalcy is a real challenge, because we human beings are by nature social beings: we want to belong. The Theology of the Body audiences are structured on the very idea that “it is not good for man to be alone.” As such, we are created with a powerful desire to belong to another. When children are separated from consistent caregivers at a young age, when their belonging is thwarted, the evidence is overwhelming: they do not learn to attach, and they do not thrive. Basically, they die a slow death less because of lack of food or shelter, and more because they do not belong—the cult of normalcy has made no room for them. They grow in an environment is not trustworthy, and they respond by withering and dying. In a (sometimes) less dramatic example, we see the incredible formative influence of peer pressure–and not just in junior high school. We see the giddy rush to identify ourselves through social networking’s circles, friends, and followers. We must belong, and crave to find our identity through a social group.
There is a way to avoid the social temptation to define reality through normative groupings and the extension of tolerance, a way given to us in Scripture and revelation: we can look to how God defines what it means to be human through the revealed humanity of Jesus Christ. And if one thinks that to speak of impairment and disability makes no sense given the life of Christ, one needs to look more closely at both his ministry and the reality of the incarnation and crucifixion–allowing those realities to inform how we learn to see the present. It is only then that we can release the impulse to belong from the bondage of the cult of normalcy, and place it where it was meant to be.
There is a persistent urban legend about a mid-20th century Russian experiment that involved institutionalized infants being raised without any human touch or interaction, and half of the group dying as a result. The 1998 Human Rights Watch report “Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages” indicates the fabled “experiment” is uncomfortably close to the ongoing truth for special needs children in institutions: children (and later adults, should they live that long), left in cribs all 24 hours of the day, only fed and changed. However, the story of the experiment likely came from Harry Harlow’s experiments in social isolation of rhesus monkeys, in which isolation left the young monkeys severely disturbed. The 1960s studies, which would be considered unethical science today, are used to help understand the experience and behavior of children who have been abused or have suffered neglect. Harlow HF, Dodsworth RO, Harlow MK. “Total social isolation in monkeys,” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1965.
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To quote Hauerwas: “Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us. So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity. When that isn’t the case…compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.” Hauerwas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: the prophetic witness of weakness, 53.