Out of Darkness, Interdependence

Building on my thoughts from yesterday, I’ve been thinking a great deal about independence, interdependence, and dependence in US culture and how these things are viewed. The bootstrapping ideal, of course, comes down hard against dependence, arguing that individuals who are dependent are worthless (and worth less) when compared to the rest of society — they are burdens, they drag on us as a culture, they prevent us from achieving our full potential. Likewise, a similar disdain hovers around interdependent people.

In a classic illustration that articulates the differences between these three categories, think about three autistic people. One works in the tech industry, owns her own home, maintains a relationship with her partner, goes out with friends on the weekends. She loves cooking and cycling, and is a member of local charitable organisations. Maybe she does autism self-advocacy work, sometimes even speaking at Congressional hearings or conferences.

Another is a graduate student in history. She lives on her own in an apartment near the university, but she relies on an aide to get her out of bed in the mornings. Her aide helps her cook meals and stay on track with eating and cleaning. She’s also a member of some student societies and plays a role on her school’s disability committee. Without her aide, she would struggle, and would likely fail the history programme. She’s too focused on school to have room for a relationship.

Our third example is a young woman who lives in an institution. She’s never worked, and the highest education she completed was high school, but only with great difficulty and the assistance of two full-time aides who worked with her in the classroom. She loves gardening, and enjoys taking field trips to botanic gardens when an aide is available to take her. She’s chosen to live in an institution because she feels safe and supported in that environment — and because her government benefits don’t offer quite enough funding for her to live safely in the community.

Which of these three people does society value? It’s not a difficult question, and I think we all know the answer: the woman who’s ‘independent’ by society’s terms. She’s an example of a success, a disabled woman who ‘hasn’t let her disability stop her’ and focuses on blending in to society and creating a life for herself, with all the traditional markers of success. Even if she’s involved in autism advocacy and works on disability issues in her workplace environment, these are considered, by society, to be side issues. She’s ‘won,’ bootstrapping her way into a position of social power, thanks to her place on the autism, familial support, and markers of race and class — she’s likely white and from a middle class background, for instance.

The interdependent person, on the other hand, is to be tolerated. She might someday contribute something to society, after all, which is nice, but she’s still eating up government benefits to pay someone for basic cooking and cleaning, which she should really be able to do on her own — everyone else does, right? While her work in history might be important, her need to live interdependently makes her a consistent burden. What will happen when her parents die? If the financial assistance dries up? Surely we, as a society, won’t be expected to step in to care for her?

And the dependent woman is worth nothing; it’s best for everyone that she be shut away in an institution. All she does is suck from the government teat with no possibility of offering returns from society. She’s never going to work, she’s never going to contribute anything to her community (because an institution and the people who live there isn’t a ‘community,’ right?), and she’s just going to keep on eating through government funds until she dies.

This is how society views these three different human beings, evaluating them solely on the basis of their level of perceived dependence on society and by no other metrics. Yet, all three have intrinsic worth as human beings. They experience pain and suffering, they communicate with other people, they have hopes and dreams and aspirations. They have friends and loved ones, social networks and people who understand them.

Many people in marginalised communities live in a darkness created by the rules of a dominant society: you must be white, you must be male, you must be middle class, you must be nondisabled, you must be Christian, these are the markers of success and social relevance. If you don’t meet all of these markers, there’s something wrong with you, and you are thrown into the abyss to rot. From that darkness, though, rises something remarkable that people in dominant social classes don’t understand: interdependence.

Interdependence isn’t just about the disabled person who needs help from an aide, partner, or loved one to complete tasks of daily living and live comfortably in society. It’s also about women of colour who band together to support each other in the face of racism, to help each other start new businesses, to help create and build communities. It’s about Muslims who collectively reach out in times of crisis to fellow members of their community. It’s about disabled people who race to raise funds for friends in trouble, even in an impoverished community. It’s about working class people who open up their homes to shelter people after natural disasters, sharing everything they have to give even though they have virtually nothing.

This is the tradition I come from, one of interdependence and pride in interdependence: I honour my father and my family every time I join hands with someone, every time I offer assistance, every time I stand with, or behind, or beside someone in solidarity. Interdependence is a strength, not a weakness. It is something powerful, something bright and shining, and thus, it’s something that terrifies members of dominant social groups. The bootstrapping ideal relies on keeping us isolated and alone, struggling to survive, and our refusal to cooperate with us makes us a critical threat. Interdependence isn’t a sign of failure or weakness: it’s a sign of power.

Image: Candle…, José Pestana, Flickr