Activism must not be derailed by behaviorism

Behaviorist ideology says that there are four basic reasons people do things: to get things/activities, to get pleasant sensations, to avoid something they dislike, or to get attention.

All of these are real reasons people do things, and it’s useful to keep them in mind. It’s also important to remember that they are not the only reasons people do things. People also have thoughts, feelings, and values.

This behaviorist framing assumes that human beings are fundamentally amoral and selfish.  Behaviorism has no room for courage, integrity, or concern for justice. In real life, values matter.

For instance: People who would not steal to support themselves will put their lives on the line to protest cuts to Medicaid. People who find it humiliating to be publicly praised as ~inspiring~ will call congress to fight bad policies, including bad policies that affect groups other than their own. There’s more going on than attention. Values matter.

In activism and advocacy, it’s often useful to show others that it’s in their interests to support our policies. (Eg: “Your constituents care about Medicaid, and you’ll lose your seat if you vote for a bill that would cut it”, or “No matter how responsible you are, you could get sick tomorrow and need access to Medicaid.”

It’s *also* useful to show them that the policies matter within *values* they already care about. For instance, if someone cares about religious freedom, it could be useful to point out that institutionalized people lose access to their houses of worship and other things they need in order to practice their religion on their terms. If someone cares about encouraging people to work, it could be useful to point out ways in which Home and Community Based disability services make it possible for people to work.

It’s also important to make a case for our values more broadly. People don’t understand what ableism is and why it’s bad. Many people are receptive to learning, if it’s explained in a way that they can understand. It’s not just about self-interest. It’s also about values. People can understand right and wrong, and act accordingly, whether they are marginalized or privileged.

Privilege doesn’t need to prevent someone from being a good person and doing the right thing. There’s more to life than behaviorism and self interest. People are capable of caring about their values more than they care about enjoying the advantages of privilege.

Short version: Behaviorism reduces everything people do to self-interest, with no room for values. Activism based solely on privilege analysis falls into the same mistake. We need to keep in mind that all people are capable of learning to tell right from wrong and act accordingly. We need to make the case for our values, in a way that people can understand. Lives depend on it.

Something about body language

It’s very common for atypical people to be told that they have no body language, whether or not this is actually true.

If you:

  • Have an atypical body, or:
  • Move in unusual ways, or:
  • Have an atypical face, or:
  • Speak oddly

Lots of people will tell you that:

  • You have no body language, or:
  • You have no tones of voice, or:
  • You’re impossible to read, or:
  • You have a flat affect, or:
  • You have no facial expressions

This can be for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not you have these things. For instance:

  • People who find your body uncomfortable, and try to avoid looking, tend not to pick up on body language
  • Likewise with faces – someone who isn’t looking at your face because they don’t want to see its odd shape, may well think you have no facial expressions because they aren’t seeing them
  • If you move unusually, you may have body language that many people aren’t familiar with. This doesn’t mean you don’t have any. It means their social skills are lacking.
  • For instance, they may not realize that rocking and hand flapping are often forms of expressive body language.
  • They may be assuming that people like you don’t have body language etc, and therefore actively ignoring yours because it doesn’t have a place in their worldview.

It may be true that you don’t have body language, tones of voice, facial expressions, or whatever. But it may not be, and it’s very common for people to get this wrong.