honneth

How to treat people nicely (according to Axel Honneth's theory of recognition)

Axel Honneth’s ideal of a society where people were treated fairly was divided into three separate dimensions. This post will talk about them. (I like the name Axel. If I have a baby boy I might want to name him Axel)

1. In a just society, people are cared about. People have a family and friends who love and cuddle them. And through having these relationships, people develop a form of morality applicable on a personal level. This caring is important because it is the basis for all other justice. If you lived your whole life and you were never snuggled and no one ever said they loved you, you would not experience how it feels nice to be snuggled and thus you would not have the desire to snuggle anyone else. Every time someone cuddles you, you have the opportunity to cuddle them, so you develop a sense of love and goodness. This form of justice can also be fostered by pets. This is why sometimes in prison, they give the prisoners kittens to look after. (It almost makes me want to go to jail). Because kittens will cuddle you and give you love, it opens up an opportunity for you to give love in return, an opportunity that you may not have had before. Baby chickens are like that as well. If they are hatched in an incubator, they will believe that the humans are their mummy hen, so they will literally fly into your hands when you are near. It’s really cute. (This section is probably making you want to vomit. I apologise for that). The idea is that if you give and receive love in your personal life, you will translate that into broader social justice values.

2. In a just society, everyone has rights. And through recognising the rights of others, we assume moral responsibility. If we recognise that everyone has the right to not be raped, we will step in when we see a rape taking place. (I’ve actually read that this was more the case in the olden days. Nowadays we are too busy updating twitter on smart phones. There was more of an idea that you look out for others in the olden days, now we are taught to save ourselves and avoid trouble). If we have to acknowledge that everyone deserves to be treated equally, oppression and mistreatment becomes ripe for the overthrowing.

3. In a just society, people’s differences are accounted for. Fairness doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing. It means that everyone has their diverse needs met. It means that if someone is different, we recognise and value that. If someone is blind, then they should have access to stuff written in Braille, even though this is different from the language non-blind people use. If someone is elderly or disabled or pregnant, there are special bus seats for them. If someone is shy, they should not be forced into unshyness through excruciating teambuilding games. (Well, I can dream). This is what we call communitarianism. It is important because while the second point was about legislating equality, this point is about living it out. The second point is about what you do when you sign the law papers. This point is about what you do every single day to make sure that everyone gets treated fairly.

This third point is also why I am frustrated by people who say to me “don’t use the autism label! It is just a label and it means people will think you have a problem!” Well, it’s a lot harder to write autism off as just a label when you are the one living it. Also, if we censor the label, we also censor the language that is necessary for people to talk about their very real experiences. The same thing goes for normalcy as well. If we are not allowed to refer to “normal people” when discussing an autistic person’s experience of alienation, we cannot examine the privileges inherent in normalcy, and we also communicate the message that it is wrong to experience alienation, that it is wrong to have experiences that lead one to not identify as a “normal person”.

I get that people want us to live in a happy world where no one is ever oppressed and mistreated. So do I. But to create a happy world of love and caring, it takes a lot more than simply censoring the language people use to talk about their lives. It takes a lot more than censoring all thoughts of the structural barriers and oppressions that continue to exist. 

People like me don’t identify as autistic or weird for the fun of it, and we don’t refer to normalcy just because we enjoy being weird. We don’t use these terms because we want to be special snowflakes. We refer to “normal people”, because we have experienced what it is like to not be one of them our whole lives. I don’t use the terms “autistic”, “weird” and “normal” to be a tragic pitiable martyr. I use them because they describe concepts that  I experience all the time. Sometimes these experiences are unpleasant, and I hope someday they will never happen to anyone. I hope someday the concept of “normal” isn’t given so much weight. But until that day comes, it is okay for me to use language like “normal” and “weird”, as a starting point for articulating how I live every day of my life.

Back on topic after a long tangent. Being valued for being different is good because it means people can then develop their skills to their fullest potential. If people accept and value that I am shy and weird, I can become a famous comedian. I can also become a famous historical researcher. But if people keep trying to make me be outgoing and conventional, I will forever be screwing up and crying, and I will believe I am stupid. I actually did used to think I was stupid until latish 2010, and I didn’t apply for as many university things as I could have because I thought I was too stupid. But actually I was just different. So communitarianism=good.