The Value of Cognitive Diversity, NeuroDiversity, & a Diversity of Approaches to Herbal Practice
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Violent attacks by anti-gay and anti-American extremists are indicative of the fear of social diversity, just as fear of neurodiversity and differences in perspective/response manifests as intolerance for anything but the accepted “normal.” The following defense and celebration of diversity is an advance excerpt from an upcoming Plant Healer Magazine column, by Plant Healer co-editor Wolf Hardin… feel free to share it with others and thereby advance this important discussion in these troubling times.
Diverse |diˈvərs, dī-| adjective
1. very different; demonstrating a great deal of variety
Origin: From the Latin ‘divursus’: meaning to ‘turn in individual ways’
We might find differences interesting and the exceptional may excite us, but it is sameness and normalcy that are most often sought. When entering a crowded party, we may gravitate to those most like us. Parents are known to brag about how their child is “just your average, typical kid,” apparently relieved if they grow up neither smarter nor less intelligent than those around them, fitting in by looking at and acting within this ol’ world in the same ways that the majority do. In fact, when most parents are handed their newborn child in the hospital, the first thing they do is to count the number of her fingers and toes, giddily announcing that everything’s alright: “She’s normal!” Never mind that a sixth digit could prove immensely useful, or that it is the child’s unique personality, particular differences and peculiarities that will make her most precious and memorable.
Diversity – a multiplicity of differences – is typically shunned in the larger society. It is not just perceived racial and gender diversity that’s often found threatening, nor the diversity of political beliefs and contending religions, but also the biodiversity that impedes or contends with the monocultures of agribusiness, the old or innovative architectural diversity that detracts from a city’s chosen modern theme, the diversity of thought that can make the job of controlling human behavior more difficult for the managerial systems of the elite minority. Variety – generally superficial variations of the same accepted things – is both acceptable and profitable. Diversity, on the other hand, is by its very nature complex, unpredictable, and to some degree resurgent and unmanageable… just like the field of herbalism itself.
My teaching, publishing and organizing work happens not in society writ large, but within a special herbal community that is characteristically nontypical, and that with few exceptions vocally supports ethnic, biological, and some other forms of diversity. And yet, even here, there is often a reluctance to value differences in opinions and perspectives… and there’s a percentage of herbalists who hold that divergence – including neurological diversity – is a malady needing to be addressed or cured. If none of us shared a common neurology, and the ways of seeing and interpreting the world which follows, it would be hard to imagine us coalescing and functioning smoothly as families, clans, neighborhoods or nations… and yet it is differences in perception as well as form and function that open new doors for personal, cultural and biological evolution. And the health of earth and life, as well as of our own personal life experience, is contingent on the interrelationships between wildly diverse things, beings, and ways.
Let’s take a diverse look, if you will, at how these themes influence, impact, impede or propel elements of an herbal practice.
Tradition & Diversity
Tradition – the best as well as worst of traditions – depend on our doing some things in a closely similar way to our peers, elders and ancestors. A diversity of ways can feel threatening as well as confusing. Throughout history, we have understandably valued sameness for its familiarity and the relative security it provides. Change has often been tragic, and differences often proven dangerous. People who looked, dressed, and acted like us, were more likely to be related and less likely to be invaders from another place. Eating the same culturally prescribed meals prepared in the same ways, might logically reduce the chances of being poisoned by unfamiliar toxic species or improperly handled foods. Healers sticking to the same well-tested materia medica could ensure greater predictability when it came to effects and outcomes.
Traditions, including healing traditions, require a degree of uniformity and continuity to retain their usefulness, meaning, distinctive character and flavor. At the same time, they cannot further develop, deepen, improve, or repurpose without a separate or even counter current within them that challenges and tests their assumptions, advances new perspectives and possibilities, and suggests divergent ways and forms of manifesting. Diversity is the milieu for cross pollination and exponential variation, increasing ideas and options, mixing new colors from out of the enlarged palette, and enriching and informing any participants.
The ideas and principles that we treasure most, often sounded bizarre, absurd, or heretical when first uttered by impassioned outliers and oddballs. They were often dismissed at first, if not outright condemned. People who look and sound nothing like the norm have often inspired or instigated revolutions in thinking, in science, in culture and our social relations, and in the healing arts. We grow our materia medica and advance our formulations not through adherence to what is already known, but through intuitive leaps and mad adventures, through exploration and experimentation, through unheard of applications and unlikely combinations.
Certain societies and traditions have found healthy ways of incorporating and utilizing the “medicine” of divergence, valuing those individuals that are different, the holy fools who act as a counterforce to the pretentiousness of religious leaders and arrogance of rulers. Those beset with visions might in some cases be assigned the role of shaman or soothsayer. They who seem to exist in their own separate reality, could be tapped for ways of seeing outside the self-limiting box of “knowns.” While homosexuality was punishable among some Native American nations, there were also examples of incorporation such as the accepted transgendered “Contraries” of the Plains tribes, riding into camp backwards, speaking in virtual koans that disrupted normal perception. In historic Europe, being just a little different could get you ostracized, whereas being extremely, flamboyantly different could result in appointment as a jester, an emissary, or an advisor. These days, it’s not uncommon for teams of product designers and software developers to include one “free thinker,” tasked to add novel perspectives and make wildly unexpected suggestions to a working group otherwise made up of the practically conventional and cautious.
Folk herbalism feels like a natural home for the different, for the relative minority who do not accept the pervasive spin of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment. This field attracts people with an uncommon degree of caring and compassion, an unusual degree of desire to make their lives ones of service and benefit to the world, and often a strange compulsion to frolic with plants. By contemporary American standards most herbalists are categorically strange. Even those with white lab coats or professional letters after their names are, with very few exceptions, still a bit odd… just think about it for a minute! And even herbalists who work hard to be accepted by the mainstream will almost always be seen as fringe and suspect by the MD, the politician, and the average citizen. Herbalism is marked by a diversity of characters, philosophies, approaches, traditions, constitutional models, skills, treatments, and plant medicines… and the overall field benefits by any political, lifestyle, ethnic and gender diversity that we’re able to encourage and facilitate.
NeuroDiversity & Autism
What is called “Autism,” like any other condition, exists as a spectrum of characteristics with a wide range of degrees. At one end of this spectrum, these characteristics can be so extreme as to make functioning in “normal” society nearly impossible without assistance, with every sight and sound seeming to assault the person’s senses, and all human expressions and gestures menacingly indecipherable. At the other end, someone with Asperger’s may not only have learned to adapt and function, but also to conceal their condition from casual observers.
The way that an autistic person might perceive and communicate is not objectively wrong, it is simply different… and one question, as always, should be “what is the message, lesson or benefit to evident differences?” Having a partner on the spectrum, I have witnessed the ways she is handicapped, but have also been witness and beneficiary of ways in which she is blessed and equipped. Because she thinks visually, my art and writing is perpetually fed new and improbable imagery, her proclivity for patterns brings new factors to light, her absence of filters means she expresses herself literally, and her inability to strategize means I can trust the in-the-moment sincerity of any purrings or outbursts. Not automatically knowing what “normal” people would do or say in a given situation, means she provides fresh if not always gentle input and response. She is a constant compulsive creator, and her obsessions have resulted in the development of helpful new herbal uses, the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference and Plant Healer Magazine. Her built-in intolerance for the clamorous and the pressing, the hurtful and the illogical, for great mistakes and common untruths, is – regardless of its neurological or psychological causes – both helpful, and commendable.
Looking to that percentage of autistic people who struggle to interact in society without anxiety and panic, it is natural for an herbalist or other health care specialist to want to address the distress and ease the unease. It becomes even harder not to label autism a disease, when the internet is full of organizations devoted to “stamping it out,” and scary stories attributing its cause to vaccinations, or a government conspiracy against the lower classes. In balance, we might look to contemporary literature and research linking Autism Spectrum “disorder” in some cases to creative genius, discovery and innovation.
Evolution is adaptation under stress, a process of bold experimentation with many forgettable dead ends and some truly significant new avenues of being and becoming. Social and cultural evolution has almost always been seeded, fomented and furthered by an odd and impassioned few, not by the norm nor the masses. Intellectual and societal breakthroughs have been spearheaded by rather abnormal thinkers and doers, crazed generals and mad scientists, mystics and marvels… and some of these exhibited what have been identified as autistic traits: Issac Newton challenged the religious and scientific establishment. America’s revolt against the English monarchy and the principles of its Bill of Rights owe much to the very Aspergy Thomas Jefferson. Alternating current (AC electricity) resulted from the unusual mind of the inventor Nicola Tesla, the very untypical Herman Hesse gave us ground breaking spiritual/philosophic books like Steppenwolf and Magister Ludi. George Orwell proved with his book 1984 that, contrary to popular citation, he could see that “the emperor wore no clothes.” Albert Einstein postulated theories of space and time that radically changed how we look at the physics of the universe. It took someone like Joy Adamson to personalize lions for the public in her book and then movie Born Free, and more normal people seem less likely to raise the priorities of animal conservation up to the level of those regarding human welfare. Pop music benefitted from the introspection of Nico, John Hartford, Ladyhawke and Mozart. Bisexual novelist Patricia Highsmith allegedly felt more comfortable with animals than most humans, and took lesbian lit to places it had never gone before. Alfred Kinsey wrote about human sexuality in radical new ways. There would one less Wonderland in our collective consciousness without the bizarre imagination of socially-handicapped Lewis Carroll, and Pink Floyd would have been a much more ordinary rock band without the psychedelic ministrations of Syd Barrett’s Autistic brain.*
To the degree that we accept the value of ethnic and other forms of diversity, we must reasonably also accept the value of NeuroDiversity, the diversity of alternate mental, emotional, and perceptual states. Clearly, when herbalists and others work with clients with autistic spectrum or other supposed psychological or neurological “disorders” attention should be given not to cause movement towards some baseline or version of normality, but towards maximizing their positive experience, and assisting their healthful manifestations of their particular differences and individual gifts.
Cognitive Diversity & a Weirder Norm
However science eventually categorizes, describes or measures autism, and whether it is mapped chemically or electrically, it will likely always be helpful to explain it through the use of visual models and metaphors, such as referring to a persons cognitive “wiring.” An autistic person is thus said to be wired differently than average, resulting in different patterns of recognition, interpretation, and response. And this atypical wiring can result in atypical ways of experiencing, understanding, and altering or solving otherwise imperceptible, inexplicable, or intractable situations.
We live in a society rife with injustices, inequities and evils, in a time when keeping things the same would amount to perpetuating harm. Against a vast backdrop of normal and even institutionalized wrongs, from corporate hegemony to hateful dogma, exploitation, the destruction of nature and endless wars, any difference or change has at least a decent statistical chance of being an improvement, and it is only diversity of thinking that prevents the complete solidification and codification of the unhealthful condition of sameness.
It is perhaps sameness that we need to create a movement against, instead of against autism or deviance, divergence or diversity. Something like Societies For The Eradication of Sameness, for the sake of the world we hope to leave in one piece for our descendants. Websites raising funds to prevent the spread of unquestioning obedience and dangerous assumption. NGOs chartered to find a cure for the plague of clueless acquiescent normalcy. And I would add, with less tongue-and-cheek: a growing cadre of enthusiastic volunteers dedicated to the diversification of thought and approach, the diversification of monocultures and the monotheistic, of the monotoned, the monopolistic and monocratic.
At no point do I mean to say that autistics or other neurodivergents have an exclusive lock on originality and innovation, or even strangeness, nor that they are born to be the sole translators, arbiters or interlocutors between the worlds of the magical and the muggles, the normal and the wondrous, the mundane and the surprising. That mission belongs to all of us, the well-adjusted as well as the maladjusted. The relatively normal as well as we classifiable freaks. Cognitive diversity is no less important to our personal and societal health than biological diversity is to ecological balance and well-being of ecosystems. It is for us to develop and pass on to others an understanding of health and living that is conscious of differences and encouraging of diversity and divergence.
Face it, what we know of as the norm is going to get weirder as we learn more. If we look closely enough, we might see that “healthy” looks different depending on the person. And if scientists ever can locate, describe and map out cognitive variances including autism, I expect that we will find all people are “wired” at least a little bit differently from each other, that none of us are fully normal, that we all harbor and can express traits that are unusual, differences that distinguish as well as personalize us, and a diverse cognitive ecosystem by which grace we shine.
*For lists of more famous folks with apparent autistic traits, see:
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