Deconstructing “Active Listening”

A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right.  The poster is titled "Whole Body Listening!"  Its subhead reads "Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body."  The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows: Eyes: "Look at the person talking to you." Ears: "Both ears ready to hear." Mouth: "Quiet - no talking, humming, or making sounds" Hands: "Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side." Feet: "Quiet on the floor." Body: "Faces the speaker." Brain: "Thinking about what is being said." Heart: "Caring about what the other person is saying."

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right. The poster is titled “Whole Body Listening!” Its subhead reads “Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body.” The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows:
Eyes: “Look at the person talking to you.”
Ears: “Both ears ready to hear.”
Mouth: “Quiet – no talking, humming, or making sounds”
Hands: “Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side.”
Feet: “Quiet on the floor.”
Body: “Faces the speaker.”
Brain: “Thinking about what is being said.”
Heart: “Caring about what the other person is saying.”

The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening.  Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?

As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model.  But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all.  It’s speaking.

It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises.  But it’s communication all the same.  The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room.  Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means.  It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience.  The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking.  “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.

Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless.  In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates.  But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech.  Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.

That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic.  Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else.  But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.

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Remember That Paper on the Temporal Prime Directive I Was Going to Write?

I wrote it.  But it turned out a bit differently than expected.

I’m not posting the paper in its entirety; it’s a draft, and I harbor secret ambitions of actually presenting a later draft at a conference someday.

But I will post the one-page handout I made to accompany said paper.  The pdf is at the link; the text is after the jump. Continue reading

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Are you tired of the old-fashioned “light it up blue” “autism awareness” stuff?  Would you rather spend April doing something clever and productive?  Do you hate Twizzlers?

There’s hope.  Check out the Autistic Blog Challenge (#AutisticBlogChallenge).

The rules (which I just copied and pasted from the link above, since I wrote them) are as follows:

1. Find people to sponsor your autistic-blog-reading at whatever level they can afford. For instance, your sponsors might agree to donate $1.00 for every blog you read according to the rules of the challenge.

2. For the month of April, read blogs by autistic writers. To “count,” the blog must be written primarily by an autistic individual, and you must read at least ten posts (or the entire blog, if it has fewer than ten posts). Keep a list of the blogs and posts you read.

3. At the end of April, give copies of your list to your sponsors. Collect funds. Tell your sponsors which blogs you liked most, so they know where to start reading.

4. Use your newfound knowledge of autistic people’s needs, preferences, and desires to select a charity that actually advocates on behalf of autistic people. Donate.

I guarantee, by the end of April, you will raise far more awareness, acceptance, and respect for autistic human beings than you will EVER raise by eating candy, going for a walk, or screwing in a blue lightbulb.  Let’s make this a thing!

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The Social Model of Disability: A Rather Short and Very Simplified Introduction

I wrote this just now for a person on Facebook who asked for a shorter and simpler introduction to the social model of disability than Google offered.  Since I imagine it will be useful to more than just the person to whom I originally responded, I’m reposting it here.

Think of “disabled” or “disability” as a verb. A body/brain condition you have is a “disability” not because it exists or because it differs from body/brain conditions a lot of other people have, but because the world you live in is not set up, socially or otherwise, to let people with your body/brain condition access it easily.

The condition “itself” – say, like having chronic migraines or not having legs – is typically called an “impairment,” especially if the medical world has criteria for diagnosing it.  Impairments can come with their own non-social hardships.  Migraines, for example, can be very painful, cause difficulty thinking, nausea etc. But any body/mind condition, “impairment” or otherwise, is a “disability” only when the way society is structured is the reason you can’t do the things you want to do when you have it.

A rather simplified example: I have chronic migraines. I see the pain as an “impairment,” because no amount of social change will ever make the pain not suck for me. But whether or not I can hold a full-time job with my chronic migraines is a “disability,” because it depends on things like how work is structured in a particular society, what tools I have to do work in alternate ways during a migraine, etc.

My chronic migraines were a full-blown “disability” when I worked as a line editor, because there my employer refused to structure the job so I could do it during a migraine. In other words, I was “disabled” from doing that job by my employer’s rules about how the job “should” be done. But the migraines were less disabling when I was a lawyer or now, as a professor, because both those jobs are ones I can structure (and have structured) so I can do the work even during a migraine.  I can schedule work so that I’m working at home on migraine days; I can lower the lights in my office/classroom and give my students activities that don’t require the same kind of “on my toes” input from me; I can postpone grading for days when I don’t have a migraine; and I have someone else to double-check my writing to make sure it makes sense. In writing fiction, I find that my migraines are actually the opposite of “disabling”: I write *better* fiction when I have one than when I don’t. The migraines are still painful and nauseating, but now I’m “abled” to do my job because it is structured in a way that lets me access it even with the pain and nausea.

…This doesn’t, of course, address any of my reservations about the disability/impairment binary, regarding autism or otherwise.   But I hope it’s useful.

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Send Dani Alexis to SDS!

Yes, this is a plea for funding.  If you’d like to skip ahead to the funding part, my PayPal address is

The Gracie wants you to help me do all this work more efficiently.  (Image: a fluffy white cat stretched out on a bed, which is covered in books.)

The Gracie wants you to help me do all this work more efficiently. (Image: a fluffy white cat stretched out on a bed, which is covered in books.)

So here’s the story:

1.)  After two years of MA work and just a few months before actually earning the MA, I finally know what the heck I’m doing in academia: English rhetoric and composition with a focus on disability studies and queer/crip/neuroqueer theory.

2.)  The biggest professional party in all of disability studies is the annual Society for Disability Studies (SDS) conference.  This year, it’s in Atlanta in June.

3.)  Going to SDS would be a Very. Useful. Important. Deal. for my career right now.  It would also make me be social for an entire week, which y’all keep telling me I should practice doing.

4.)  I wasn’t going to go to SDS, however, until a fellow disability studies colleague and wonderful human being offered to solve for me my number-one problem with going: transportation.

5.)  To make SDS happen, however, I still need to cover room and board for the week we’ll be in Atlanta.  I estimate I’ll need $1,500 to pull this off.

tl;dr:  Please help me get to SDS by donating anything you can – even a few dollars.   My PayPal address is   If you leave me your mailing address in the PayPal comments (optional), I will send you a handwritten thank-you note of love and more love.

You can make it my birthday and Christmas presents!

(I was going to set up a GoFundMe account for this, but they take five percent, and I thought “which would my friends rather pay that five percent for – GoFundMe’s continued existence, or actually making my professional dreams come true?”)

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On Bodymind and (Migraine) Pain

While sitting in my doctor’s waiting room this morning, I began working my way through Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.”

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor for my experience of reading this article without success – is it more like walking through a museum, with large pauses for pondering particular points?  Or is it more like eating a really good meal, one I’m going to keep comparing all my other meals to for several weeks, probably resulting in several courses of blog posts?  (And are the blog posts not unlike a bird regurgitating food for its young, with all the gustatory charm, relative to the original, that that entails?)

I have no idea.  But in hindsight, I can’t help but draw the connection between my reading and the comment I ended up making to my nurse practitioner, half an hour later:

“It’s all right if I always have migraines.  I find them useful.  But I’d like to do something about the pain.”

In the context of what we “know” about migraines, medically and colloquially, my comment is counterintuitive in the extreme.  It borders on madness.*  Migraines are pain, according to the popular literature and even to some doctors, who “read” the rest of a migraine’s symptoms – nausea, mental fog, sensitivity to light, etc. – as resulting from extreme pain rather than sharing an underlying common source with the pain.  More to the point, who – and anyone who has ever had a migraine, even once, would ask this – who would ever want extreme pain?

I don’t.  To paraphrase Alison Kafer, I have no interest in being in more pain than I currently am.  In fact, I have a great deal of interest in being in less pain, as I noted to the NP.

Price doesn’t insist that pain is universally “bad,” but she does point out that if we are going to accept disability and impairment, to celebrate them, to center them, to desire them, we must make room for the complicating fact that many people do experience their pain as bad and want it to stop.  I feel this.

When I was first introduced to the social model of disability, my migraines meant I wanted to throw it across a room.  How on earth was I supposed to accept, much less desire, my migraine states?  I’d had a minimum of three migraine days a month, every month, since I was twelve years old.  From January 2006 to December 2007 I had a migraine every single day of my life – one two-year-long haze of nausea, head pain, and sunglasses.  It lifted just in time for me to graduate from law school.  (To this day I’m still not entirely certain how I did it.)

When I met the social model in 2010, I was having the ten or more days of migraines a month that qualified me for Botox treatments.  I was also bedridden and supporting myself entirely from a laptop in my dimly-lit bedroom.  There were no societal changes left to make: I had total control over my work environment, and my parents were handling most of my ADLs for me.  Yet I was still miserable, still impaired, still disabled.

Yet here I am, five years later, telling my doctors that I would actually rather keep the migraines, especially if we can continue to dial down the pain.  What gives?

It is a truth universally acknowledged by migraine patients that migraines screw with one’s ability to think.  During my own migraines, doors to certain areas of my brain, like the one that multitracks sensory input, the one that does logic, or the one that holds all my non-migraine-related memories, slam closed.  But doors to other areas of my brain, like the one that does poetics and plot, the one that contains my hypergraphia, or the one that holds all my migraine-related memories, open.  And those doors are only open during migraines.

Put another way: my migraine pain is impairing.  It’s bad.  I would like it to stop.  My migraine changes in mental state, however, are occasionally disabling (try driving a car when you can’t multitrack sensory input!), but they are not impairing.  In fact, they’re the only time of the month I get any creative writing or poetics done at all – and, thanks to the hypergraphia, I get an extraordinary amount of creative writing and poetics done in those four days a month.

My NP deserves thanks, incidentally, for taking this comment entirely in stride.  Partly, she understands that there is more to the migraine state than “just” pain.  Mostly, she’s deeply committed to practicing exactly the sort of “care” Price explores in her article: the kind that affirms another’s pain and seeks to help end it, when desired, without categorically rejecting the impairment or disability – or the categories of identity – that seem attached to it.  My NP and I have both accepted the idea that I may always live with migraines, which means we can share the goal of helping me to live well with migraines – which, for me right now, means minimizing the pain.

*by which I mean the colloquial response is likely to be “are you crazy?”, or that I might be seen by some medical professionals to have only a tenuous grip on reality for having said it – such is the dominant aversion to desiring disability.

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More Paper Planning: Postcolonial Star Trek

I haven’t Googled “postcolonial Star Trek,” but there is no way in Rura Penthe that this paper will be boldly going where no one has gone before.  Still, not every paper I write – especially a ten-pager for a graduate seminar – needs to break new ground or arrest the attention of editors.  This one I’m interested in writing mostly for fun, the way I filled several pages last year discussing parody and pastiche in the Glee Rocky Horror episode.

I’m interested in tracing the development of the Prime Directive both chronologically through the release of the various series, but chronologically through the Star Trek universe.  The development through “our” chronology is pretty straightforward, but the corresponding development through the chronology of the Star Trek universe is more complex – and, for that reason, perhaps more authentic.

The chronology of the series’ release (TOS -> TNG -> DS9 -> VOY -> ENT) expand the Prime Directive’s core value of non-interference in “developing” societies on a path that pretty straightforwardly tracks the decline and fall of traditional colonialism during the same time periods.   Put another way, as “we” – the writers and the audience – got more concerned about colonialist interference, so did each series.  Kirk doesn’t seem to realize the words “Prime Directive” have any content at all; Picard (and especially Riker) is willing to ignore the thing whenever it is inconvenient to the plot; Janeway faces various opportunities to take a decidedly post-postcolonial-anxiety view of the thing but largely does not; Archer can’t shut up about it.

(Abrams’ Kirk also doesn’t seem to know what the words mean, but in a “screw you I’ma do what I want” way, rather than the “screw you these poor souls need saving” way that TOS Kirk (and ENT’s Tripp) take.  Which perhaps implies a different way of transcending, or backpedaling at, post-postcolonialist anxiety.  There’s probably a great Marxist analysis there, given that Abrams’ Star Trek came out in 2009.  But I digress.)

But when the series are put in chronological order according to their internal canons, the Federation’s relationship with the Prime Directive becomes much more complex.  Archer’s drive to prevent the kind of “great powers gather to divide up the solar system” debacle that once divided Africa comes to a head (subtextually) in the Enterprise series finale, but prior to that point, the crew of the NX-o1 is not only happily (or not) interfering in other cultures, but actually colonizing space or at least trying to touch base with actual human colonists.  (There’s probably a second solid Marxist analysis to be made of  the fact that Mayweather – who grew up on a shipping line –  is also the crew member harboring the deepest fascination with the Terra Nova colony.)

The drive to “actually colonize space” subsides a bit in the original series, but in The Next Generation, the NCC-1701-D gets sent to deal with an awful lot of colonies, sporting a (calm if not benign) sense of “manifest destiny” that seems to operate as the “convenience” driving the unspoken rule “ignore the Prime Directive when it is inconvenient to the plot.”  In both Deep Space 9 and Voyager, one could argue that the colonialist sense kicks into overdrive; the series themselves put the Federation first at the edges of its “home” quadrant and then literally in the galactic equivalent of someone else’s continent.

If the Federation’s concern with postcolonial non-interference follows the same trajectory as that of the writers and audience, it is Janeway, not Archer, who should be unable to shut up about it.  Not only does Voyager fall last chronologically, but the ship finds itself in the Delta Quadrant by accident, and the Delta Quadrant is literally uncharted-by-the-Federation space.  What legitimate business (or manifest destiny) could the Federation possibly have in it?  Should its representatives, so deeply concerned with non-interference that Archer worries it for ten years like Porthos with a brick of cheddar, not see themselves as intruders in the Delta Quadrant and thus tread even more lightly?

The answer, we find out, is no, Tuvok’s rather expansive definition of the Prime Directive in the series premiere (he does not limit it to pre-warp cultures) notwithstanding.  Voyager may have wound up in the Delta Quadrant by accident – and the crew may have decided that the way to survive there is to behave like Starfleet officers – but those are no reason to cleave to the Federation’s central anxiety.  Principles are for colonists who aren’t facing Species 8472.  (Perhaps the principle of non-interference does not apply at the apex of biological evolution.)

So what we have is a series written in a way that rather simplistically mirrors our own American postcolonial anxieties, but that plays out within its own universe in much more complex ways.  As perhaps our own (post?)colonial practices are playing out, in fact.

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