My name is Ben Belek (you can see my web pages here, here, and here). I have a PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge University, and I’m currently doing a postdoc at the Martin Buber Society at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A few words on what this blog is about:
Where I’m from, people aren’t always sure what anthropology actually means. So I’m used to having to explain it immediately after uttering the word, and amusingly, I never seem to come up with exactly the same answer twice. This puts me in an interesting position, because I get to reinvent my work every time I’m asked what I do; and anthropology can be so many things.
Well, this blog is one example what anthropology can be, and of what it is to me.
Anthropology is the study of people. What motivates us, what intrigues us, how we perceive the world, how we make sense of our lives, what we do, why we do it, why we believe, what are our values, how we tell right from wrong, who we care for, what matters to us; (uh oh, there’s more…) What we say, why we choose to say it, what we hold back, and who we consider our friends. What is belief? What is shame? What is a self? What makes a person? What do we all have in common? Why are we so different? Why are we so much alike?
I know I know, doesn’t that just encapsulate EVERYTHING? Well, yes, it does. That’s why I love anthropology, and that’s why there are so many of us anthropologists out there (there really are, in case you were wondering. You might miss us because we’re crouched over our laptops more often than we would like, but we’re out there). And we’re not even close to answering all those questions. The reason for that is because people… well… They tend to be very different from one another. So understanding something about one group of people might take you a long way, but it hardly allows you to draw the same conclusions about any other group of people. So the questions really never end. It’s not a particularly easy job, but we love it.
Anyway, there are lots of different kinds of different people. I don’t just mean there are lot of different people; I mean there are lots of different kinds of differences. People can differ culturally (be from different countries or speak different languages), socially (be rich or poor, for example), or ethnically (same country, different ethnic background); they can differ in age, gender, education, medical condition, social status, political affiliation, etc. etc. Anthropologists are into these differences. They are what make people, as a whole, interesting to study.
My research is mostly concerned with another type of difference – neurological difference; the difference between people with a typical brain structure and people whose brain structure is atypical, or divergent. In other words, I study people with autism. But I should rephrase, because I hate the way that sounds. I don’t study autistic people the way a botanist studies orchids. Mostly because orchids don’t speak back. They don’t have intellect, they don’t have their own ideas, and they’re generally not more knowledgeable about orchids – as well as about a bunch of other stuff – than the botanist is (although that may be debatable). So no, I don’t “study” autistic people. A better way to put it, perhaps, would be to say that I learn from autistic people. That’s closer to the truth, but to be honest, that kind of downplays my own part in all of this. Because knowledgeable as people can be about themselves – and about a whole lot of other stuff – they don’t usually think of themselves as subjects of analysis and study. Well, not in the way anthropologists are trained to, anyway. What I mean to say is, anthropologists get used to thinking about people with a profoundness and intensity that comes with spending years in lecture halls and seminar rooms and libraries, learning how to do just that. That’s why we’re good at it. Well, some of us are.
So my point is, that yeah, I study autistic people, and I learn from autistic people, and there’s a whole lot of collaboration going on, and it’s really a joint effort that we all do together. Why am I doing this? Well first – and I’m going to be brutally honest here – because it’s interesting. Autistic people are (well, to the most part), just really interesting people. And I don’t mean it in that “they’re so exotic and unique” way. No. But what they do have is stories and experiences that are somehow different. Different how? Well, that’s kind of hard to say. Maybe after a few more years of research I’ll be able to answer just that. But they’re definitely different. For better or worse. And you know what? The autistic people I’ve met were just really kind people. And I liked them. So I decided to see how well equipped anthropology is to create knowledge –knowledge about people as a whole (so not JUST about autistic people)- out of these people’s stories. So that’s my project. I’ve been doing it for over three years now, and there’s no end in sight. It’s a challenge, and also great fun.
Another thing: Anthropologists don’t only have to be politically correct; Anthropologists literally INVENTED political correctness. Well I don’t know if that’s true, but we definitely had a big part in it. When your career is to talk about other people, and I mean Other people with a capital O (you know, minorities, foreigners, indigenous, marginalized, or oppressed people) being sensitive about it is kind of important. Also, anthropologists (and I’m talking about recently, because this wasn’t always strictly the case) usually tend to be among the first to realize how unfair, unequal, and intolerant society can be to people who are different. Not only that, our job is to figure out why that is, and to sometimes try and offer solutions. You know what a common suggestion is? Stop behaving like assholes to these people (I’m talking about any such “these people”). Show respect, listen, don’t prejudge, don’t generalize, don’t feel superior, don’t condescend. You know, the usual ‘how to not be an asshole’ drill. Some people call that being politically correct. But it’s basically just being a decent human being.
My point is, that it’s not always easy to talk about Other people (notice that capital O again?) without coming off as disrespectful, condescending, or plainly wrong. You do what you can to avoid it, but there’s always a risk that someone you’re talking about might disagree with you or be offended. The only way to avoid that entirely is to not talk about Other people. But like I said, that’s kind of what anthropologists do; if we stopped doing that, anthropology would cease to exist. And it would a shame, because anthropologists do some amazing stuff. And I don’t just mean interesting – I’m talking important. I guess what I’m saying is that if someone gets offended by something I write – so a) know that offending what never my intention, and b) come out and say it. Like I said, this is a collaborative thing. Reading people’s comments is the main reason for why I’m doing this blog in the first place.
Ah, finally I get to my point. What is it, exactly, that I’m doing? Well, my research is about autistic people, and about neurotypical people, and about the interaction between them, and among them, and about society – a society of which both autistic and neurotypical people are a part. And it’s about the anthropology of autism: autistic spectrum conditions as understood and explained by anthropological analyses and theories (without referring too much to the theories or theorists themselves, so as not to be boring. If you are interested, ask about the specific authors or ideas in the comments section). In order for me to talk about all this and still be clear and hopefully interesting, I’m going to talk about movies and series that feature autistic characters, and ‘anthropologize’ them, as they say. I will then ask for your opinion. This blog is 100% about leading a discussion. So respond, share, argue (respectfully), add or suggest; whatever you feel about a post, I want to hear it. It just might make me change my mind about something – and that’s really the whole point.
P.S. While I have a million things to say about Rain Man, it will not feature in this blog. This would be my small protest of the film’s overshadowing presence in every single discussion on the depiction of autism in film in, like, forever.