Out of Her Mind? Or Just in a Different Mind?

Diversity often confounds us. Judging other people seems to come naturally, but it is also a very hard thing for us to do, especially when those we are judging are quite different from us. Ironically, it is often when people are quite different from us that our judging impulse is the strongest.

Here’s a case in point. A news story has recently been making the rounds about a woman named Jewel Shuping, with Body Identity Integrity Disorder who enlisted the help of a sympathetic (anonymous) psychiatrist to pour drain cleaner in her eyes to blind her. As she describes it, she has always wanted to be blind, and remembers looking into the sun for long periods as a child just hoping it wold take away her sight. Predictably, social media is abuzz. Is the woman crazy? Should we allow a woman with Body Identity Integrity Disorder harm her body to achieve emotional peace?

Like most people, my initial reaction when I hear stories like this is a shocked “Who could do that to themselves? I couldn’t!” reaction. But where many use that as a reason to say that Jewel is “out of her mind,” the conclusion I draw is more that she is in her mind, i’m in mine, and the two are different. And the fact that her mind is quite different than mine makes me skeptical that I have any way to judge the appropriateness of her decision to become blind.

Here’s my understanding of what Body identity Integrity Disorder is neurologically. We all have a module in our brain responsible for mapping and holding a mental image of our body. (It is what we use to navigate ourselves through space.) For most of us, there is no conflict between what our bodies look like and that mental image of what our bodies look like. But in someone “with” BIID, the two are misaligned. So, imagine if you can that a part of your body really, really, really doesn’t feel like it is supposed to be there. (There is a fascinating account of BIID in chapter 3 of this book, about a man who doesn’t want his leg.)

Can you do it? I can sort of imagine it, but only “in theory,” hypothetically. I cannot feel what it would really feel like, not in the way Jewel and others “with” BIID do. That’s just the human condition: the only mind — with its feelings, thought processes, and value judgments — that I have access to is mine. I can imagine what it might be like to be someone quite different, but even when I do that, the only frame of mental reference I have is my own. I can imagine having someone else’s value judgments or experiences, but there is indeed a limit to my imagination, starting and ending, as it does, in my own head.

Philosopher William James referred to this as “a certain moral blindness in human beings.” In an essay by that name, he illustrates by recounting a trip he took along the backwoods of North Carolina. He saw a village of folks who’d once been surrounded by beautiful trees only to chop most of them down leaving barren land littered with tree stumps. James thought this was a shame, taking the natural beauty of our the land. In talking with his tour guide, though, James came to understand that the people in the village did this because it gave them a sense of being productive and cultivating the land. James couldn’t see that because he didn’t live amidst the cultural values of that village and didn’t share the value judgments of the people therein. “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions,” James wrote, “as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.

I experienced my own moral blindness when watching a documentary film called (A)sexual, about people who experience no sexual desire at all. In one scene, one of the film’s subjects professed that while he did not have sexual feelings, he did experience romantic feelings, and had a romantic partner with whom he l kissed, cuddled, and do many other things (except sexual things) that romantic couples do. Impossible! was my first instinct. “Romantic “ and “sexual” can’t be decoupled; that man must have it wrong somehow.” Of course, it dawned on me shortly after that I have every reason to think he knows his experience better than I, and have no reason to think he has less understanding of what “sexual” means than I do. But there I was, judging his behavior by my own frame of reference and when my frame of reference can’t make sense of his reported experience, I find some reason to privilege the former over the latter.

LIke William James, I suspect that the human condition will always leave us with blindspots. And like all blind spots, part of what makes these ones hazardous is our tendency to forget that they’re there. After all, we only have access to our value judgments, thought processes, and minds, and we regard how we think and feel as natural, because it is the only way we intimately know. This makes it harder for us to judge others in proportion to how different the others (and their decisions) are from us. Sure, we can understand others (we’d hardly be able to be social if we didn’t.) But And like all blind spots, part of what makes these ones hazardous is our tendency to forget that they’re there.

So, Rachel Dolezol? Caitlyn Jenner? Jewel Shuping? It is tempting to think that those who make decisions we couldn’t fathom making are “out of their minds.” But the other possibility is that they are just in different (and maybe no worse for it) minds than the ones we inhabit. It’s not that we should never judge different others. I’d just urge that we be quite cautious and humble when we do.

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