Neoliberal assumptions infect the autism literature, so that honesty is actually portrayed as a brain impairment instead of a moral virtue that probably made autistic people more useful in the past. Because autistic people are good at thinking logically and being consistent in our behavior, I think it’s very likely that roles like philosopher, priest, and shaman frequently went to autistic people. Seriously, they’re checking Jeremy Bentham’s severed head for it. Utilitarianism and the panopticon: brought to us by autism?
We live in a society that persecutes its autistic people. The autism literature is a massive case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which normal people with godawful theory-of-mind assume they know everything and I’m a retard, always and in all situations.
This morning, Psychology Today posted some earnest hand-wringing from Barb Cohen about her autistic daughter: Why are most of us so good at deceiving ourselves? It begins:
Is a vegetarian who eats a hamburger really a vegetarian? In interviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, almost two thirds of self-identified vegetarians had eaten animal flesh in the past 24 hours, and an astonishing 27 percent had eaten red meat.
When I reported this data to my autistic daughter, Sam, she could not wrap her mind around it at all. How could all of these people lie, either to themselves or to the interviewer? It got me thinking about the strategies most of us develop to rationalize our behavior everyday. Sam has not created such coping mechanisms, and I doubt she will. In my observation, the autistic brain does not seem able to cultivate what is, depending on one’s perspective, the art of self-preservation or the art of self-deception.
I’ve been vegan for 9 years. The only exception I make is honey. I’m not impressed with these “self-identified vegetarians.” Awesome bumper sticker I saw once: “Never trust a former vegan.”
By equating self-deception with self-preservation, Barb Cohen assumes that the truth will literally kill you.
The truth is simply reality. You shouldn’t build an edifice that can’t handle exposure to the truth. It’s not a moral or emotionally mature way to behave. It’s perfectly normal in our society, though.
Everybody holds inconsistencies and contradictions within themselves. Some of these contradictions constitute blatant hypocrisy, as exemplified this week by a congressman with a staunchly anti-abortion voting record instructing his mistress to have an abortion. Most of these inconsistencies, in contrast, arise from everyday choices. I consider myself to be a good friend, but I might ignore an incoming phone call from my friend if I’ve had a long day. I want to be supportive and engaged, but I also want to stare mindlessly at a television. How do I justify that choice? Or the choice to buy a single-serving container of yogurt in a plastic cup if I claim to care about the environment?
Here, Cohen acts like “I’m too tired” isn’t a legitimate reason not to pick up your phone (remember when leaving the house meant nobody could reach you?).
Cohen simply can’t fathom biting the bullet and admitting that she’s absolutely participating in extremely fucked up things, which will probably result in the end of the world as we know it. So am I. That’s what our society does. It’s not that people with fewer privileges would necessarily act more pure if put in the same position. The problem is that society is structurally fucked up, and it’s not actually possible to escape entirely. If we stopped with industrial civilization today, there’d be famine. Quite the predicament.
I don’t think it’ll change things, but I’m still vegan. Despite the overall state of affairs, individuals can try their best. Simply renouncing things brings a lot of peace of mind. I don’t have to feel bad about helping factory farms for the sake of eating M&M’s, because I don’t.
It’s traditionally part of Western society that we’d have a concept like original sin. As explained in The Hidden Persuaders, advertising and marketing people deliberately try to get rid of guilt feelings about their products, preferring people to feel entitled. TV is the default guide for how we’re supposed to behave, so they’ve been largely successful. Of course it’s causing society to break down.
Living with cognitive dissonance, the unpleasant tension caused by such internal inconsistency, causes us such distress that we human beings have developed a host of strategies to mitigate it. We compartmentalize our behaviors according to our professional and personal roles; we seek information to support our behaviors or beliefs and dismiss arguments that challenge it; we weigh the greater good; we minimize the self-defined transgression. What’s one yogurt container compared to the good I’ve done through my volunteer work? Employing these coping mechanisms allows us to sleep at night.
It’s annoying when people use “we” to write about crappy things they do, in order to normalize their crappiness.
Psychological development involves having a better-integrated life, not a more compartmentalized one. Rigorous thinking involves using discipline to reason properly. All transgressions aren’t self-defined. When you harm someone else, it’s not up to you whether it’s appropriate to minimize it or not.
Sam does not have this luxury. Facts are facts. As Columbus Day looms, her internal conflict over the facts she acknowledges is particularly acute. She has been losing sleep. Columbus and those who willingly followed in his path enslaved, killed, and displaced the First Nations’ people who lived here before. She appreciates the efforts of activists to transform Columbus Day into a day honoring Native Americans, but for her a name change is not enough. We are like Asian long-horned beetles, she tells me. Asian long-horned beetles are an invasive species with the potential to destroy a third of all urban trees if they are not eradicated. Perhaps we should be eradicated too.
She cries as she says this. Sam knows that she reaps the benefits of the destruction and displacement sown from the seeds of Columbus’s voyage, and she cannot separate herself from the injustice she perceives. She questions her right to exist.
She should be so proud of her daughter for having moral courage she lacks!
The wretched of the Earth have been begging for centuries that the barbarians on top do exactly what Barb Cohen’s daughter is doing in this passage. Have some real fucking human feelings about the world’s most awful things happening to people just like you, for your benefit.
If you’re white, in America, and haven’t cried about slavery and genocide, YOU ARE FUCKED UP AND HORRIBLE. Because the rest of us have been this whole time, and it’s monstrous to compartmentalize away a gigantic black hole of human suffering. It’s also normal and considered a person’s patriotic duty.
I am trying to utilize the strategies I use with myself: “You are not responsible for the past; you cannot redress systemic injustice single-handedly; you are helping just by being present and taking a stand.” In other words, I offer the kinds of reasoning we all use to resolve our cognitive dissonance. But Sam refuses to be comforted; she does not understand the strategies people adopt to distance themselves from the implications of their own rhetoric. And now I am suffering from my own cognitive dissonance as I encourage her to rationalize away a difficult reality for the sake of psychic comfort. I value her social conscience, but I also value her self-esteem.
Her daughter should feel just fine for being more in touch with her essential humanity than most people.
My mom is a Jehovah’s Witness, and I grew up with it. From a young age, I understood that mankind is imperfect because of original sin, Satan the Devil is running the show, and 99% of people are on Team Satan and will persecute the righteous. For us to have computers, a child somewhere had to dig coltan from the bowels of the Earth. They don’t have the luxury of pretending the world isn’t like this.
Western people’s avoidant bullshit is emotionally unhealthy and morally grotesque.
Every person who lives with or studies autism agrees that autistic people do not understand how “neurotypical” brains work. Autistics have a weak theory of mind: a weak understanding of what other people are thinking during an interaction. Consequently, people on the spectrum have much trouble manipulating others to achieve their own ends. If I understand that most of us enjoy having our egos massaged, and I am therefore more likely to receive a promotion at work if I praise my boss’s (sometimes mediocre) ideas, I may feign enthusiasm about a new project. Similarly, I may lie about a transgression in order to avoid punishment, but only if I realize the other person did not observe me and does not share my knowledge of my guilt.
When you’ve reached moral maturity, you understand that the whole point of morality is that it’s self-defeating on an individual level. You’re supposed to self-handicap by, for example, not stealing from other people.
People like having their egos massaged, but I’m Buddhist and believe that egos are the cause of most of the problems.
I did alright in high school debate, and I can speak and write persuasively. I’m autistic. Explain.
Resolving cognitive dissonance seems to require a similar theory of mind, but one that is reflected inward. We choose the rationalization that is most soothing, often to the point of convincing ourselves that no rationalization was involved. These mental gymnastics can be an important adaptive strength; otherwise we might become paralyzed by our own introspection. Ironically, we must know how we operate, at an unconscious meta-level, in order to deceive ourselves successfully at a conscious level.
She’s writing like bad faith is some kind of intellectual accomplishment. I get that you can ruminate to death and get nowhere, but introspection should be developed and insight is therapeutic.
Since we’re talking about bad faith here, let’s turn to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which also discussed the paradoxes of lying to oneself. Reading this next passage, what strikes me is that the way normal people live in bad faith is to pretend they’re autistic about social cues.
Take the example of a woman who has consented to go out with a particular man for the first time. She knows very well the intentions which the man who is speaking to her cherishes regarding her. She knows also that it will be necessary sooner or later for her to make a decision. But she does not want to realize the urgency; she concerns herself only with what is respectful and discreet in the attitude of her companion. She does not apprehend this conduct as an attempt to achieve what we call “the first approach”, that is, she does not want to see possibilities of temporal development which his conduct presents. She restricts this behavior to what is in the present; she does not wish to read in the phrases which he addresses to her anything other than their explicit meaning. If he says to her, “I find you so attractive!” she disarms this phrase of its sexual background; she attaches to the conversation and to the behavior of the speaker, the immediate meanings, which she imagines as objective qualities. The man who is speaking to her appears to her sincere and respectful as the table is round or square, as the wall coloring is blue or gray.
The qualities thus attached to the person she is listening to are in this way fixed in a permanence like that of things, which is no other than the projection of the strict present of the qualities into the temporal flux.
This is because she does not quite know what she wants. She is profoundly aware of the desire which she inspires, but the desire cruel and naked would humiliate and horrify her. Yet she would find no charm in a respect that would only be respect. In order to satisfy her, there must be a feeling which is addressed wholly to her personality–i.e., to her full freedom–and which would be a recognition of her freedom. But at the same time this feeling must be wholly desire; that is, it must address itself to her body as object.
This time then she refuses to apprehend the desire for what it is; she does not even give it a name; she recognizes it only to the extent that it transcends itself toward admiration, esteem, respect, and that it is wholly absorbed in the more refined forms which it produces, to the extent of no longer figuring anymore as a sort of warmth and density.
But then suppose he takes her hand. This act of her companion risks changing the situation by calling for an immediate decision. To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm. The aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible.
We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not notice because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect. She draws her companion up to the most lofty regions of sentimental speculation; she speaks of Life, of her life, she shows herself in her essential aspect–a personality, a consciousness. And during this time the divorce of the body from the soul is accomplished; the hand rests inert between the warm hands of her companion–neither consenting nor resisting–a thing.
Next, consider how behaving like a neurotypical is intended to relieve neurotypicals of the burden of theory-of-mind.
Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kin of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing?
We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation. The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to take inventory of it; the water in the cafe plays with his condition in order to realize it.
This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientèle that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor.
A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (the sight “fixed at ten paces”). There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.
Returning to Cohen’s article, the last paragraph:
From my observation, autistic people do not have the privilege of living with such coping strategies. They have as much trouble manipulating themselves as they have manipulating other people. They do not contextualize the behavior of others or themselves very well, so they cannot rely on context as a means of making sense of the world. To ignore select facts and their ramifications is as difficult as ignoring sensory inputs. I worry about the added anxiety Sam experiences when she cannot escape her discomfort. At the same time, I applaud the strength she must have in order to live knowingly with the contradictions of her being.
Meanwhile, this is what I can read in Newsweek:
Trump lamented the dent the relief efforts had taken on the federal budget while claiming that Puerto Ricans were “very lucky” that the loss of life was minimal compared to that wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. Later in the day, he distributed paper towels to residents by mimicking a basketball shot.
Will, who has been a fierce critic of Trump, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Wednesday that there was something fundamentally wrong with the president that produces a galling lack of empathy.
“It’s not clear that he sees other people,” said Will, who also writes a regular column in The Washington Post. “There’s such a thing as a kind of social autism—that he just doesn’t connect with other people. There’s no point in saying, Well, maybe he’ll acquire it. This is not part of his genetic makeup. He’s 70  years old.”
Because honesty is the enemy of human connection? Autistic people just can’t do anything right. I’m soooo confused.
Donald Trump actually represents what’s normal. People don’t see black autistic vegan anarchists, but they’re pretty sure they hate them.
Really think about the profound difference between what I’m doing, which is writing about ethics, phenomenology, and coping skills, and what I’m given credit for, which is being cruel and dumb. The degree of that difference is greater than any theory-of-mind impairment I still have after the drugs, meditation, therapy, and life experience. People believe the most patronizing and contemptuous things about me, based solely on the word “autism” and the way non-autistic people talk about autism.
My dad used to say, “I have the patience of Job.”
Essentially, the main burden in my life is the way that “we” live in denial to protect egos I think are the source of suffering. It’s true that I don’t understand it. Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why dishonest neurotypical stuff is a better way to live. Shouldn’t we see the fruits of it all around us? We don’t. Everyone is unhappy and there’s Donald Trump.