the inner logic of the workplace

To preface this post, I want to re-emphasize the song Bad Religion – Inner Logic:

A sequence of 3 autism diagnoses happened for me, really. My therapist diagnosed it, I thought about it and self-diagnosed, and then I went and got a bureaucracy-grade document whose point is recommendations for workplace accommodations. One of the recommendations was that I read a book called Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Here’s a video of Michelle Garcia Winner, one of the authors:

Actually, “everyone” is not egocentric and paranoid. Neurotypicals commonly assume that they’re infallible, and that the conditions of modern society are equivalent to the human condition. The workplace is taken as a given, and it’s supposed to be obvious that pragmatically accepting it is wise and good.

Judging our society by how we treat Others, we’re among the worst people on Earth. Obviously, our behavior comes from our values and assumptions. Our society promotes violence and scamming people to an unusual degree. Given that many of the worst atrocities are carried out as part of people’s job duties

She just matter-of-factly explained that getting good grades and minding my own business was enough reason for others to project their insecurities onto me and reject me preemptively. The failure was mine, for not anticipating it, and the consequence was normal people ganging up on me. I doubt she thinks of herself as spokesperson for a group of barbarians, explaining how to fit in among barbarians.

This is how she’d describe my problems:

Those born with their social thinking brain wiring fully functional may find it difficult to appreciate the absence of this social intuitive learning. It’s so second nature to NTs that trying to imagine any other way of thinking is perhaps, unthinkable! We teach and coach others predominately through a framework that is built on social thinking. But, what about those who don’t have this innate framework? How do we reach them?

Social thinking and related social skills can be mildly or significantly impaired in persons on the autism spectrum, in people with Nonverbal Learning Disorder and in many people born with ADHD. These individuals experience challenges in quickly and efficiently learning, processing and responding to social information. On the more impaired side of social thinking, for instance, people diagnosed with “classical autism”, they may not be aware that different people have different thoughts. Some kids will jump into a conversation mid-sentence, because they think that everyone around them shares the exact same thoughts at the exact same moment. Higher-functioning individuals, those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, are often a double conundrum. Their gifted intelligence and expressive verbal capabilities fool us into thinking their social thinking is equally adept. Yet, this is usually an untrue assumption. While they may be aware that other people have thoughts different from their own, they struggle to interpret those thoughts and respond to them in the rapid speed of a singular social interaction that can be over in a matter of seconds. These children and adults struggle desperately to make sense of the social world, unaided by the teaching and service supports captured by those with more noticeable impairments.

I thought the issue is supposed to be that I have missing social intuition and use conscious analysis (leading to habits) to deal with social situations. Neurotypicals could only fail to understand what I’m doing if they have no capacity for consciously analyzing things. It often seems that way to me, but I don’t think it’s true. Why would my perspective be alien, if it’s built using shared tools?

Page 4 and 5 of the book are about the “Pink Man” in Santa Cruz:

The paragraph that follows, after introducing him:

As highly social creatures, we follow a code of social awareness and social adaptability that allows us to live together within society. Although the Pink Umbrella Man seemed harmless, those who don’t adapt to our social-emotional expectations can be seen as possible threats. We don’t feel we can predict their behavior; therefore we can’t decide if they are safe to share space with, or whether we are comfortable being with them.

I have a similar story, from when I lived in LA. There was a black homeless guy with Mental Disability NOS who’d hang out around my bus stop. One particular day, there was an older Persian couple catching the bus to leave Westwood. The homeless guy was making a game of how the normals reacted to him. He’d walk up to them with a grin, stick his hand out slowly, then tap them with an extended index finger and quickly pull his arm back. As if to say, “lulz I’m homeless and I touched you.” They looked so uncomfortable, like they’re never coming back to that neighborhood and they’re telling all their friends about it. Can you believe the homeless people touch you there? West LA is the slums.

On another occasion, that same guy made eye contact with me across the street. Then he charged across the street, right at me, still grinning, and shoulder checked me. I kind of smiled and shrugged. That’s the end of the story.

The tone I’m getting from the book is that the first reaction is normal and necessary, and it behooves me to start acting right.

It’s VERY unintentionally illustrative that they used Pink Umbrella Man represent the potentially fearsome Other that of course everyone avoids. You can find his side of the story on the internet.

Emerging from his mysterious disappearance, over hot chocolate and a sweet muffin from Lulu’s at the Octagon, Steffen spoke about his life for the first time in 13 years. Timidly, and at times between tears, Steffen discussed years of severe depression, years of non-verbal communication, and his family, whom he had not seen in 14 years.

“I don’t know why I just started talking to people and socializing when I haven’t been for so long,” Steffen said of recently hanging up his pink apparel. “Maybe I grew out of [the depression]. Maybe it was a phase I was going through. Maybe I just needed time alone to think about things.”

In February, prior to his Pink Man “retirement” Steffen was evicted from his room at the Palomar Inn, a local low-income housing facility. He was sent to Dominican Hospital for observation and upon his release he found himself in a transition house. When the house shut down, he was scooted to a homeless shelter and, eventually, to his current abode in a home with an elderly woman…

“I wanted to do something fun to lift up my spirits and lift the spirits of the people around me,” Steffen explained. “I think lifting the spirits is kind of the opposite of depression, and so, yeah, you can call it a coping method. I was fighting depression by being silly. You know, by being ‘The Pink Man,’ or whatever.”

The creation of his alter ego didn’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by the Santa Cruz community.

Kelsey LeBlanc, a sales associate at Pacific Avenue’s Camouflage clothing store, views Steffen as bringing a unique element to Santa Cruz culture.

“I think he adds a lot of charm to the place. I consider him a mascot of Pacific Avenue and Santa Cruz in general,” LeBlanc said. “I think he’s completely harmless. His meditative walk that he did up and down Pacific, his big smile and this theory that he was spreading ‘pink.’ I thought it was fabulous.”

Despite wide recognition in the community, however, many locals ­­­­– particularly those who own or run businesses on Pacific Avenue – have expressed concern and even distaste over Steffen’s longtime downtown presence.

Amanda Vanderhoff, sales clerk at Bunny’s Shoes says that she once saw Steffen harassing a blind man in the rain by standing so encroachingly close to the man that a pedestrian had to come and help the blind man when Steffen would not move.

“It was really irritating,” Vanderhoff said. “He would just instigate people all the time. I think he likes to really bother people. It’s really creepy. All the girls here, everybody keeps away from him.”…

“I did see some different psychologists – mainly one funded by the county – and I didn’t like them. All they seemed to want to do is tell me that I shouldn’t be wearing pink or shouldn’t be walking slowly and that what I was doing was wrong,” Steffen said, a hint of indignation in his voice. “[The psychologists] prescribed me tons of medicines and stuff like that, which didn’t do much for my cognitive abilities at that time. They were very unhelpful, I would say, in general.”

Tonay believes that Steffen’s decision to cope with his illness through the Pink Man persona was definitely a positive one.

“The best thing a person can do who is depressed and on their own, besides trying to get help, is to do something creative,” Tonay said. “He developed a whole persona for himself which is the antithesis of depression. He dressed in pink and he smiles and he found a way to be out with people everyday, all day long, and to be less isolated in the sense that people will say hello to him and have conversations with him and so forth.”…

After packing up his belongings into black garbage bags, Steffen was escorted out of his room in handcuffs.

Following the eviction, Steffen was taken to Dominican Hospital under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which states that a qualified officer or clinician may involuntarily confine a person who is considered to be a danger to him or herself or to others.

“They were rather forceful and not too kind at all and they put handcuffs on me and all that stuff,” Steffen said, eyes subverted, of the situation. “I believe the excuse was that since I wasn’t looking for a place outside of the Palomar to live, that I might be somehow a danger to myself or others. I don’t understand that statement, but that was their excuse.”

Following his release from Dominican, Steffen sought to put his life back together, but immediately faced speed bumps. His mail was left undelivered due to a Palomar Inn policy not to accept mail for evicted former tenants. As a result, Steffen never received the HUD reapplication packet necessary to secure housing subsidies and therefore found himself, once again, homeless.

Distraught and angered by the situation, Steffen spent many days pacing and protesting outside the Palomar Inn. He says that he also attempted to contact local papers to publicize the issue, but believes that his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Winner uses other casual examples that give me pause, like crossing the street when she sees someone “suspicious,” gripping her purse tighter. Now, I walk around in all black, clothes sorta raggedy, wearing a hoodie. I’m not alone in this:

I was in a coffee shop recently when a teenager wearing a hooded top sat on the next table. He was minding his own business, as was I, but I couldn’t help but notice that other customers were giving him suspicious looks, perhaps because he was hunched over his meal with his face largely hidden by his hooded top. Yet he wasn’t causing any bother; he was sitting there quietly, like the rest of us, eating his lunch and sipping at his hot drink. Even when he eventually got up and left, I noticed numerous people watching him leave.

…whilst the hysteria may have calmed down, I feel there is still some suspicion about young people who wear hoodied tops, as witnessed by me at the coffee shop. This concerns me for my son is autistic and likes to wear hooded garments, not because he is a thug, but because it helps him cope with the social world and its confusing array of sights, sounds and smells. Wherever we go, we have to take a hoodied top. Not only does the soft fleece makes him feel secure but wearing his hood over his head helps him cope with high anxiety levels and potential panic attacks. Without it he would struggle to go out.

So, for those people who feel unsure about the sight of a hoodied young person in a public place, please pause for a moment and consider whether that young person is also feeling threatened himself. He may be like my son, autistic.

I could never trust someone like Michelle Garcia Winner as a therapist, and I think she’s typical of therapists who use terms like “cognitive-behavioral,” “evidence-based,” or “seven core tenets of perspective taking.” For me, “CBT” is an indicator of “one of the people who hates me for no reason.”

Something I don’t know, that I’d like to know, is what the theoretical orientation of the therapy stuff was in the late 1970s/early 1980s social work curriculum at Sacramento and San Jose State. I heard the term “Johari Window” growing up, but I think it might’ve been mis-explained as the “I’m ok, you’re ok” thing. Quadrants, you know?

Moving on, neurotypical dishonesty leads them to give bad advice to preserve their own illusions.

Showing big emotions at work is unexpected. Those who have major mood swings, from outbursts of happiness to eruptions of outrage, appear to be emotionally unstable. These employees consistently express their strong feelings or fail to compress their emotional reactions, even around relatively small problems. This breaks one of the most important unwritten rules of the work environment: We seek to stay calm and keep our coworkers calm, even in difficult situations.

The truth is that different people are supposed to be calm and stressed out at work. Managers increase pressure on employees all the time, the opposite of helping them to stay calm. To make them work harder or to make them quit so the manager is spared the unpleasantness of firing them. Part of what’s unstated in the office is the threat of homelessness for noncompliance. They need the homeless.
They tell the story of Shari, a 45-year-old woman. Shari is difficult and help-rejecting:

However, each time we tried to introduce a new concept, she would say, “You have to understand how bad my life is.” When we encouraged her to explore the concepts, she escalated her emotional response by yelling, “You’re just like everyone else; you don’t care about me either!” Regardless of how much we tried to explain how thinking about others’ perspectives and emotions could help her better relate to people, she insisted on expressing her frustrations, even if it meant she had to yell to get people to listen.

Clearly, Shari’s insistence on sharing her misery caused people to avoid her. While some might stay and listen to her tales of woe, few if any would return to talk to her again (the impact of social-emotional memory). Even her devoted parents asked that she not come to the family’s Easter celebration that year. The blatant rejections fueled Shari’s unhappiness, making her lash out more. She lost her job due to poor customer relations.

You know what this reads like, to me? A Jehovah’s Witness article about the terrible things that’ll happen if I make “bad associations” with “worldly people.”

They achieved compliance by forbidding Shari from repeating herself.

This is my story of being in Shari’s position: I was whining to the Lacanian my OkCupid fail, and she responded with a normalization intervention (CBT contaminated my therapy): “Dating sucks for everyone,” or something to that effect. Like, NOW I get that. The shift in thinking from therapy was that now I know my family did better than many on some basic stuff, despite what my diagnostic report noted: “Family history is remarkable for relatives with learning difficulties, anxiety, depression, and seizures.”

However, it’s ALSO true that “vegan autistic mulatto” is a qualitatively harder problem than what “everyone” is dealing with. My therapist didn’t understand, and didn’t notice the autism. “You have to understand how bad my life is!” I’ve read enough therapy books to know that establishing a therapeutic alliance is the first step, prerequisite for others.

My real-time social interaction might suck, but my reading comprehension is fine. From this passage, it’s evident that Shari’s first instincts were right. The tone is clearly mocking and dismissive, just like everybody else. Shari can be coached now that she’s taken a more pragmatic, less idealistic approach, but is it still therapy?

Consider how much this next passage is incompatible with activism or changing anything, per se. MLK sang the praises of shaming people…

We humans have a nasty habit of sharing our feelings when we feel someone has acted wrongly. Most of us don’t blab about how good someone made us feel, but it is very common to go and tell a few close coworkers when we feel someone at work has mistreated us. Gossiping about people’s social-emotional missteps is an unfortunate aspect of our humanity and makes it more difficult for people to redeem themselves after they’ve been branded as difficult, unfriendly, or self-important.

The anarchist position is that societies can be self-regulating and use social exclusion to enforce norms that are actually pro-social, in the absence of a group given special permission to act violently. Nobody’s sad Milo lost friends for defending child molesters.

There’s one more passage I want to comment on, and then my writing about the book has caught up with my reading of it:

Deborah was a motivated teacher dedicated to helping students with learning differences. She went out of her way to do the best job possible, but she consistently struggled to maintain harmonious relations with her colleagues. She worked diligently with her students and advocated for their needs with fellow teachers and principals. The only thing missing was an ability to relate to her coworkers. Deborah’s first misstep was in the way she presented her report and recommendations for specific students, without acknowledging or showing appreciation for the efforts of fellow teachers who had worked with the students. It got so bad that they filed complaints, saying they felt Deborah did not listen to them and did not respect their points of view. Deborah’s second misstep came when she met with the principal; instead of relating emotionally (showing remorse and discussing ways in which she could let the teachers know she appreciated their efforts), she began to cry and defend her position logically. The principle interpreted her behavior as defensive because her argument did not acknowledge being wrong, nor did she give any credit to her colleagues. Deborah’s tears and attempts to get the principal to agree with her point of view resulted in further misunderstandings. The principal filed her own complaint, calling Deborah rude and insubordinate. Deborah was put on probation for one year with the stipulation that if her social skills don’t improve, she will lose her job. Keep in mind, no one ever complained about the actual work she was doing with the students [italics added].

Reading that, I was immediately reminded of “This Is Why” by Julia Bascom, which should be read in its entirety.

So you need to know about Kimba.

I met Kimba three years ago. I walked into the lifeskills classroom at the middle school, and he was moaning and flapping in the corner. I kind of wanted to do the same thing but I didn’t, which meant that the teachers mistook me for a neurotypical like them, which meant that the first thing I got to learn about Kimba was that “he just tried to throw a chair at me.”

I learned a lot of other things about Kimba in the next few days. I couldn’t sit within four feet of him, because he would attack me—he didn’t like anyone except his aide, and he went after her pretty regularly too. He had successfully convinced the teachers for an entire semester that he couldn’t read at all, only to be foiled when they gave him a puzzle of animal names and he completed it perfectly. The only words he said were “NO!”, “BUH-BYE!”, and “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE!”, screamed like something was breaking. About a month after I first met him, I learned two more things: he was a foster child, and the previous night he had attempted to beat his foster mother to death and had almost succeeded.

Here’s what I learned about Kimba over the next three years: he is incredibly intellectually gifted. He taught himself to read. He has a system in which he classifies every person he encounters as a different animal based on personality, appearance, relationship and attitude towards him, and the pleasantness of their encounter. He may be autistic, he may have various brain injuries, he might be selectively mute, he definitely had lead poisoning. He uses language obliquely, employing rich and innovative metaphors. He analyzes the symbolism in Disney movies, but his favorite television series is Kimba The White Lion. He taught himself how to use Google. He speed-reads. He spent the first nine years of his life in one of the most horrifically abusive environments my state has on record.

I have my own story like that. When I was going through my period of thinking I was going to quit my job and become a social worker, I volunteered once a week for an full school year, at an after-school program to get homeless kids to do their homework. It was part of an apartment complex for homeless families with children. 3 days a week, 5:30 to 7:00. I’d be tired, going there after work. They employed practices known to reduce students’ intrinsic motivation for learning. They focused on getting the kids to stay quiet in their seats, when they would’ve been better off running around and socializing without adult interference (science says!). Rigidly sticking to the goal of completing the school-provided homework, regardless of its appropriateness for the child, prevented effective instruction.

I was the favorite volunteer of the “bad kids.” One of them was a mixed-race first-grader I unsucccessfully tried to get tested for dyslexia. I could tell that some of her “misbehavior” was normal behavior. Learning how to use staplers and paper clips, because she saw the adults using them. Being distracted because she’s fascinated by the copy machine because she’s never seen one before, and nobody was explaining what was going on.

At one point, another volunteer told her she was “incorrigible,” as if that were cute instead of extremely fucked up for a law professor to take time out of her day to tell an impoverished, probably traumatized child with a learning disability.

Suppose that had been a real school, and we’d been real teachers, and I reached some kids and talked about it at a meeting with the social worker, the principal, and the special ed team. My successes would’ve been achieved despite the environment, and it’d be wise and diplomatic not to shit-talk my coworkers in an environment of pervasive incompetence.

The inner logic to the Deborah story is that schools are full of shit and weed out people who “get it,” because schools don’t care about students. The students are instruments of the staff’s office politics, not humans. The principles behind “neurotypical” behavior CAN be logically discerned, but neurotypicals won’t admit to them because they’re so awful.

It’s a true fact that the person who diagnosed me after ALL THIS TIME is an MFT with a humanities background with blue hair who likes Jung and Gestalt therapy. Preserving the Old Ways, where phenomenology and symbolism are things to consider.  I live in the Bay Area, where they have that. Weird people in hoodies in much of the country might be shit out of luck.

Freud didn’t insist that only doctors should practice psychoanalysis.  Structurally, the mental health field weeds out the ones most capable of understanding crazy people:  crazy people.  Marginalized people get to see how people (brutalizing us) act when nobody else is looking.  That informs our worldview, because how could it not?  My “alternative” interpretations of the book’s vignettes are as self-evident to me as the intended interpretations are for the authors.  Neurotypicals are unreliable narrators, at least usually.  It’s hard to find mental healthcare services that aren’t invested in defending the prevailing neoliberal order.  It’s difficult to keep mental composure in the face of how fucked up things are in reality.  A therapist who’s invested in the system can’t help with any of that, to the point of gross neglect of humanity (see Pink Umbrella Man).