tony attwood and the neoliberal subject

I’m reading Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. That and Neurotribes seemed like logical first steps after re-framing my problem as “autism,” or adding autism to the list of problems.

The stuff on playground social dynamics makes the book worth reading. There was food for thought about gender development and why I developed characteristically female social adaptations. There were reasons for bullying I hadn’t considered (the mere fact of playing alone), and interesting stuff about the nature of the bullying. I hadn’t realized that my bullying experiences were characteristically aspie. There were just so many other factors, like being a Jehovah’s Witness or having mulatto hair. It goes deeper!

I endorse the book, as an information source. However, it’s giving me the same icky feeling I got from reading Trauma and the Avoidant Client. It’s another book by a normal person explaining loners to the humans.

In a way, it’s telling that Attwood has particular insight into the bullying. He’s been publicly criticized for giving presentations in which he mocks autistic people for turning out the lights and hiding when a neighbor stops by unannounced. It’s funny, but also fuck him. That’s how my family celebrated Halloween every year. We had to, because people wouldn’t read the note on the front door politely explaining that we choose not to participate in trick-or-treating for religious reasons.

I haven’t gotten to the chapter on relationships yet, but someone else has already taken him to task over it.

Two things that struck me in a bad way were the section on honesty vs. deception and the section on special interests.

I have noted that young children with Asperger’s syndrome are often remarkably honest. Asked by a parent if they have committed an act that they know is not allowed, they are likely to admit readily that they did it. Other children will recognize that there are some occasions when the adult would not have enough knowledge (i.e., he or she did not actually see who did it), and the child can use deception to avoid the consequences.

Then there’s an admittedly unflattering anecdote about a child observing that an obese lady at the supermarket should go on a diet.

The child’s opinion is that she should be grateful for the observation and advice; the likelihood that his or her mother will be embarrassed or the woman offended at such a rude comment is not part of the child’s thinking process. Other children would normally inhibit such a response, based on the understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelngs. Children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome appear to have a greater allegiance to honesty and the truth than to the thoughts and feelings of others.

The neoliberal subject is hiding in those words. Shouldn’t we find it strange that cheating is normal but rudeness is pathological? Here’s a counter-anecdote: when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I once pointed out that my teacher had made a grading mistake to my benefit by a few points. I did so because my mom taught me that lying was forbidden by Jehovah God, and I shouldn’t sin on purpose. My teacher understood the motivation and praised me for it, because it wasn’t that long ago that Christianity could mean good character instead of support for Donald Trump. As a child, I certainly knew how to get away with things. That is, I knew that the knowledge in my head was different than the knowledge in my parents’ heads. If I got caught, it would be dishonorable to deny it. Misbehavior shames your parents (especially on a Navy base). The concept of open civil disobedience is even further from the way Attwood is thinking in these passages.

Wouldn’t it actually be good if society had relatively unambiguous rules, based on appeals to shared principles beyond self-interest? It’s almost like philosophers could then reason systematically from those rules, as a guide to practical situations. This is still occasionally practiced, having existed for several thousand years. It’s true that I love cave art because it stayed the same for 30,000 years. It’s almost like stability is normal, and it’s natural for the current pace of change to cause extreme stress. My body is less dead to the world, and my mind is less dead to my body.

Everyone has gone crazy because they’re gullible to predatory people. It endangers the survival of all humans.

Praising the children for their sophistication at deceit is some white man dominator culture stuff. I skipped ahead to the book’s final paragraph. The meaning of life according to Tony Attwood is cars and bitches.

As Jack left the room, he remembered his early childhood: how when he was young he felt that he was not understood or appreciated by the other children at his school, and during his adolescence he had suffered from low self-esteem and longed to be popular. Other children in his class tormented him that he was a failure, but if only those children could see him now! He was not a failure, he was a success. This thought comforted him as he opened the door of his new 7 Series BMW, and realized he was late for the meeting to go through the final preparations for his wedding.

Fuck Jack, his BMW, and his expensive wedding. Worshipping the false god Mammon. God will destroy them in Armageddon if they don’t find their way to the Truth. The Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t even wrong.

Are all Jehovah’s Witnesses pathological? Are they pathological by definition? I think there’s room for reasonable disagreement. Their reasoning about social situations isn’t dumb on its face, though. It’s arguably more pro-social. Bible Students stuck together in the concentration camps.

An unwavering confidence in their religious beliefs, a unique community spirit, and a mutual spirit of solidarity provided Jehovah’s Witnesses with the inner strength to remain true to their convictions even in the concentration camps. On this basis, they were able to continue in their struggle for self-assertion, despite SS torture…Margarette Buber-Neumann generally makes rather critical comments about Jehovah’s Witnesses, their religious beliefs, and their adherence to the Bible, which resulted in the fact that their actions did not always reflect what was sensible from a human standpoint (for instance, their relentless refusal “to sign the Bible-Student Declaration,” even in the case of a seriously ill fellow believer). However, she recognizes that the behavior of the female Bible Students contributed to their survival in the concentration camp. To this end, Buber-Neumann acknowledges that “nothing was ever stolen on Block 3. There was no lying and no tale-bearing. Each of the women was not only highly conscientious personally, but held herself responsible for the well-being of the group as a whole.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses took particularly good care of their sick and weak fellow believers, even sharing their food rations with them. As a result, they were able to restore people with serious illnesses back to health, even those who would not have survived had they been left to regular hospital treatment at the concentration camp. This spirit of solidarity proved to be especially vital during periods in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were excluded from treatment at the concentration camp infirmary, for disciplinary reasons, and were denied access to any medical assistance: within the blocks, Jehovah’s Witnesses organized their own medical assistance programs.

Other Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, received considerable financial support. Therefore, they formed community funds in the various blocks where they collected the incoming money. They money was put into a box and entrusted to the care of a fellow believer. Equal amounts of money were distributed to the individual Bible Student prisoners. The amounts were kept small so that they would last for an extended period of time until more money came in. Apparently, this method of dividing and distributing the money worked well. Everybody always had as much or as little as the others. In this way, the Bible Student prisoners also protected themselves from the possible development of envy and resentment. Only an exceptionally small number from among Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to contribute to this community fund because they belonged to the group of financially more affluent prisoners. But, after a while, even these people generally joined the arrangement. The loss of companionship with their fellow believers was more difficult to bear than the loss of their (relative) financial advantages.

They were aware that participation in their community was appealing for others and that conversions for opportunistic purposes could cause problems. Therefore, they would observe these newly converted people for extended periods of time. As a result, many of these conversions did not last very long. Those who joined the Bible Students out of an inner conviction generally continued to be Jehovah’s Witnesses even after the concentration camp gates opened in 1945.[Detlef Garbe, Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Third Reich]

Everything that’s said to be impossible about anarchism was actually implemented, even in concentration camps with Nazis torturing everyone. Also, the Jehovah’s Witnesses let their children die for lack of blood transfusions, because the Bible says.

The values of Jehovah’s Witnesses are demonstrably well-suited to their history of intense persecution by normal people. Tony Attwood attributes honesty to social retardation. Indeed, there were fatal consequences to their poor language pragmatics, such as the refusal to say “Heil Hitler” and give the Hitler salute. EVER. They just wouldn’t stop talking about how bad the Nazis were. They set up special operations to distribute literature and disappear before the authorities showed up.

Maybe they all had Asperger syndrome, honesty is a symptom, and they needed early intervention in conformity skills.

This is a pretty upsetting topic. To get to that passage in the book, you have to read several hundred pages about how the persecution escalated before it even got to concentration camps. You could say that it was a special interest I chose to feel more control in a chaotic world. Y’know…learn what happens to people like me in times of fascism. Maybe history has lessons for me.

How many people would like to see me tortured for the content of this blog? It’s not 0% of people. There’s hope for me, though:

An interest in computers can be popular with peers and there can be great delight in being sought after for advice or ability to repair a computer “crash”, or to develop a new computer program or graphic. This can provide a rare moment of being genuinely needed and valued by others.

No. Computer people deeply resent the Tony Attwoods of the world. RTFM. PEBKAC. He’s making it seem like normals are doing us a favor if they condescend to ask us to think for them. Being treated like unpaid tech support is a cliché thing for tech people to talk about. They know the score.

Using my admittedly-slow theory of mind skills, I think Tony Attwood is fantasizing that the victims of crappy behavior actually enjoy it. It’s a common thing for people to tell themselves. When he says we’re genuinely needed and valued, he’s lying, but he’s telling the truth that it can be rare.

There’s something else I want to add about long aspie rambles: they’re necessary because the normal person, lacking sufficient curiosity and motivation, lacks a huge amount of background information necessary to understand the point we’re trying to make. We have to help the normal catch up before their short attention span runs out, or we might never even get to express our actual thoughts beyond the recitation of facts. I don’t have to explain what an action potential is to talk about an interesting neuroscience thing with a neuroscience person. I “have to” explain action potentials 101 if something brain-related comes up at a party. If you didn’t want to know the answer, why did you ask?

The truth is that people don’t want to know the answer. Here’s a secret you learn from having “special interests”: thought processes have different lengths. In math, you can prove some things in a few steps. Other things, only a computer can verify something that long. Thought processes can be so long that they exceed human capacity! Certain topics are inherently complicated. Everybody understands the reason for prerequisite classes in college.

Normal people have a pretty low upper limit for following a single thought process. That means there’s a whole universe of thoughts they can never have, because those thoughts are too long. Couldn’t this inability to reach certain insights make normals blind to some things? I have a PhD in neuroscience. Is it really that lame if I explain something just for you, because you were talking about a related health topic? Is it not a donation of my time and attention, giving back what I have to give?  I know I appreciate when people tell me things like “Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium.”

In my marriage, everything became “talking about computers” and therefore annoying, even when the point of the story was the effect of a daily life situation on my emotions. There are many “technical” or “advanced” things that can be understood by a normal person in 1 minute, and then I can better recreate my experience in the listener’s mind. Many people are unwilling to humor me for a minute, and it’s because of the lack of interest in others that aspies are supposed to have.  How emotionally mature is the average person, really?

Another example: is being pedantic the only reason for pointing out all the historical inaccuracies in a movie? Does it matter what happened to Osama Bin Laden if Zero Dark Thirty is entertaining? Who is Seymour Hersh and why should I care? So lame to regurgitate a long article from a news magazine…People have 90 minutes and pay money for the Hollywood-produced, CIA-consulted version of events, though.  It’s the persistence of juvenile behavior into adulthood.

My impression is that “CBT” and the inability to question societal norms go together. Ironically, bad things are happening because normal people are unable to properly control the role played by emotions in their decision-making. They don’t want to stand out because they know what happens to people who stand out. Fear and the desire for social affiliation trump sticking to moral principles. That’s wrong, by definition.

What’s considered “normal” by white British men has included incredibly fucked up things. Attwood doesn’t seem to see that norms evolve over time, and we have choices about our norms. In fact, our norms are very much engineered. BMW told Tony Attwood to like BMW. In the 1950s, social engineering we now take for granted shocked the moral conscience. From The Hidden Persuaders:

It is my feeling that a number of the practices and techniques I’ve cited here very definitely raise questions of a moral nature that should be faced by the persuaders and the public. For example:

What is the morality of the practice of encouraging housewives to be nonrational and impulsive in buying the family food?

What is the morality of playing upon hidden weaknesses and frailties–such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of nonconformity, and infantile hang-overs–to sell products? Specifically, what are the ethics of businesses that shape campaigns designed to thrive on these weaknesses they have diagnosed?

What is the morality of manipulating small children even before they reach the age where they are legally responsible for their actions?

What is the morality of treating voters like customers, and child customers seeking father images at that?

What is the morality of exploiting our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes?

What is the morality of appealing for our charity by playing upon our secret desires for self-enhancement?

What is the morality of developing in the public an attitude of wastefulness toward national resources by encouraging the “psychological obsolescence” of products already in use?

What is the morality of subordinating truth to cheerfulness in keeping the citizen posted on the state of his nation?

I would never have encountered that passage without a special interest in the history of psychoanalysis. Avoiding CBT was one of my goals when I sought out therapy. Stuart Schneiderman explained the sentiment I had perfectly, in Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero.

When it came to saying something about the reasons that lead a person to do a psychoanalysis, Lacan knew that it was not the wish to be normal, not the wish to be informed of the latest experimental results or the wish to adapt to the environment or the wish to have another caring and concerned friend, that led people to his door…

When psychology defines normal stages of human development and when therapists attempt to make sense of their patients’ experience by referring them to some putative normality, what they are doing is finding a convenient place for their patients within the concept they have of humanity. They teach their patients to identify with mankind. This is another identification that patients in analysis do not seek and should not be encouraged to develop. Such an identification is nothing more or less than the repression of subjectivity, of personal style, of quirks and idiosyncrasies.

People who present themselves for psychoanalysis are…alienated because they have had a taste of something else, and once they have had that experience the norm does not seem to be worth the bother. Analysands, and not only Lacanians, often say that they do not want to become part of normal life because it strikes them as insufferably boring. Their problem is not that they are alienated from the norm, but that they have considerable difficulty in dealing with normal people…

A person who sees an analyst is seeking a therapist who will not meddle in his life. Paradoxical as it may seem, the analysand is not looking for advice about how to live his life; he does not want to know what the analyst would do in the same situation, and he does not expect the analyst to be his friend or confidant. Basically, the analysand wants his analyst to mind his own business, to be interested in the things that concern him, directly or indirectly. And the analyst’s business is the transference.

The reason that anyone consults a mental health professional is suffering. What he asks for is relief from this suffering; his demand is for a cure. Lacan, who was so meticulous in distinguishing demand from desire, said that what he demands is surely not what he wants…The question of the beginning of a psychoanalysis is whether the analyst accepts or refuses the patient’s suffering…Suffering…is not a foreign element in the patient’s life, but essential to the patient’s existence. Suffering is the existence the neurotic knows and is not something to be rejected as sick, therefore only valid as it gives the therapist an occasion to practice his trade.

Lacan: “It’s enough for someone to make an effort to speak truly for that to bother everyone.” “Psychology has found a way to outlive itself by providing services to the technocracy.” Bruce Fink in Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique:

It seems hardly coincidental that it is at the very moment in history at which we have become highly attuned to the differences in perspective that arise from people’s different sexual, racial, religious, cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds, highly attuned to the way people’s experience of the world and of themselves is affected by their origins, language, and social milieu, which in turn determines their views of reality (this attunement leading to an epistemological standpoint known as perspectivism, or perspectivalism, which postulates that there is no such thing as knowledge that is context-free, or perspective-free), that norms and normalization have become so important in psychology and psychoanalysis….

This division [high vs. low functioning] also involves an implicit assumption that the patient should be able to operate well in society, whether that society endorses laissez-faire capitalism or is a dictatorship, whether it is a welfare state or a police state. What might it mean to function at a high level in a society that systematically persecutes a portion of the population? to be fortunate enough to be one of the persecutors, not one of the persecuted, and to follow persecutory orders when they are given? What might it mean to function at a high level in a society where the winners are those most adept at cutthroat competition? to stab others in the back and beat everyone at his own game? Although these might strike some readers as extreme cases, both could be said to characterize American society in certain ways, and I suspect that most clinicians, regardless of their political leanings, would agree that society abounds in injustices on larger and smaller scales. Perhaps it would be quite sensible to function poorly within an unjust society or a society whose injustices tend to target people like oneself!

And sometimes we’re just perseverating because of prefrontal impairments.  It’s that always going with social instincts is also an unbalanced way to make decisions.  The prefrontal cortex inhibits things top-down.  “Suppresses prepotent responses.”  Anatomically, it’s the main thing that’s different about human brains.  Behaving unnaturally is essentially human, in a sense.  The Republican Party is what happens when you take the brakes off the worst of human nature.   I should not be in charge of entertaining people.  But look what happens when the entertainment industry is in charge of politics.