My evolving views on gender

A few years ago, one of my friends came out on social media as nonbinary, and I handled it like a boomer. I thought about it like a boomer too. I didn’t get it. If someone who is clearly a man tells me they’re a woman, I just couldn’t believe them. Men and women look different, and you are what you look like, right?

I was wrong. There are trans women who look like my definition of women, and there are trans men who look like my definition of men. So maybe as long as you pass, your gender identity is valid.

I was wrong again. Why should the feelings of people who can look a certain way count more than the feelings of people who can’t? I struggled with the idea for a long time, and during that time, I refrained from saying anything about it. Instead, I listened to what other people had to say. I especially listened to the voices of trans and nonbinary people and those who were where I wanted to be with it. I wanted to understand and accept what allowed others to be at peace with their gender identities and the gender identities of others.

The first message that really started to get through to me was that people who deny the stated gender identities of other people are jerks. That’s what shut me up about my opinions on the matter. I knew that whatever I had to say about it would out me as a jerk. I knew this from experience too, as it drove away one of my friends whom I should have been supporting. I wanted to be a good person, not a bad one.

Then it occurred to me that I’m nobody special. Who am I to decide what a man or a woman is? I don’t have the authority to tell someone else how to live their life or what to call themselves. And when I gatekeep people’s gender, I’m not just being a jerk, but I’m also contributing to the voices in the world that drive so many to suicide.

Seeing the ways different men, including myself, express their masculinity revealed to me that it really is a spectrum. Right-wing pundit Matt Walsh can grow a beard, wear flannel shirts, and speak with an artificially deepened voice (he might not do the last one), but there’s something about him that is just “girlier” than Dwayne Johnson. That femininity isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of who Matt is, and it’s unfortunate that he’s so ashamed of it.

When I look at my own expressions of gender, there are areas where I am more feminine than masculine. I spend a good portion of every day telling my dogs what cute babies they are in the cutesiest voice I can muster. It’s extremely satisfying. Femininity is a source of strength. Don’t let anybody tell you different. It’s what drives me to forge connections with other people, and it’s what makes other people open up to me so that I get to know them on a deep level very quickly.

But as often as I’ve found success in my relationships, I’ve also failed. Arrogance, quickness to anger, and pride have burned many social bridges in my life. I’m glad to say that my attitude regarding gender identity has improved greatly. I don’t mean for this to be all about me. I want for it to be about the conclusions I’ve drawn by observing and listening to others.

A woman is a person who identifies as a woman. A man is a person who identifies as a man. It doesn’t matter what genitals they have, what clothes they wear, what genes they have, whether they can impregnate or be impregnated, how they identified in the past, or how anybody feels when they look at them. It doesn’t even matter if they are a nice person. Every gender is valid, and there are more than two of them.

Being an employee blows sometimes

Since November of last year (2021), I’ve been working for a nonprofit organization that seeks to take creative people on the autism spectrum and teach them technical skills so they can use their creativity to land a job. Another of the organization’s goals is to show employers what kind of environment is most conducive to the care and maintenance of their autistic employees. At first, I was going to head up their media team, which makes promotional videos and other media to generate funds for the organization, but that didn’t really work out. I never really felt “in charge” of it, and there was already someone there who was much better suited to that who finally stepped up.

Seeing how well I work with my two stepsons, the boss put me in charge of the internship program. Part of being in charge was creating the program from the ground up. The interns would be unpaid, but we were open to taking in anyone on the autism spectrum who had aptitude for and interest in supplementing their creative skills with technical skills just like I’ve done.

But that didn’t really pan out either. I was recently told that budget issues meant the company was going to focus on the revenue-generating media team and drop the internship program because it wasn’t getting the grants that the boss was hoping for. It makes sense to me, since we only really had one intern. The only person getting paid was me, which made it too expensive to keep running.

What I should have done is get them to guarantee me a certain number of hours. I was willing to accept $16 an hour because the hours were steady. Now that they’ve been ripped away, I see that they could have always been ripped away. I was always at their mercy. The same is true of everyone who works as someone’s employee. I thought it would be different working for a nonprofit organization, but it all came down to how much money I’m bringing into the company. In the end, money mattered more than I did.

Trying stuff

I got my first job when I was 16. I worked at Whataburger, and overall, I hated it. I felt trapped when I was there, and I hated being in a position where I had to do whatever someone else told me. In the vast majority of the jobs I’ve had since then, it only got worse, especially when I was pressured to make sales.

I had more than a dozen jobs here and there until I was about 27 or 28, and it wasn’t just the jobs themselves that made me miserable. It was having to always have a job and thinking that that was just going to be my life. It made me unhappy, and it turned me into a paranoid narcissist. The only escape I had was believing that I was special and the world was trying to keep me down.

After Hollywood Video died and my job there died with it, I gave up on that kind of job. I could no longer even bring myself to fill out a job application. I still can’t. My girlfriend, Michelle, encouraged me to get my official autism diagnosis so I could get on disability for the freedom to explore what I wanted to do, and it has been so much better.

Now I have a number of different projects I’m working on, and though I haven’t struck gold with anything yet, I’m enjoying these beginnings of my journey to success.

Feeling sad and anxious

Feeling sad because one of my best friends and fellow authors here is having to move out of state very soon and I will be losing a fellow Aspie who loves foreign languages and linguistics as much as I do and shares the same passion for Japanese anime that I do as well.  I know he will be happy, because he will be moving to be closer to his online soulmate and fellow Aspie who is also his girlfriend.  But I can’t help feel personally depressed because his and her gain also entails my loss.  We’ll stay in touch via Facebook of course, but it’s not the same…

Also feeling anxious because I’m gunning for a promotion at work and I don’t know if I’ll get it or not.  It would be mostly a good thing if I did get it, but it would also mean leaving the comfortable rut I’m currently in.  It would mean learning a whole lot of new techniques and procedures, lots of homework, lots of library literature reading & study and then applying what I’ve read on the job day in, day out, trial and error.  All to the good but still formidable and anxiety-producing just to think about.

But at least I would cease being “under-employed” if the promotion is granted.  So at least there’s that.


ASD activism in the Era of Trump OR goddamn I’m an asshole sometimes even when trying to do good.

So I got into a kind of pointless Twitter fight with a well known Houston area ASD activist and radio host who had commented on his Twitter feed how he would re-tweet more political activist calls to action if the emphasis wasn’t always on “calling” because there are many ASD people who “just can’t” do that.

I responded, by way of explanation, that the emphasis on calling is there because that’s objectively the most effective form of activism; that congressional staffs prioritize phone calls over any other form of communication.

At first the host pushed back and said calling wasn’t effective for certain segments of our community and why shouldn’t they communicate by other means that they were more comfortable with?  I responded that by all means writing or faxing or emailing was better than doing nothing at all, but reiterated that CALLING was what mattered because TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE right now.

I guess I was growing short with this radio personality because try as I might, I’m a political liberal under a lot of stress right now and kind of an asshole in spite of myself, and because I feel passionately the urgency of the present moment.

And because frankly sometimes my patience wears a little thin for the perpetual “victim” identity we ASD people sometimes cloak ourselves in from time to time.  Unless you’re LITERALLY NONVERBAL, calling is something YOU CAN DO.  Does it suck?  Yes.  Do I hate it personally?  Yes.  Does it trigger severe anxiety for ME?  Yes!!  But does my life and the other lives of autistics literally depend on it!?  GODDAMN YES IT DOES.  I need every autistic who is NOT NONVERBAL to reach deep within themselves, overcome their fear and anxiety, USE A PRE-PRINTED SCRIPT IF AVAILABLE(!) and goddamn call your political representatives in Washington and Austin.  Write a letter if you want to (it will arrive too late to be effective and you’ll get a polite form letter back), email if you want to (will be deleted unread) or FAX THEM (will get tossed in the trash)….they CAN’T ignore your calls.  If you can’t bear to talk to another human, call them AFTER HOURS AND LEAVE A VOICEMAIL at the very least.  That’s literally the least you could do.

Twitter is a shitty forum for intimate communications, and the 140 character limit was getting old fast, and because both the radio host and myself are stubborn Aspies, we both wanted to get in the last word and prove our respective points.  I realized we were talking past each other and not really in fundamental disagreement.  Our main point of disagreement was over the whole “I can’t call” argument.  In the words of Barack Obama, YES WE CAN.  Unless you’re literally NONVERBAL I’m not particularly interested in excuses not to.  In normal times I’d have a lot more empathy for this kind of reticence and fear…but these are not normal times and COURAGE is needed.  COURAGE is not FEARLESSNESS.  It’s acknowledging your fear and terror, BUT GOING AHEAD AND DOING THE THING ANYWAY.  I feel like a Russian commissar at Stalingrad jabbing a PPSH in the back of a frightened, unarmed Soviet private without a rifle and urging him to charge the Nazis…because if he doesn’t were potentially all dead.

I’ve also been going back and forth about the whole “punch a Nazi” debate.  While I don’t think I could ever do it unless in physical defense of my own person in reaction to a punch thrown at me, I’m not unsympathetic to the antifa activist position.  The NeoNazis use what are arguably “fighting words” then act all shocked and surprised that people want to fight them.  And I’m very moved the the words of philosopher Karl Popper who once wrote:

“Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

–Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol. 1. (1945)

I do believe there are certain kinds of speech, based on content, that are simply beyond the pale.  And while it may be correct for the government to refrain from an outright prohibition on such speech, I can’t fault activists for responding to such horrific speech with catcalls, rotten tomatoes, creampies to the face, seltzer water sprays to the speaker’s groin, etc. and for such “offenders” to have an affirmative defense against prosecution by the democratic state on the grounds that they were provoked/incited to violence by the “fighting words” of the speakers.  I might shy away from outright punching Nazis myself, but I might cram a cream pie in their face or hit them with a harmless water balloon from a distance.  I also think it’s non-controversial to state that actual Nazis enacting actual Nazi policies ought to be shot with tanks, just like in the bad old days in the early 1940s.

Maybe I should be more forgiving of fellow ASD people who just can’t bring themselves to make that phone call to congress, and I apologize for being offensive as fuck and insensitive on this point.  If you’re NONVERBAL I’m not talking about you.  Do what you can.  I’m an asshole, even when I try not to be.  But what I am saying is, you are capable of more than you might think possible, and if you can in any way at all, please reach deep down inside yourself, get outside your comfort zone and do something amazing as if your life depended on it BECAUSE GODDAMN IT FUCKING DOES.

To all ASD People who are out there being active online and on the phone and fighting for your rights, bless you and thank you.  I wish I was more like you myself.  And I’m under no illusion that part of the anger in this post is anger at my own impotence and inaction heretofore.  More than usual, these times we live in make me want to crawl under a rock and die of embarrassment.  Japanese anime is a lifeline but also a distraction.  It keeps me distracted and entertained but is also a modality of self-care.  I hate the times we’re in because of the added stress and anxiety it causes and makes me even get into heated arguments with friends and allies over strategy and approaches.

All I can do is urge people to #RESIST , by whatever means they can.


A familiar sadness

I confessed this at our last adult support group briefly but I just wanted to put my thoughts and feelings down here as well.

One of my favorite “me” time activities each week, besides watching anime after dark by myself, is to treat myself to lunch out on Saturdays then afterwards enjoy a few adult beverages at the local BJ’s Brewhouse while listening to my favorite lefty political podcasts and maybe a little Celtic music.  I’ve known a fair number of the bartenders that work there; a good many still do.  Recently one of the floor waitresses was promoted to bartender and she began serving me regularly at my preferred times.  She claimed to have known I was a regular customer from when she was a floor waitress.  She was amiable and friendly but unlike any other bartender before or since, also very talkative as well.  She went above and beyond and really, in her interactions, I could swear she was being downright flirty with me.  Of course, I can’t trust my instincts in real time…and I don’t want to be one of THOSE Aspies who mistakes mere professional courtesy as actual interest.  So I err to the extreme the other way….and completely distrust my own instincts that signal me that someone is genuinely flirting with me.  I did engage in friendly banter, but I also had mixed feelings since the reason I came to that particular establishment was to zone out and listen to news and music, not engage in casual conversation.  She was a short, really attractive Latina with dark black hair and medium brown skin tone, Mexican-American, early 20s, with no discernible accent in English.  We chatted amicably each time I paid a visit, and I tipped her well.  I would discount my own perception that this young woman was attracted to me with the cynical judgement that she was only interested in my tipping her well, which of course I always did.  She would complain to me about having to close the night before and how exhausted and or bored she was having to get up so early to work Saturdays as well.  She lived in a suburb where a lot of my other friends live, some distance to the north, but her parents live around here and so she continued to work in this location instead of the franchise location in her home suburb.  We chatted about shows we were watching on TV and Netflix.  She wasn’t very familiar with anime, sadly, so I didn’t talk her ear off about it out of respect.

But life intervenes, and I couldn’t manage to make it to BJ’s *every* Saturday, though I did try.  And moreover, I think she grew frustrated and bored with my lack of initiative or real response to her flirtation.  Eventually she mentioned having a boyfriend, having to introduce said boyfriend to her parents, etc.  Our conversations tapered off and eventually she stopped working the shift coinciding with Saturday lunches altogether.  I was quite sad to see her go.  From the start I would write flirty little messages on the receipts I signed after paying my tab, though I don’t know if she ever noticed.  Or even if she did, it wasn’t enough of a positive response to hold her interest.

I did vaguely contemplate asking her if she wanted to go out for coffee after her shift at the local Cafe Minuti and continue our conversations there, but I never did.  I guess there was an optimal point at some point (which clearly whizzed past me imperceptibly) when I should’ve popped this question and seen if there was any genuine interest or would she beg off with some polite excuse or rebuke me gently or whatever.  Maybe it would’ve went nowhere anyway.  But I can’t help feeling like I missed a genuine shot at relationship because I lacked the courage and savvy to pursue it.  And also, because of my low self esteem, I was wracked with self-doubt that an attractive early 20-something female could possibly be attracted to a highly intelligent but slightly obese man in his mid 40s with a receding hairline.  I felt (wrongly?) that this couldn’t possibly be real.  But the fact that she changed her shift, perhaps to avoid me now that she was in a (new?) relationship is a clue that maybe there was genuine interest there for a span of time that I failed to requite.  Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time in my romantic history.

I really liked this woman, had the most intense, fulfilling fantasies thinking about her, enjoyed seeing her face, hearing her voice….imagining her kisses, her ample bosom pressed up against my chest, etc. (Short but busty girls are an incredible turn-on for me).

But now those fantasies are transformed into memories twinged with sadness and regret for the road not taken.  I also held back because around that time there was an article circulating on Facebook taking men to task for flirting with waitresses and other service industry people “who are paid to be nice to you”.  I was convinced this woman was just being nice….but in truth that one can only perceive in hindsight, she was qualitatively different in her interactions with me than any other bartender before or since.

She will never read this, of course….but if she could, I would tell her I am deeply very sorry for not responding adequately to her flirtations.  I deeply appreciate her doing so with me; I’m flattered she felt it was even worth the effort.  I’m flattered she found me attractive enough to try.  It should be a boost to my ego that a beautiful 20-something woman found something attractive she liked and wanted in 40-ish me.  And it does, but it’s twinged with sadness now.

I loved having a younger, vivacious wife and would welcome a younger girlfriend like her, too…full of energy and life.  Making love to younger women makes me feel young too…just like I suppose my making love to a woman in her 40s when I was still in my mid 30s made her feel young again as well.  That was my first girlfriend after my divorce was finalized, indeed my only girlfriend to date since my divorce.  I’m saddened that I seem to have missed a chance for a 2nd girlfriend….I’ve had two very pretty Latina girlfriends at different, earlier stages of my life…a Mexican-American and a Ecuadorian/Brazillian-American (the latter was born in Ecuador but grew up for a long stint of her childhood in Brazil and felt more love for Brazil and its culture than her native Ecuador, but by the time we met she was thoroughly Americanized).  I also remember a very curious conversation I had with a dental hygienist when I was still just a teenager and basically she confessed to being really attracted to me and that if she were a few years younger or I were a few years older she would totally “go after” me.  I wonder if she ever fantasized about me the way I fantasized about the girls I liked at the time….I remember she was good looking but kind of spunky and tomboyish, with a short brunette hairstyle.  I also remember being stunned by her confession and not quite sure how to respond other than to stammer out a confused thank you.  I was probably around 17 or so and she must’ve been in her early to mid 20s.

I’m grateful that some women found me attractive in my youth, but good looks can only take you so far when you have a clueless Aspie brain running the show.  I joked that if only this bartender had come equipped with a bullhorn on the loudest setting with feedback and spoke into it I AM ACTUALLY GENUINELY FLIRTING WITH YOU; ASK ME OUT ALREADY.  I LIKE YOUR TIPS BUT I GENUINELY WANT YOUR BOD.  THIS IS NOT A JOKE.  Maybe just maybe I would’ve gotten the hint.


Anyway, been thinking maybe I should change up my Saturday routine a bit, stop hanging around that old haunt where my chance at new love died and just move on to new horizons for now.  Seems a little morose to keep waiting at a place where you know that person isn’t ever going to return….like Hatchiko waiting for his dead master at the train station year after year.  It’s just too sad.


Describe Yourself in 3 fictional Characters

I know this is mostly a Facebook meme, but I liked it as a thought experiment enough to reproduce it here.  Of course, I cheated a little bit, and did it twice, but I had good reasons for doing so.  I described my “outer self” first, the version of me I turn outward to the world, and only later did I upload the 3 characters who represent the “inner” me, beyond my flinty exterior, the “real” me, the deeper me I share with close friends and fellow Aspies whom I trust.  All human beings do this to an extent, of course, but for most Aspies, it is an important defense mechanism and a survival tool.  It’s not as though the exterior is “fake” and the inside is the genuine article.  Not at all.  They’re all facets of my personality, all genuine, and I cherish them all, too.

My “outer” personality is represented thusly:

Probably best captured by (upper left) Bernard Black (Black Books), (upper right) Rodney McKay (Stargate Atlantis), and (bottom) Chika Oguie (Genshiken). They don’t suffer fools gladly, are slightly neurotic, constantly annoyed, are fiercely intelligent and can be kind of an asshole yet also full of self-loathing at times.

Bernard Black, of the eponymous BBC comedy series Black Books, a misanthropic bookseller, London. As masterfully portrayed by Irish stand-up comic Dylan Moran, who I strongly suspect poured a good deal of his own heart & soul into the writing of this character. He’s a highly literate fop, disinterested in actually running a successful business, and mostly hates people, especially his own customers. An angry, moody Irishman living in central London.

Dr. Rodney McKay, Stargate Atlantis. Brilliant scientist, not so brilliant at dealing with other people. Probably the least polite Canadian character in all TV fiction.

Chika Ogiue, of the anime Genshiken. Backwards country girl trying to forget her humble origins. She proclaims to “hate otaku” but actively is one….which means she’s in denial about her own self-hatred and self-loathing. She’s frequently angry, especially with stupid people who annoy her, and is sometimes even unexpectedly violent. She has to learn to love herself before she can fall in love with anyone else.

The trio of fictional characters representing the “inner” me, however, are very different.  These I mostly kept hidden from strangers and the hostile outside world.  This is the me behind closed doors witnessed only by close friends, former lovers, etc.  Keeping them below the surface is a matter of protecting myself from emotional harm, etc.

Thus unguarded me is more like these chosen three: (top left) Haruyuki Arita (有田 春雪 Arita Haruyuki), the pudgy but lovable unlikely hero of the anime Accel World, then (top right) Charlie Brown, then lastly (bottom) Hoban “Wash” Washburne of Firefly / Serenity fame, especially for his free spirited “goofball” side. Only people that get to know me really well learn just what a zany goofball I can be in my unguarded, more relaxed moments.  Arita because I’m sensitive about my usual condition of being slightly obese.  But also because Arita possesses an inner strength, resolve, and beauty.  In the digital world he is represented by the Avatar “Silver Crow” and becomes the main hero of Accel World, and wins the love & admiration of a beautiful princess who sees his inner beauty and accepts him for who he is in the real world as well..  Charlie Brown because I’m honest to a fault and kind of an overgrown boy scout.  Semi-autobiographical with his creator Charles Shultz, I also have a “little red haired girl” of unrequited love in my past as well (though in my case it was High School and she was a blue eyed brunette); “Wash” is the pilot of the good ship Serenity and the above picture is my favorite scene with this character, an unguarded moment where he is playing with a pair of toy dinosaurs.  “Wash” is married to first officer Zoe, a veteran of war and a capable black woman.  I myself an very attracted to Latinas and Asian women.  This goofy “me” really surprised my ex-wife, since I only felt comfortable letting my guard down and letting her see it after we were already romantic partners.  But outer me is still me, still a part of me 24-7, and I’d feel incomplete without those aspects of my personality.  Leave it to an Aspie to overthink a “fun” Facebook meme, but whatever, this is my (shared) blog space and I thought it was interesting enough to share with our readers as well….


Some days I struggle…

Some days I just struggle mightily just to NOT be an asshole.

I don’t suffer fools gladly, and sometimes I go off on people in ways I later regret.

Some days it’s a struggle just not to be an asshole.  Or at the very least stick to my resolution to only use my assholery for good.

Taking a compliment from someone gracefully is sometimes the hardest thing for me.

Someone PM’ed me once with the concluding remark “…I think you’re awesome!”

And it took every fiber of my being to resist replying with “LOL, I think you misspelled ‘asshole’.” (that’s how deep my self-loathing runs sometimes).

Someone asked in an anime group on Facebook that I belong to which anime character of a gender different from my own that I identify with most strongly.  I only had to think about it for a few seconds before I had my answer:  Chika Oguie (of the Genshiken franchise)….

She’s always angry at stupid people, feels acutely embarrassed about her past and her unsophisticated rural upbringing; she’s incredibly talented but also feels great shame.  She claims to hate all otaku but skips over the fact that she is one, which means she feels intense, intense self-loathing.

When I first saw her in the Genshiken series, it was love at first sight.


Empathy vs. the Free Rider problem

After having finished my friend Michelle Vines’s memoir, Asperger’s on the Inside, which I then reviewed on and Goodreads, and after listening to Mike Aus’s community moment talk on cultivating empathy this morning, I’ve been motivated to gather my thoughts together and write down a few coherent paragraphs on what I see as the tension between social group enforcement of punishing and excluding perceived “free riders” and how the quick and overzealous enforcement of this social more runs counter to basic empathy and assumes a base equality among members that may be more convenient fiction than measurable reality.

This is a somewhat controversial point and I’ve found myself disagreeing even with my own family members on this topic.  The “Free Rider problem” is a real problem in the world of economics and much government policy is formulated as a way to manage if not completely solve it.  I won’t go into a detailed explanation of it, but there exists a more lay understanding of the Free Rider problem that I will outline in brief.  In any voluntary social group of even quite modest size, it is assumed by default to be a society of equals, for the sake of simplicity, and as such, everyone is expected to “pull their own weight”, metaphorically speaking.  When one or more members fail to “pull their own weight”, and are perceived to accrue more benefits from group participation whilst not contributing equal work & responsibility to maintaining the group and its primary function, this is where the “Free Rider problem” begins to emerge as a potential threat to the long term sustainability of the group, at least in theory.  It is often feared, and not without some justification, that a domino effect will result, with other members feeling empowered to pull back their contributions as well, while accruing the same level of benefits.  Why work hard to sustain the group when others will put in the hard work and I can reap the benefit without having to contribute my fair share of the work?  In most social groups of the smallest size, “Free Riders” tend to be punished immediately and excluded, with the other members feeling quite justified in “circling the wagons” and kicking out the offender who is often castigated as being “lazy” and must be made an example of to deter other would-be “Free Riders”.

This all works out in theory, and could even be considered a just outcome most regard as intuitively correct, in an ideal world.  But the truth is, we don’t live in ideal world, we live in the real world, and in the real world, a society of equals is merely a theoretical construct for the sake of convenience and may not be a wholly justified assumption when actual facts about the world are brought to bear on the question.  Some members may have more significant socio-economic or neurological challenges than others and as such are victims of subtle, unspoken inequalities, and as such may simply be incapable of contributing equally to a group endeavor as much as other members do and think the “offender” should.  Thus sometimes the most needy members who would benefit the most from a social group’s common endeavors get excluded because they’re perceived as not being “team players” and “not contributing their fair share” to the group’s mission and get judged as being merely “lazy”, without regard to any actual consideration of the individual’s actual capacity to participate, without consideration of real, existing inequalities between voluntary members.  Such policing of group norms tends to be reflexive, harsh, and immediate, and the enforcers of this rigid “equality”of participation often feel quite self-righteously justified in their exclusion and “otherization” of the “offender” for their failure to “carry their own weight”.  To use a crude but direct analogy, it would be as if a team of body builders, who can easily bench press 200 LBS would punish a 90 LBS *person* who is only able to bench press 50 LBS safely for not being able to bench press the 200 LBS normal average managed by the other members.  Never mind that the 90 LBS weakling still benefits greatly from the opportunity to participate and enjoys a greater quality of life from participation, because they can’t “pull their own weight”, metaphorically speaking in general, or literally in this example, they find themselves excluded.  On a competitive team where the objective is winning weightlifting competitions, such exclusion could yet be justified.  But if the group objective is simply to promote body health generally, then the exclusion seems arbitrary and absurd and is exposed as more than a little cruel as well.  Whilst the example above is absurd on the face of it because of being so literal, it is not so far removed from real world situations where equal participation in the workload is considered the price of admission, so to speak.

In larger, more formal organizations, such as State and National Library Associations, which I have held memberships in my past, “ability to pay” was given consideration in terms of allocating membership dues.  There were differing tiers of membership created to take “ability to pay” into consideration.  Rather than charging a flat annual fee to all members, organizations like the Texas Library Association and American Library Association have variable membership dues.  Full time students are given the lowest annual fee to encourage participation by the up and coming generation of newest librarians.  Unemployed librarians and part-time library employees are also given much reduced rates to again encourage participation and remaining in touch with their fellow colleagues in the profession and perhaps through participation help with future job prospects as well.  There are also different tiers for membership based on full time employment, with due consideration given to a member’s annual salary.  A new librarian earning only $36,000 per year will be charged less for annual membership than a more experienced librarian earning $50,000 or more per year.

But when “ability to pay” is removed from the easily quantifiable realm of salary and adjustable fees and re-centered on more qualitative and subjective assessments like “level of participation”, or “work contributed to the overall effort”, people dislike dealing with such “squishy”, subjective measures and tend to default to a rigid “society of equals” assumption and impose a kind of cruel “flat tax” on participation that refuses any empathetic evaluation of true “ability to pay”…even by individuals who might otherwise understand and even endorse the basic justice of the variable tiers of membership dues in professional organizations based on income (or lack thereof).

I feel as though my friend Michelle Vines has fallen victim on multiple occasions to this kind of “flat tax” of equal participation and not been given any empathetic consideration of her reduced “ability to pay” given her different neurology and the challenges of being a mother of an autistic child herself.  Michelle simply does not have the same number of “energy tokens” to contribute to collective endeavors owing to her executive functioning challenges and other demands on her time, energy and sanity.  Thus she is regularly excluded from participation in social organizations that have otherwise dramatically improved her quality of life because she is unjustly, harshly and quickly judged as being someone who wants to get “something for nothing”, purely out of laziness rather than being a victim of inequality who lacks the ability to pay the “going rate” like other members with neurotypical brain function and a fuller command of effective executive functioning.  Reading Michelle’s own words, my heart ached for the injustices she’s suffered and indeed continues to suffer even to the present day in very specific instances of which I’m personally aware.

This failure to consider “ability to pay” for group participation in a voluntary association of free individuals is also on some level a failure of basic empathy.  A failure to realize that a truly empathic organization must expect and even tolerate a modicum of “Free riders” in any given endeavor, and that truly empathic members should be willing to carry those whose legs are broken or tired but who contribute to the group in other ways and make the organization better by their presence, even if their shared “workload” is perceived to be less than the average member.  This is easier to identify in the case of individuals with obvious physical disabilities such as being confined to a wheelchair, or the blind or the deaf.  But there exist cognitive disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders that are so called “invisible” disabilities insofar as one cannot tell simply by outward appearance that the individual in question has a disabling condition.  Accounting for these kinds of physical and mental inequalities among individuals and giving them due consideration falls in line with the kind of “nurturing parent” model common to political progressives, as theorized by linguist George Lakoff.

It is contrasted with the “strict father” morality model, also postulated by George Lakoff, found at the heart of modern political conservatism, the highly individualistic, pull-yourself-up by your own bootstraps mentality that is dubious of the efficacy or even the desirability of collective action.  These kinds of “rugged individual(ism)” types are the first to impose and rigidly enforce the “flat tax” of participation cost on actually unequal members.  For these kinds of “strict father morality” guided individuals, the only legitimate social model for collective action (if such a thing exists at all) is a voluntary association of a society of equals, where everyone pulls their own weight and slackers are marginalized and excluded without mercy.  The “Free rider problem” is thus regarded as an anathema to be policed against rigorously and harshly, rather than accepted as simply a cost of doing business to produce the greatest good for the greatest number and where “ability to pay” is given its actual due weight rather than simply assumed to be a priori equal.

Empathy can be cultivated through mental exercise, such as reading fiction or watching fictional narratives on television or in the cinema.  We first learn to empathize with fictional characters and this mental exercise begins to cultivate our empathic responses to flesh and blood individuals as well.  We learn (slowly) to be less judgemental and more understanding.  We tend to become more willing to deal with individuals as they are, where they are rather than as we might wish them to be or feel they ought to be.  In a society of such stark inequalities as our own, consideration of “ability to pay” is an ethical imperative.  It is no less an imperative when such cost considerations are shifted from quantitative measures to more subjective and qualitative ones.  It is a failure of imagination and empathy to mentally disconnect these two forms of “ability to pay” from ethical consideration, and a genuine flaw for any organization purporting to found itself on humanistic principles.