The following post is an invited contribution by Pól Rua, comic book expert and internet personality from Brisbane, Australia. This was originally a Facebook post by Pól on his own personal page, but it struck me as so concise and eloquent that I felt it needed a wider audience and would be instructive to many of my fellow Autistics who struggle with Theory of Mind (ToM) and other issues. It certainly resonated with me, and I hope it will prove illuminating to our readers. It took me many years to reach many of Pól’s conclusions on my own, which I’ve also been sharing in limited personal ways with other Aspies in recent months. The post below was written in the context of #gamergate and other hot button headlines of the present moment in late 2014, but I feel it has wider applicability and is worth sharing in full below. With Pól’s permission, I have reposted it here. Without further ado, I present to you Mr. Pól Rua’s essay.
By Pól Rua.
Two things I just wanna say on the topic of gender politics* that I’ve been butting up against a fair bit lately.
1. Everyone saw that video on street harassment and I heard from a bunch of people. “Hey, some of those guys were probably just being friendly. Why is it automatically harassment?”
This is one of those areas where Feminism can seem hostile to men, but it’s chiefly a failure of communication.
The idea you need to get your head around is that Your Intentions Don’t Matter.
It’s like racism. If you call someone on racist behaviour, they’ll often come back with, “But I’m not a racist. Anyone who knows me can tell you that.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Your intentions could be good, bad or indifferent. Nobody knows. Nobody can read your mind.
What matters is your behaviour. What you say, and what you do.
The problem is that some people, when called on their behaviour, will get aggrieved. Nobody wants to be the bad guy, and sometimes, if someone calls you on offensive behaviour, it can seem like they’re passing judgment on you.
As a result, we get pissed off. Nobody wants to be accused of being something they feel they’re not. Especially when they didn’t mean anything by what they said or did.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. Now, consider what you did from the other person’s point of view for a second. They don’t know you. They can’t read your mind. They don’t know what your motivations or intentions are. All they can go on is what you said, and what you did, and how it looked from their perspective.
So maybe they’re NOT saying, “You’re an arsehole.” Maybe what they’re saying is, “I feel uncomfortable with that, could you please stop it.”
It’s at THIS point that your intentions, and how you act on them become important.
2. Some people can speak with more authority on certain topics than others.
If a professional guitarist is talking, and my musical experience is limited to Guitar Hero (and even then, only while I’m REALLY drunk), I’m prepared to concede that what they’re saying carries more weight than mine on the topic of writing, playing and performing music.
I know it’s tempting to think that everyone’s opinions are like beautiful, glorious snowflakes of wonderment, but the simple fact is that some people know what they’re talking about based on knowledge, learning and experience, and other people are talking out their arse to a greater or lesser extent.
So when a woman (hell, a bunch of women) tells you what her day-to-day life experience is like, what’s so difficult about considering that maybe they know more about what they’re talking about than you do?
I keep hearing, “Okay, I get it, because I have a dick, I’m wrong!”
No, because you’re not a woman, you’re probably not as aware of what a woman experiences from day-to-day as a woman does.
This is no more a value judgment than a guitarist telling Mister Guitar Hero that maybe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on the topic of shredding a tasty lick on a sweet Les Paul Special.
The thing that both of these miscommunications have in common is that I used to have them ALL THE DAMN TIME. I got angry at feminists for accusing me of shit that I didn’t do, and I got frustrated because it seemed like nothing I could do was right.
And it’s not about that. It’s about the fact that what women experience from a really early age is different to what men experience, and that, when you grow up entirely surrounded by something, it’s easy to not even question it, much less imagine yourself outside of it.
That’s how privilege works. Frequently you can get the impression that some people thing it’s a magic key that opens every door and transports you to a magic kingdom of wishes, but it’s not. It’s like oxygen. You can’t see it, and the only time it becomes really obvious is when you don’t have it.
(* – the other thing that most of them have in common is that they’re not just applicable to gender politics. The first one’s just as easy to apply to racism or religious bigotry, and the second one… well, try reading the letters to the editor in the Courier-Mail for a big helping of that one.)
So yeah, I know this is a long, rambly thing, but I remember being a big schmuck about this sort of shit (and in a LOT of ways, I still am… like REALLY) and it wasn’t because I was trying to be an arsehole (though there’s that point 1 again), but I was certainly acting like one to those around me.
Pól’s insights above may be tough hear and accept but I think they’re valid. We Aspies are in the unenviable position of being frequently misunderstood because of our quirky behavior and feel wounded when judged harshly by a hostile Neurotypical-majority world. We want to protest that our intentions were totally pure and we’ve been misjudged and that we want acceptance & understanding of our divergent neurology and behavior. But Pól, I believe, though discussing a different social issue, does offer up a reality check for us to consider. At the risk of sounding like I’m preaching a kind of respectability politics for the ASD community, we Aspies do need to guide each other in best practices. I’ve had to stress to more than one fellow Aspie that although you may know you’re being completely innocent, even naive in asking certain questions, or discussing certain topics that interest you with robust frankness, you can’t assume, it is unwarranted to assume, that everyone sees a certain situation exactly the same as you, a trap far too many Aspies seem to fall into. You know you don’t mean anything by X, but there’s no way for your NT interlocutor to KNOW that. You need to pause and consider that before blurting out X out of the blue. Neurotypical persons seem to have an better innate sense of appropriateness in social situations, read social cues better, etc. These don’t come naturally to an ASD person, and we have to exert the cognitive effort to build the little “brain macros” necessary to navigate certain social situations.
Nobody can read your mind; you will, guaranteed, feel a certain frustration when exculpatory matter falls into a seeming epistemological black hole. Making as few assumptions as possible and talking it out civilly are a way forward, of sorts.
Very recently I was on a trip to a nearby coastal island city (Galveston) that was hosting an Anime convention. I was standing in line at MacDonalds after a long day at the convention. I was still wearing my Star Trek TOS Science officer regalia, and with my friend who is also in our adult Asperger’s support group. There were two black men in front of us, one in his thirties, the other in his twenties. The older man turned to me and began speaking to me, leading with the question “Are you from the Island?”. I’ve lived in Galveston before, where I worked briefly as a librarian for a local branch of a major state university located there. I knew from that experience that “BOI” (“Born on the Island”) is a local “thing”, which some native Galvestonians take great pride in. But considering that much of Galveston’s economy is based on tourism, and considering the admittedly weird clothes I had on, the man’s question struck me as strange. It took me a split second to parse his accent and also the (to me) unusual/strange nature of the question…not wanting to ignore him, I blurted out a “No!” probably a little too nervously/loudly. Plus also I recognized that I myself was feeling a bit defensive in full nerd gear, wary of being belittled or mocked. The man was disappointed by my seemingly frightened response, which he interpreted me as being white, uptight, and probably racist. He muttered something about “Relax, we’re just black dudes, we’re not gonna kill nobody”. He shook his head in disgust, gave his companion a knowing look, and when they received their food order, they decided to get it “to go”, and left. I was, in fact, not fearful of them based on their race. I didn’t find them particularly intimidating or “scary”. I was simply baffled by the odd lead question as I was not expecting it, and because, as an ASD person, it may take me a bit longer to process something someone has said, but at the same time feeling ancy because I took too long it looks like I’m just ignoring him, I made the gaffe of blurting out a nervous “No!”; But I’m not angry this gentleman probably wrote me off as another jumpy white racist with an irrational fear of black people, because for all he could observe, that’s exactly what I looked like. And given the context of 2014, with #Ferguson still seared on the national consciousness, and with the Zimmerman acquittal still fresh on everyone’s minds, I totally get where the man was coming from. The fact that he was wrong about my actual inner thoughts is largely irrelevant. The fact that I view the killing of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin as horrific, racist miscarriages of justice myself, also irrelevant in the given context. I can’t perform a Vulcan Mind Meld on the spot to show the man “No, I don’t have a paranoid fear of black people and indeed feel myself in solidarity with black Americans and disgusted by the lingering racism of my country”. It’s simply a tragic miscommunication. If I were younger and less reflective, I might’ve gotten pissed off at the insinuation that I have a paranoid fear of black people, but because I can take a wider view, and consider his point of view as well, I have no chip on my shoulder from the incident, merely a sense of profound sadness at our failure to communicate. If he had asked me about why I was dressed that way, or if he had asked about the convention, say, I would’ve been happy to tell him. But because I was not expecting the question he did ask, I was caught flat-footed and blurted out my response in a manner indistinguishable from someone who might harbor a paranoid fear of black people.
It simply is the way it is, and the best I can do is simply learn from the experience and endeavor to do better, and try to make as few assumptions as possible.