Guest post on gender politics, behavior and perception, by Pól Rua.

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.

English: One of the symbols of German Women's ...

English: One of the symbols of German Women’s movement (from the 1970s) Deutsch: Ein Logo der deutschen Frauenbewegung (aus den 70er Jahren) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

–redjohn1971

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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.

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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.

–redjohn1971

Just say no to anger

horribleletter

Whoever wrote this letter is obviously an extremely troubled individual.  It would be incredibly easy to get angry and start crying out for her to be punished for it, but decisions made in anger often lead to regret.  What kind of person thinks like this woman?  A miserable one.  She’s being punished already simply by living her life.  She won’t become a better person with the addition of more pain.

Many would say they don’t care about making her a better person.  They want her hurt to make them feel better.  Hurting someone else to feel better is what the writer of this letter did.  She thought that somebody deserved to be put through pain, so she lashed out just like you might be thinking about doing.

But there is a difference, you might say, between them.  The mother of the autistic boy did nothing to deserve punishment.  The letter writer would disagree.  In her judgment, the mother was doing something wrong.  In your judgment, the writer did something wrong.  In both cases, the answer to a crime is another crime.

Hurting other people on purpose is always wrong no matter who you are, no matter who they are, and no matter what they did.  If you went back in time and punched Hitler in the face, you would be doing something bad and probably creating paradoxes for The Doctor to iron out.  Shame on you.  He has enough to do without you messing with the space-time continuum.  Justice means dealing with people in a fair way, not hurting them so you can feel better.

In order to break the cycle of hate, you have to deny yourself the expression of your anger.  Don’t scream, don’t hit a pillow, don’t fantasize about the letter writer getting her comeuppance, and don’t write an angry reply wherever you first saw this posted.  Whatever you want to do, don’t do it.  Take a deep breath or two and consider that aggressive words and actions are the resort of people who are already in pain, and inflicting more pain on them will do nothing but cause them to amp up the aggression.  Imagine how you would feel about someone going through pain who did not behave aggressively toward others.  That is how you should feel about her.  She needs for the pain to stop.  She needs help.  The power to spread pain comes easily to those who call upon it, but the power to heal is much greater and much harder to summon.  If you want to make the world a better place, show compassion for everyone who hurts.  Start with yourself.

The importance of self awareness

For a ridiculously long time, I was turning people away from me without even knowing it. I would say things that would hurt them and then try to justify my actions, thinking that if I just talked hard enough, my words would have the effect that I intended. I’ve behaved insensitively, and I suppose the effects have been so gradual, it’s only now that I’ve begun to reverse my course that I’m seeing the difference. I was pushing everyone away, and I was close to ending up alone and unhappy. I would have deserved it too. I’d have had no one but myself to blame.

Asperger’s Syndrome is not an excuse for behaving badly. I tried to use it as one, but I was wrong, and I am sorry to everyone I’ve hurt. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but I wasn’t trying not to, and the truth is that I was hurting people. I had no consideration for anyone’s feelings but my own. I can’t say I was unaware of what other people were going through. Some of them were directly telling me, and I refused to acknowledge them. It was incredibly childish, and I knew better.

I have no right to expect anyone to forgive me, but people are starting to all on their own. It’s amazing and humbling. I want more than anything else to make myself worthy of the compassion I’m being shown. I’m making more of an effort than ever before to create a climate of peace in my mind because constantly fighting is so tiring, and it’s not strength that made me keep it up for so long. It was weakness. The more tired I got, the harder I fought until I found myself more and more alone. When I took a step back, I saw what I had become and where the path I was on was leading me, and I didn’t want that. I want to be as good as my friends and family. I want to be accepted and liked. I have to adjust not only my behavior but also my way of thinking or else all of my talents will go to waste, and I will never be happy.

Aspergian empathy

So another thing I learned from a fellow Aspie at the last Houston Aspie Info gathering was that something I believed is just common sense and common courtesy is not always viewed that way by NTs.  Namely, someone shares with you a terrible experience they had and how badly they feel about it, etc.  What I do, what I think many Aspies do, is search our memories for a relevant, comparable experience that we ourselves went through that might lend insight, or at least let the other person know that we know at least a little bit of what they’re going through.

Or apparently not;  According to a fellow Aspie friend, this sometimes gets turned around on an Aspie by an NT who becomes angry that you’ve shifted the focus away from them an onto you.  And I guess are mad that you aren’t holding their hand and letting them vent and feeling that emotion alongside them first.

This just leaves me at a loss for words…the former is the natural Aspie expression of concern and empathy.  The hostile reaction described by my friend just leaves  me baffled and thinking “Wow, what a dick move to respond to my kindness that way…” and “jeeze, pity party much?!”  I had assumed that all sane, rational people would understand that someone trying to commiserate with you by sharing from their own grab bag of hard knock experiences counts for something universally.  That this would not be so is literally incomprehensible to me.

I’m not physically capable of sharing that kind of immediacy of empathy with someone that many needy NTs seem to want and can only get from each other.  And it’s wrong of them to write me off as unfeeling or uncaring because I can’t…I express my empathy in my own Aspergian, more logical way; you shared an experience with me, seems only right that I should share a meaningful story with you.  Some Aspies may have difficulty in judging if an experience is roughly equivalent or not–I don’t think that I do, but that’s a separate issue.  I think I’m pretty good at gauging comparable experiences and I’ve yet to actually experience a negative reaction like my friend describes, but I think I’d be desperately confused and upset if I ever did.  I’d probably be angry and resentful that someone whom I’m trying to help is lashing out at me.  I’d probably just give up in frustration and incomprehension and just leave.

Sometimes people need to be left alone, it’s true.  I know I do.  But probably in past relationships I’ve opted to leave someone alone when really what they wanted was my company and emotional support and they think I’m being cold & indifferent, while I’m just applying my interpretation of “The Golden Rule”, albeit with less than optimal results at times, trying to give them space because that’s what *I’d* want in their shoes but it’s not actually what THEY want.  But I do need them to VERBALIZE what they want/need, especially if our relationship is new-ish and we don’t know each other intimately well.

Anyway, just wanted to write these impressions down before I forget them.

Empathy addendum

I forgot to include this in my last post, but please consider this post an addendum to that one.

In my younger adult years, I used to abuse alcohol as a method for coping with my inherent social awkwardness.  This seems to be a common thread among many adult Aspies my age and older.

In any event, I was arrested for DWI in the 1990s and made to attend a speaking event given by the local chapter of MADD, to listen to a mother tell about her son whom she lost in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver.  It was a wrenching story, and I teared up myself listening to it.

Looking back, and thinking about the recent lecture I attended at Houston Aspie Info….I think I can put the puzzle pieces together and better understand why.  I think perhaps because the story of this woman’s son’s death was conveyed to me in words, in language, I was better able to process it mentally, logically, and be moved emotionally to tears by the account after the fact.  Which is why I will continue to resent any implication that we autistics are somehow emotionless robots as we are sometimes (mis)characterized.

With us Aspies, yes, you really to have to spell it out for us, explain it in language.  We can’t read your (NT) minds telepathically, our ability to read body language and eyes and facial expression is much more rudimentary and basic.

 

My adoption, and a few more thoughts on that empathy thing

I am adopted.  I love my mom & dad, could not have asked for better parents.  My adoption took place and was processed in South Carolina in 1971.  During the last year, I filled out the paperwork for and obtained all the legally available documentation pertaining to that adoption.  While so-called “identifying information” (proper names of persons, institutions, etc) have been redacted, basic descriptive information on my birth parents were included.  I know that my birth mother was a college freshman.  I know my biological father was a college senior about to graduate.  I know (from the documents) that he did graduate and go on to graduate school in Florida and was the son of a doctor, though it is unclear if what is meant is a physician or PhD.  He is described as “very intelligent” but also it is noted more than once that he is a “nervous”, “anxious” man.  It is little clues like this that lead me to believe my biological father was probably an undiagnosed (and for that day and age, undiagnosable–as he evidently did not qualify for the full-on autism diagnosis of that era) Aspie.

I must have been conceived some time in the summer of 1970.  According to statements given for the record, both persons had been under the influence of alcohol (presumably at a college party) and neither in full command of their faculties.   Immediately after their congress, my biological father reportedly professed his love for my biological mother…again, this strikes me as very impulsive/immature and “Aspie”-like and offered to marry her, but she rebuffed him, as the feeling was not mutual.  Without the social lubricant of alcohol, I can only further assume–based on the assumption that my biological father was indeed an Aspie–that with both being stone cold sober, my father’s inherent social awkwardness could not be so easily hidden and that without “beer goggles” his attractiveness as an actual prospective mate fell off markedly.  Documents show he was a relatively handsome, tall blond haired, blue eyed man.  Based on the physical description of my birth mother, it seems I mainly inherited my looks from her.  She was relatively short, with brown eyes, athletic (well, ok, didn’t inherit that), and had brown hair with a reddish tint.

Before I knew all of this, I had grown a quasi-van dyke beard/mustache combo while I was still married which I’ve subsequently shaved off.  I was quite shocked at the time to note among my facial hair not only the expected dark brown hairs but some bright red and even blonde hairs that were mystifying to me at the time but make perfect sense now given what I now know of my biological parents.

My biological father evidently married another woman and was pursing a Masters-level graduate degree when my biological mother discovered she was pregnant by him and contacted him.  He offered full financial support, though he was constrained by the fact that his current wife was evidently unaware of this situation initially and it might put incredible strains on his marriage.  He was subsequently unable to follow through with financial support, despite his good intentions, owing to his own strained circumstances in Florida (even in the best of circumstances, it’s not like graduate students are exactly rolling in the dough, then or now).

All this exposition is a long winded way of getting around to the point of noting that I received on my birthday a genetics testing kit from the organization 23 AND ME, which is a genetics testing lab that is collecting samples of cheek cells in saliva samples in order to conduct DNA testing on the samples.  While it won’t give me direct information that I can use to identify my birth parents, it will give me more abstract information such as my general ethnic background, what part of Europe my mother and father’s respective families came from, etc.  It can also potentially identify more distant relatives, which could lead to clues tracing (eventually) back to my birth parents maybe.  This was my atypical 42nd birthday present that I asked for and my (adoptive) parents endorsed.  Yes, on Friday I turned the same age as the Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. (“Six by nine equals forty two? I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.” –Arthur Dent).

23 AND ME requires users to register their kits with their website.  Unregistered kits will not be processed.  I have done so.  23 AND ME also has surveys that users are allowed to take at their leisure.  One of them was an Empathy quiz, evidently designed (or made with input or inspiration from) Simon Baron-Cohen.  I took it.  I was largely unsurprised by the result, which indicated I have “below normal” levels of empathy.  I still have problems with Simon Baron-Cohen’s thesis and methodology, and I still assert that Aspie empathy is different than NT empathy, that measures of empathy are not some objective quantity that NTs have and Aspies simply lack, full stop.

Some of the questions definitely made me think, however.  It made me wonder why seeing an animal in pain & suffering is more upsetting to me than seeing a human who is a stranger to me crying in the street or on television, say.  I do remember I cried very much when my paternal grandfather died, as I was very close to “Pa” and missed him dearly.  I was very young, and it was not long after we’d first moved to Houston in 1979.  With the much later deaths of my maternal grandmothers and great aunt, which were also far less sudden (the proverbial writing had been on the wall, so to speak such that all knew it was only a matter of time) and less of a shock…while I did feel a general sadness, I was not moved to tears by those deaths in my adult years.

It’s also been my experience that I am capable of flashes of empathy while watching Anime characters…especially when I’m watching alone, in the dark, and let myself fully participate in the fiction of the story on screen and develop an emotional bond with the characters.  I have winced when a favorite character was slapped, insulted, punched, etc, or hit with an emotionally shocking revelation, etc.  I have cried watching emotionally impactful anime stories.  I recognize that I often feel more emotional connection and concern for these fictional characters than I do for real life co-workers, casual friends, etc.

The survey also reminded me of situations like being with my former in-laws, that is, my then wife’s family, when my former father-in-law was dying in the hospital hospital.  I remember them all crying when he died, embracing and hugging.  I remained respectfully quiet, but did not tear up myself.  I really didn’t know the man all that well, and actually, he was not a particularly nice person, only “slightly left of the KKK”, as it were.  I had no direct emotional connection to this man and thus was not moved to tears despite all the crying relatives around me.  I remained clearheaded and sober and after a brief silence, began to ask his ex-wife (my mother-in-law) about funeral arrangements and other business that would have to be taken care of.  NTs can react with shock and call this “lack of empathy” if they like, but they should be thankful for Aspies who, in crisis situations, are not overwhelmed by emotion and can still think and act logically and rationally.

I have experimented with watching Anime and trying to remain as emotionally detached and objective as possible…and wind up surprising myself after a tear splashes down on my cheek involuntarily after a particularly sad or emotional sequence.  I then let up on the emotional “brake” lever in my mind and allow myself to feel the emotions generated.  It almost feels like my body has rebelled against my mind in instances like that.  I don’t know what it means, I’m merely reporting the results of my experiment.

I recall reading in John Elder Robison’s writings that with emotional situations, it seems to take the Aspie longer to process an emotional event, but it’s not as if we feel absolutely nothing…but because we are not immediately “in synch” with our NT colleagues, oftentimes we are “written off” as lacking empathy, full stop.  We are processing the same emotional content a bit slower and sometimes reaching different conclusions and responses.  Plus, all people on the spectrum are not only at variance with the NT population, but with each other as well.  I realize that Simon Baron-Cohen is trying to be as scientific as possible by making the assumption that empathy is like a zero sum game, as an easier way to quantify data and come up with more manageable metrics,  but I still question the downsides to this approach.  Good first effort, but in the long run I think this approach will have to be replaced with more nuanced, more holistic and qualitative measures.