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The Particular Discomfort Neurodivergents Have with Speech Codes

“The patterns of behavior that characterize a broad part of the autistic spectrum are indirectly viewed as a hindrance towards the 21st-century diversity and inclusion goals.”

Introduction

In April of 2017, Arizona State political science professor Will H. Moore took his own life. In the suicide note that he had scheduled to be published around the time of his death, Moore describes how his high-functioning autism obstructed his social relations, as well as his ability to produce and publish his work. Moore describes having reached this juncture after he was reprimanded—in a certain way—for regularly stating his opinions in a manner that unintentionally offended those around him. Being censored, silenced, ostracized or just plain bullied by peers for expressing a set of facts isn’t unfamiliar in any way. Douglas Murray describes this phenomenon in his recently published book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, where he comments on the “cancel culture” of the 21st century, as well as the discontinuation of the “exploration, discovery and dissemination of truth” on university campuses. 

A few months after Moore’s death, four to be exact, another individual with  high-functioning autism was punished—this time for distributing a memo. A former Google engineer named James Damore put out  Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber for discussion within the company. Unfortunately, on the 5th of August, the memo was released to the public, and Damore was fired shortly thereafter. Damore had created a comprehensive internal study about the gender gap within software engineering. By making use of psychological characteristics— more widely known as the Big Five personality traits — Damore laid out the differences between the sexes, why this can affect the career choices men and women respectively make, and the “gender gap” that can result from these differences. Joshua Trebuchon (reasonably)  noted in his August, 2017 Merion West piece on the issue that the memo was not without its flaws. As such, Trebuchon discusses the typical minimalist argument on personality difference and suggests that regardless of Damore’s use of well-established psychological traits and differences, “the way that he uses these differences to argue against affirmative action severely exaggerates their significance.”

Being socially awkward and not having a way with words myself positions me as a natural target for rebuke, much like Damore. The arguments put forward by autistic people (at least, those people with autism that are in such a position where they can share their perspective), usually, are based on empirical findings—and not on abstract assumptions about how one perceives (or ought to perceive) the world. The Google Memo by Damore, for instance, is based on findings concerning psychological and personality traits that have been in use since the  1960’s.

The reality that people with autism tend to be more focused on facts does not imply that they cannot lie, but it is much more demanding for them to consciously construct a falsification of their perspective. This, for instance, is why Moore described in his suicide note how it physically “hurt” him to tell a “white lie.”  Immanuel Kant  would be rather pleased by the difficulty of people with autism to deceive. But, on the contrary, Kant would be less satisfied with the proposition that we, as a society, have seemingly abandoned our desire for truth and rationality. The disgust that is shown from certain neurotypicals towards those who utter a specific set of facts appears to be displayed without rational thought. In what follows, I would like to address the underlying mechanisms—or rather the absence of those mechanisms that explain the inability of neurodivergents to follow certain speech codes that are related to the political correctness movement(s). 

Autistic Perception

My view on (and experience with) high-functioning autism can be read at-length  here, but some of those points may be worth laying out again. Among those points is the notion that—as far as I am concerned—we should not give preference to someone’s arguments, ideas, or opinions just because they play the auti-card. Neither  Greta Thunberg nor  Albert Einstein should get any special treatment (regarding their statements) because of their condition. One’s agreement (or disagreement) with their perspectives should not be created out of sympathy for their condition—but rather from the empirical or logical strength of their ideas.

I do state this a tad lightly because I am well aware of the various forms of autism—and how they affect the lives of those with autism, as well as the people around them. Let me make clear, then, that if I use the term “autistic,” I am typically referring to high-functioning autistic individuals. That is not to say that it is straightforward who falls in the category of “high-functioning” and who does not, but this is, in part, because of the highly variable nature of the autism spectrum.

The fact that it can be difficult for neurotypicals to relate to the perspectives often held by neurodivergents makes it not only hard for people with autism to be understood, but this can also give rise to paradoxical tensions regarding the inclusivity of every possible (minority) group. This occurs when the conditions by which a group can indicate that it is being included are incompatible with the conditions related to a different group. It implies that conflict between groups won’t be off the table when suddenly everyone is put in the same room. Being fixated on facts could lead, for instance, to someone with autism stating the obvious differences between the sexes, which carries the possibility of accidentally offending others. 

It’s not as if people with autism are typically elected class president each year or voted to be the most popular kid in school. Because of people with autism’s—let’s call them— “distinctive characteristics,” neurotypicals often refrain from approaching neurodivergents. You could, then, say, “What’s to lose right?” However, both the suicide rate of  adolescents with autism and the suicide rates of  adults with autism would make it rather difficult to pass off the social issues of people with autism as insignificant. The lack of social communication is  highly correlated with the suicide of people with autism. 

Is there a clear solution to the conflict concerning the value of free speech and the potential for offensive speech (which can emerge when free speech is protected) to offend other minorities groups? Should the risk of neurodivergents offending other minority groups (e.g. racial, ethnic, sexual and gender) mean that we should shut down those who express potentially upsetting facts? Or, alternatively, without any censorship taking place, perhaps we could teach people how to handle a fixed set of information and the “rules” that accompany interpreting certain information.

Unsafe Speech

Not only neurodivergents now experience complications with verbal expression. The recent events surrounding journalism students made for another example. At Northwestern University, students were protesting former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance on campus. The journalism students tried to cover this protest by taking photographs of the student protesters, who were confronted by police when they were attempting to force themselves into the building. The photos that resulted from the protest, which depicted student protesters falling on the ground, eventually produced an apology from the editors of the campus newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, for having reported on the protest. At the heart of the conflict was that the journalism students were, “responding to the changing expectations of the students they cover, particularly from those on the political left, while upholding widely accepted standards of journalism.” While the latter will eventually result in the potential to cause offense, the former still suggests that most of the students are empathetic towards those who identify with a minority group. Meanwhile, the struggle with neurodivergents often rests on the assumption that their speech is intentional, without any knowledge about the hidden mechanisms that cause it.

We are well aware that telling the perceived truth does not always carry with it a positive effect. If I were to tell a person that he has acne on his face, he likely wouldn’t be too pleased with that statement, regardless of its truth. But the unpleasantness that a particular truth carries with it should not imply that we ought to abandon saying it.  Geoffrey Miller, for example, notes the impact of censorship in his July, 2018 Quillette article, where he outlines the effect speech codes have on “neurominorities”:

“It [censorship] discriminates against neurominorities. It imposes a chilling effect on unusual brains that house unusual minds. It marginalizes people who may have great ideas, but who also happen to have mental disorders, personality quirks, eccentric beliefs, or unusual communication styles that make it hard for them to understand and follow the current speech norms that govern what is ‘acceptable..’”

Being ostracized from a group for such a reason as the use of factual language seems ridiculous. The main cause of the isolation many people with autism have from others is related to the inadequacy of the cognitive theory called Theory of Mind, often referred to by its acronym T.O.M. T.O.M is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and assume his or her perspective. As such, the concept is frequently associated with empathy. Oftentimes, people with a form of autism lack this ability—and because of this, they generally experience difficulties forming (social)  relationships. Steven Pinker describes T.O.M in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by referring to it as, “one of the brain’s most striking abilities.” Besides the predictability function of T.O.M, Pinker sees this cognitive theory as something greater than the ability to empathize with others: “Our theory of mind is the source of the concept of the soul. The ghost in the machine [meaning, the mind carried in the body] is deeply rooted in our way of thinking about people.”

The inability to assume another person’s perspective makes it problematic for many with autism to even start a friendship, let alone maintain it. Maintaining such a relationship requires one to be aware both of what can be the compassionate thing to say—and also what can be the hurtful thing to say. Without these general skills, people with autism will, without a doubt, struggle immensely in the body of a social creature. Miller, for instance, suggests that, “Aspies [people with Asperger’s syndrome] simply don’t have brains that can anticipate what might be considered offensive, disrespectful, unwanted, or outrageous by others.” This should not be seen as an excuse for autistic people purposely to offend others, but many who lack T.O.M. would agree that its shortage has a substantial negative effect on their social interactions. 

The Complexity of the ‘Meta-Interest’

Many who have a form of autism hold a profound obsession with a certain subject, interest, or object. Part of the reason for this is to subconsciously narrow the possibility of encountering an  anxiety-provoking situation. Their fixation on their interest gives them the predictability that they desire in an uncertain world. They hold what I would call a meta-interest: an incredibly strong obsession with a particular subject, much like an “infatuation” of the long term. It has to be made clear that a meta-interest and conscientiousness are not related. This signifies that whether or not their meta-interest is linked with their occupation or study, the intensity that they have with the former won’t be necessarily comparable to the latter. Apart from the intensity of the interest, the “fact-, object-, and sensory-oriented interests are greater in HF-ASD [High-functioning ASD].” This is in contrast to neurotypicals, who are more likely to be interested in say sports or television—and more likely to be socially-oriented.  

A meta-interest is expressed on different occasions—and is expressed without making any exclusions as to whom someone with autism enthusiastically reveals their interest. People with autism don’t consider if the recipient of the information would view the subject of their interest with the same passion as the “owner” of the meta-interest. Pinker acknowledges the struggle that autistic people experience when making connections with other social beings:

“A mind unequipped to discern other people’s beliefs and intentions, even if it can learn in other ways, is incapable of the kind of learning that perpetuates culture. People with autism suffer from an impairment of this kind. They can grasp physical representations like maps and diagrams but cannot grasp mental representations — that is, they cannot read other people’s minds.”

It’s practically unthinkable for many who are not on the spectrum to fathom the idea of a “meta-interest”—or the extreme difficulty people with autism have in establishing interpersonal relationships. As far as I’ve been told, relating to the concept of the meta-interest can be confusing for someone outside the spectrum because it gets associated with the hypothetical cognitive energy someone would have to put in to obtain a similar set of facts and knowledge about a certain subject. 

The patterns of behavior that characterize a broad part of the autistic spectrum are indirectly viewed as a hindrance towards the 21st-century diversity and inclusion goals. We have reached the point that certain knowledge is forbidden to ever see the light of day. Murray addresses this anxious feeling that can accompany discussing nearly any subject of import in public:

“To speak in public is now to have to find a way to address or at least keep in mind every possible variety of person, with every imaginable kind of claim — including every imaginable rights claim. At any moment we might be asked why we have forgotten, undermined, offended or denied the existence of a particular person and others like them. It is understandable that the generations now growing up in these hyper-connected societies worry about what they say and expect other people to be equally worried.”

Participating in these conflicts whereby you indirectly (and unintentionally) offend someone can be confusing, and, for many, it can be genuinely exhausting. To avoid such a situation, people might reach the conclusion that it is just better to self-censor rather than seek to confront ideas of substance.

Conclusion

But we haven’t completely lost the road to rationality. Steven Pinker wrote an article in June, 2019 for Skeptic Magazine entitled Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era. In this essay, he states that our innate rationality hasn’t left us. Pinker argues that even by making the claim that humans are “irrational beings,” there would have to be certain criteria by which we judge rationality. This standard alone would make the irrationality claim rather weak. Like was stated earlier,   truth and facts are not always valued enough. For Pinker, this is also one of the reasons why we make use of irrationality: 

“We all try to come across as infallible, omniscient, and saintly. Rationality can be a nuisance in this campaign, because inconvenient truths will inevitably come to light that suggest we are mere mortals. The dismissal of facts and logic is often damage control against threats to our self-presentation.”

These defense mechanisms can be convenient to protect yourself, but they are less helpful to the overall picture regarding progress and truth-finding. This leaves everyone with a question. “What do you value more?” “Your victimhood or intellectual progress?” Bret Weinstein  argued on Joe Rogan’s podcast that rather than adhere to the postmodern viewpoint by dismissing the “scientific toolkit,” we should equip everyone with the means to figure out what is true and what isn’t.

Besides, when it comes to appreciating the difference between unintentional and intentional offensive speech, in my view, a part of the solution lies in understanding meta-interest as a viable concept. This means that to understand someone’s actions in a particular situation, we should put effort into appreciating the underlying mechanisms that motivate those actions—because it’s not always the case that the ones who utter these messages are driven by some “elixir of tyranny”: hatred and malevolence.  

Lastly, the autism spectrum—and the disorders that comprise it—have been (as far as I know) part of the “DIE-religion” (Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity) since the start. This is hardly surprisingly. As I have suggested earlier, people with autism usually aren’t scurrying to social media and meet-up groups to form friendships. So exclusion from the normal group actually seems like the way into this movement. Unfortunately, for people with autism, however, their membership in the population with everyone else poses the constant risk of their “cancellation,” particularly when the political correctness movement continues its fixation on creating speech codes in public settings, such as universities. Regardless of the sincere intentions of the political correctness movement, its effects do not always bring about the expected outcomes its proponents may have hoped for. After all, a world where people simultaneously never get offended but have access to free speech is, after all, an unreachable utopia.

Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.

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