Austistics Speaking Day #2

I am socially awkward, often painfully so. Shy, and lots of change bothers me. I didn’t really find acceptance anywhere, with few friends and limited ability to socialize properly. Social accomplishments came slowly and there were few of them.

But when someone pointed out that a lot of what I described might be autism, it was a start towards something new.

As I read and learned, I started to come to terms with this idea, that I was autistic. I wasn’t broken. I wasn’t a failure. I’m just someone with a toaster brain in a washing-machine world. Society, expectations, how its all constructed aren’t conducive for my brain is wired. I am not broken. I am not a failure.

Dealing with people is exhausting because my brain is wired differently, not because I am some kind of failure. There is no responsibility for a failure here, because the failure isn’t mine. It is society’s failure.

Awareness is all good and fine, but awareness doesn’t change how society is structured, how I am treated and responded to. Acceptance does. I started learning new coping strategies by talking to other autistic people because I accepted myself for what I am. And when my friends accept me, when they understand how to deal with me, its changing things. There is acceptance for the times I simply cannot go out and interact with people. There is acceptance for the times I accidentally cross social boundaries, because my friends know I’m not good at that stuff.

My mistakes are still my own, but they aren’t because I am a failure. They’re because I am different, and I accept that. My closest friends accept that and my life is significantly improved for it.

I am an autistic, and I am speaking on acceptance. My voice is here and I will not go away.

Token Dude like long walks on the beach and writing about social justice causes.

I Have Been Autistic The Entire Time

I’ve written 3 versions of this post now, and I’m still not sure what the hell I’m doing. See, when you write about discovering you’re autistic well into adulthood, there’s sort of a problem of scale. Should I write about how, if we’d understood autism better when I was small, somebody probably would have pegged me as practically a walking diagnosis? Maybe I should discuss the way my lack of knowledge (and my family’s) while I was a teenager contributed to me seeing myself as someone damaged and disappointing. Or I could address the early years of my marriage and how my unrecognized autism was one of the things that made it difficult for two stupid kids learning how to do adult relationships.

I don’t think I have the time or the space for any of those things today. Today I can give you a snapshot. The snapshot is of me, now and in the very recent past, and the phenomenal and illuminating event that was realizing my autism.

It began over two years ago with me describing myself as “having Aspie-like traits”. I hate change, I love routine. I’m literal; details are important to me; I don’t like loud noises. I cycle through intense and consuming interests. Things like these were easy for me to identify in myself. True, they didn’t go very far in explaining the way I felt like I never quite fit in almost anywhere, or the way interacting with people took all the energy I could muster up and was sometimes too daunting to do at all. There were the meltdowns, too, and the occasional brushes with mutism, but those were probably personality flaws caused by my not being mature enough when I was upset. Looking back it’s pretty comical how far in denial I was. But can you blame me? Everyone knows what autism looks like. Everyone knows autism involves obvious language and social deficiencies. Everyone knows autistic people don’t go around masquerading as fairly well-balanced 30something college students. If I were autistic, I’d know it. Everyone would know it.

Then, one day, I read an essay about echolalia in fully verbal autistic people. There were two concepts in that essay that immediately gave body blows to my self-obliviousness. First, the way I thought was called echolalia and other people did it. The extensive collection of phrases and mannerisms I had shaped my whole experience of language around, my profound private enjoyment of them, the satisfaction of repeating my favorites: none of those were peculiar to me alone. Second, there were verbally fluent and functioning people who were also autistic, people whose differences or deficits around language processing or social interaction weren’t necessarily visible from the outside; people whose autism was present largely in their internal experience of the world.

Having a name for my echolalia was explosively exciting for me. I talked about it nonstop for days, sometimes so fast my husband couldn’t keep up. And it was while I was talking excitedly that the next piece fell into place with a thump. I was flapping. I made the same motion a lot when I was so enthusiastic about something I was about to burst, but somehow I never made the connection — it was just “a gesture”. I also “gestured” when I was deeply distressed. You know, like when I melted down and sometimes went mute. Which was often because something changed unexpectedly or I couldn’t find language to express myself.

I dove into research and the realizations kept coming. The more I paid attention to what actual adult autistics had to say the more of my preconceptions about autism I realized were bullshit, and the more preconceptions I realized were bullshit the more I was able to recognize autistic experiences in my own life. Maybe one time, somebody took you into the woods and pointed out a bird you couldn’t see until you learned how to recognize its camouflage, its way of hiding by becoming a part of the whole instead of a distinct unit. Being verbally talented and good at mimicry meant my autistic traits had hidden in plain sight — I was able to deploy a 24/7 cloaking device I didn’t even know I was running, a cloaking device that even hid me from myself. I had learned to reflect neurotypical people back at themselves so well that I forgot I was doing it, except of course for the times the cloaking device failed and I blamed myself: for not being better, not being more capable, not being more adult.

In trying to describe what the experience of realization was like for me, I fall back on what I told my husband on our walk one evening, my voice overly loud and my arms churning the air: for as long as I can remember, my identity has been a loose bundle of pieces that never quite fit in anywhere. As an adult I think I did okay at accepting my strange loose bits without judgment or criticism, but I still never understood them; they never belonged anywhere, never made sense, never became an alphabet no matter how many times I tried to read them. Imagine them, scattered and discontinuous with no conceivable purpose. Now imagine that they’re swinging into place suddenly, linking up to reveal what they were always meant to be: a coherent and intricate pattern, blazing like a cathedral rose window, and that pattern is me. I am looking at myself for the first time in my life.

Self-knowledge and a world that makes sense are basic human needs. On a personal scale, we construct narratives to satisfy them from birth, and on a cultural scale we adopt ideologies and seek community. No one is exempt from them. Undiagnosed autistics, I think, often live with those needs unfulfilled. Especially if we reach adulthood unaware, we spend precious energy struggling to adapt to a world where we don’t fit in and don’t know why. We’ll probably learn to blame the poor fit on ourselves, since most of the people around us seem to do fine. We adopt coping techniques without exactly knowing what we’re coping against. We feel out the edges of our limitations and difficulties by a slow process of barked shins and skinned knees. We’re isolated by the difficulty of finding community: people who speak our language, with whom we feel normal.

And then, if we’re lucky, the realization comes. One way or another we pierce the cloaking device, grasp our identity in both hands, discover our true name. The problem is that so many factors conspire both to hide the truth from us, and to make us afraid of it once we see it. I knew what everybody knew about autism. The clues were all there but I missed a lifetime of flapping, stimming, echolalia, scripting, social difficulty, melting down and struggles to communicate, while I was living it, because of what everybody knew about autism. I missed the opportunity to understand myself as a child and teenager because of what everybody knew about autism. But, see, I was lucky. What everybody knew about autism also protected me. I was gifted and quirky instead of damaged and defective. I learned to suppress my stimming and disguise my echolalia out of an instinctive talent for mimicry and the innate human drive to fit in, not because I was punished for having loud hands or lobotomized out of my own brain’s native tongue by people who insisted I talk and think exactly like them.

So this is me: I like to communicate in mitigated echolalia, and I use a lot of learned social scripts when I’m interacting with people who don’t share my contexts. I struggle to function in crowds or under sensory barrage. I notice and weigh tiny details. I think in cognitive bursts like spiderwebs or constellations and have difficulty with abstract language. I write much more eloquently than I speak. I can talk for. ever. about the topics I like (among them Joss Whedon shows, Totoro, Doctor Who, Kermit the Frog, and Miles Vorkosigan). I rock side-to-side when I’m happy or excited and front-to-back when I’m upset. I touch textures and smell things.

I still don’t fit in most of the time, but now I know I’m not failing at being a normal person — I’m succeeding beyond reasonable expectations at communicating in a language and a culture that are not mine. That is a goddamned superpower. No longer being in denial about my inherent differentness means I can better interact with other people when I need to. And I know where my tribe is, both the people who speak my language in the great and glorious land called Internets and the family I surround myself with who accept me, respect me and try their best to meet me halfway across the neural divide. Most importantly, I make sense now. I have a whole, unfragmented, continuous identity. I have been autistic in the mirror the entire time. I have been autistic right here, next to you, the entire time.

The Elephant in the Room

A caution before I start: This post addresses conditions in the United States only. I apologize for the limited view. It is altogether too likely that this is an international problem.

Poverty and prejudice are the elephant in the room for medicine. So far we have ignored it, but that hasn’t worked so well. We just keep having to shovel out elephant dung. We need to finally address these major root causes of illness in society. Or forever spend our time wondering why we’re getting nowhere and remain knee deep in dung. But like the traditional elephant, no one wants to address the problem. It’s too big. Besides, no one else seems to see it, so maybe it’s not really there…

A few years ago I was reviewing for the boards in internal medicine. Or, more accurately, for the recertification that we’re required to do every 10 years. In other words, going over familiar material. When I got to the endocrinology section I read the following statement about diabetes (paraphrasing a bit since I don’t remember the exact words): “Type II diabetes is more common among African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians” the first thought that went through my head was, “How is that different from ‘Non-Hispanic whites are relatively protected from diabetes’?” I knew already that people of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds tended to have higher rates of type II (also known as “adult onset”) diabetes, but hadn’t really thought about the fact that _every_ minority had a higher rate before. I passed the boards and must admit that I proceeded to forget the whole thing for a few years.

I have no particular excuse for why the issue of diabetes and race returned to my mind a few days ago, but return it did. And it puzzled me. Why should people of northern European ethnicity have lower rates of diabetes than everyone else? I can see two potential reasons right off. First, there may be a mutation in the European population that protects against diabetes. I’m not sure why this would be so given that type II diabetes, which usually has its onset towards the end of one’s reproductive years and generally doesn’t kill, even without treatment, for a few years after that, shouldn’t be a major evolutionary pressure, but still it could happen. The second hypothesis I had was that stress might lead to higher rates of diabetes. What stress? Racism.

I looked a little further and found that, in the US, the lowest rate of diabetes is in non-Hispanic whites, the second lowest in Asians, followed by Hispanics and finally ending with African-Americans and Amerind. Within the general category of Hispanic people, Mexicans have much higher rates than Cubans or South Americans. It occurred to me that this progression of diabetes risk very closely mirrored the level of prejudice each group faced. This seems to me to support the hypothesis that the stress of having to constantly fight prejudice increased a person’s risk of diabetes, independent of other risk factors that might go along with being a member of a minority ethnic group such as poverty. If, for example, you can’t walk into a store to buy a carton of milk without having the store’s security follow you around and eyeball you for shoplifting, that must cause stress and increase endogenous steroid (stress hormone) levels. Increased steroid levels are a known risk factor for developing diabetes.

I tried to find further support or refution of this idea in the international literature and, I must admit, failed. I have so far not found any information on the risk of diabetes in, for example, people of Turkish background in Germany or people of Indian background in Britain. The information may exist, but I haven’t yet found it. I did find one interesting finding from the very old literature, however. Papers from the 1930s suggest that diabetes is more common in the Jewish population, particularly in Germany. This correlation has completely disappeared in the early 21st century. Hmm…what’s changed between then and now(1)?

I may or may not be right about prejudice increasing the risk of diabetes. I will be the first to admit that I have not thoroughly examined the issue. And so far no one else has addressed it, to the best of my knowledge. But the issue of whether racial and ethnic prejudice can in and of itself increase the risk of ill health has addressed another stress related disorder: heart disease. Or, more specifically arterial vascular disease (hardening of the arteries.) As you might by now expect, there was a strong correlation between experience of prejudice and risk of heart disease. Note, this is not the risk of dying of the disease once you get it (which is also increased in minorities(2)) but of getting the disease in the first place.

So what next? People who practice “alternative medicine” often accuse mainstream medicine of focusing too much on cure and not enough on prevention. These claims are often overblown-what do they think vaccines, counseling on smoking cessation, and screening for early cancers are if not prevention-but they have an element of truth. Prevention is, oddly, sometimes harder than cure: it’s harder to get people excited about a disease they don’t have, it’s harder to convince funding agencies to spend money studying a problem people don’t have, and, to be honest, it’s less rewarding emotionally to prevent a problem than to treat it. Everyone likes helping people feel better. Nagging them about their flu shots and cholesterol intake is…less fun. Even worse, taking on the problem of prejudice feels overwhelming–and far outside of the scope of what the average doctor thought he or she was signing up for when she or he entered medical school. But it still needs to be done. We can counsel people about their diets all day, we can tell them to relax, we can check their hemoglobin A1c starting at age 5, but if we don’t remove the stress, the rate of stress-related illness simply will not go down. We have to start addressing racism as a public health issue.

How can the problem of racism be addressed adequately? The short answer is “I don’t know.” I have some ideas, though. First, I think we need to understand more about how racism works better and how it can be reversed. Most, probably all, of us have at least subconscious prejudices and stereotyped ideas about people of certain races. Maybe brain imaging with PET scans or functional MRI can help us identify how our subconscious prejudices work and what we can do to extinguish them. Racism is currently largely untreatable, but that can change…if we care to do the work to find out how. It may be a hard problem, but it is unlikely to be an insoluble problem. If we spend the time and resources to examine it. There is nothing impossible about changing people’s prejudices. Proposing to study how to people make people less prejudiced is not like proposing to study how to go faster than the speed of light: there is no reason it can’t work given enough effort. It’s a matter of political and social will.

Part of it is surely simpler than that. People learn by pattern recognition. If most black or Hispanic people they meet are poor they’ll associate being black or Hispanic with poverty. But it doesn’t have to be that way—there is nothing intrinsic to being a particular race that makes one poorer or wealthier. It’s easy enough to treat poverty, if hard to truly “cure” it. There are techniques that are known to increase equality and decrease poverty. For example, the US reduced its Gini coefficient in the late 1970s by increasing taxation on the wealthy and provision of transfer programs to the poor. That’s a simple enough place to begin and it would benefit everyone. Ultimately, the goal would be to reduce the number of people of minority racial or ethnic background who live in poverty, both for the sake of justice and to weaken the correlation between minority race and poverty that forms in people’s minds when more minorities than whites live in poverty. In short, we can use the basic human ability known as “learning” to reduce prejudice and prejudice related disease.
Traditionally, medicine has not been considered a radical field. The AMA is not the most liberal of organizations in existence. This has changed somewhat recently. Most doctors support the ACA (“Obamacare”) and quite a number consider it too conservative. Timid, even, and inefficient compared to the more efficient systems modeled by countries like Canada, Germany, or Sweden. It’s time to take the next step. Don’t just treat disease. Don’t just prevent disease on a personal level. Stop the causes of illness on a society wide level. Or be prepared to shovel elephant dung forever.

(1) No, not the end of prejudice against people who are Jewish. Look at the FBI hate crime statistics again before you make that claim. But in between the 1930s and today Jewish people went from being considered non-white to being considered white.
(2) The problem of unequal treatment of minorities in medicine is relatively well studied and it is not controversial to state that people of minority ethnic backgrounds get poorer care overall than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. What is still often unaddressed is the question of what to do about this problem.


So it’s what about the menz day again and I thought I might steal the podium with a suggestion for those of us reading as men to our social circles: Interrupt yourself. It’s an easy thing to do for you, and may be impossible for some of those you would talk with rather than over.

Scene One: Three people are talking, they are all enthusiastic about the topic and each has a head full of ideas they wish to share and space they wish to fill with their discussion partner’s ideas. They talk, often speaking at the same time in their enthusiasm, and try to navigate through the excitement to produce a dance of words that feels correct. Only, it isn’t. One of them has the upper hand, when they speak in tandem with either of the other two, they are deferred to. This is bizarre.

No. Not bizarre. It’s maddening though. I was the third in this discussion. I was a silencing presence on the other two people, the two women who I was speaking with. It took a couple of minutes for me to recognize the dynamic, but once I did so I realized that I could capitalize on it, owning the conversation based on unearned authority or I could try to rebalance with a simple action on my part: I interrupted myself. Taking a step back, I stopped monopolizing and garnered more interaction than I had previously.

This was a pivotal moment for me, a real-time awareness of how I lean on my social appearance in ways that are not fair. This has shaded my work where I largely cold greet and help strangers through conversation.

Cue scene two: A woman and man walk into my store looking to see what selection of product I have for her to try and possibly purchase. M is doing all of the talking, even answering questions that I directly pose to W, and I finally have to say something. This is not easy, I am trained to be non-confrontational with customers, but I manage to find a way to push him out of the conversation so she has room to come in and participate. W doesn’t want the product that M is pushing for, although she is interested in another product I can show her. We talk about what she wants from the product, figure out which model best suits that need and she buys it. I could easily have missed this and that’s not okay, that I noticed and could manage to leverage her out of the situation isn’t much better, I am not the only sales staff at my store, nor are we the only store in town, etc.

So what’s the answer?  Priming people, priming men, to be aware that this happens, and happens at a subconscious level, is a step. Or, at least it helped me immensely.  So, if you are reading this and get deferred to unconsciously take a second. Step back. Interrupt yourself.

Dhorvath is easily spotted in his natural habitat perched on bikes.

On Disclosure And Self-Preservation: Chronic Illness and Marginalized Identities

I’ve been seeing a lot of doctors for roughly a decade now, and while still not in possession of all the answers I’d like and need, I’ve gotten some, plus a lot of answers to questions I’d never have thought too much about had I not had them thrust upon me. Chronic physical issues are a mess of annoyances and questions in and of themselves, but where they also intersect with mental illnesses, gender (both perceived and identified), survivor status and orientation, are where so many perceptions can get so messy. Prejudices can crop up in even medical professionals who believe themselves to be progressive, and the more boxes one ticks on the “oppressed groups” list, the more likely those prejudices are to come up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

According to the World Health Organization, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety and somatic complaints, as well as unipolar depression. Trauma-related mental health issues related to sexual violence, which women are also more likely to suffer, are also very common. Classically, it was believed that women were more unstable emotionally than men because their uteruses, if not anchored by constant pregnancy, would wander around the body, causing all sorts of mental and physical ailments. Conveniently, this led to the belief that simply by being a woman, one was, of course, incapable of reason. The diagnosis of hysteria reached a pseudoscience peak in the late 19th century, but still persists in a weird form today, where many women and people who are seen as such, myself included, have had their physical issues handwaved away by medical professionals as simply an effect of my mental illness issues.

Chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and CFS/ME are apparently much more common in women, for reasons as yet not fully understood. However, women are also much less likely to be given adequate pain management, less likely to receive aggressive treatment, and more likely to be dismissed entirely because, of course, the pain is all in their heads. In the past, I have been told that my pain condition is entirely the result of my PTSD (which would be interesting, as it predated the events that brought on the PTSD by years). A spoiler: it’s actually caused by a damaged internal nerve. Leftovers of the idea that women suffer the curse of Eve, and it’s God’s will that they get no pain relief? Simply dismissal of pain conditions because Women Be Crazy (especially in conditions about which little is known)? Ahh, the fun of intersectional oppressions: there’s so many reasons to be being screwed over!

I’m originally from a small town in a rural province, so as a basic precaution, when I visited doctors, especially new ones, I closeted myself regarding my orientation (I still do here in the Big City ™, actually), which is something I am lucky, being in a long-term relationship with a man, to be able to do. Years ago, back in my hometown, I had a long-awaited visit to a specialist taken up almost entirely with an interrogation on his part about my orientation based on a button I forgot to remove from my bag. Pretty sure the problem is not my lack of heterosexuality, doc. To be fair, my GP was horrified when I told her and sent me to someone competent and not bigoted. In this city, another doctor assumed from my orientation and history of trauma, that my chronic pain was simply the result of my having issues with men. Despite that it remained while with female partners.

While I talked about womanhood and uteruses up there, I was doing so mainly because there are many doctors who still seem to be of the belief that configuration of reproductive organs defines gender. Even a cursory googling will reveal stories of horrendous mistreatment of trans* and gender variant patients by medical professionals. Trans women bear by far the brunt of the mistreatment, but still, gender variant patients of all genders often are unwilling to discuss matters pertaining to their gender with their doctors, for fear of discrimination, and again, often closet themselves if they’re able to. When an issue with a medication I was taking caused some gender discomfort, a “helpful” doctor suggested that my chronic pain issues were the result of dysphoria entirely. So not only do I get to be completely written off after a moderately (very) awkward disclosure as a hysterical, man-hating lady whose issues are all because of The Crazy and also is doing gender wrong.

There is a reason why many patients will not disclose issues with are absolutely relevant, and that reason is self-preservation. But the fact that people have to guard their safety against medical professionals is something to be ashamed of.

Mechnificent is a genderqueer femme, and enjoys thinking too much, horror media, cats and vegetarian cooking.

On Human Agency, Part 1: Why common ideas about choice-making don’t work

I think pretty much everyone has some notion of there being things one does “freely” or voluntarily, and things one does against one’s will. Unfortunately, people tend to have very divergent (and just as unfortunately, very vague) notions of what behaviors and actions fall into which category. The vagueness has consequences in regard to the way in which we see people as responsible for their actions (both in terms of blame for negative actions and credit for positive ones), and in regard to the degree in which we consider these actions legitimate; the divergence creates problems with communication, and ultimately with attempting to solve social issues without throwing anyone under the bus in the process.

In my experience, the vast majority of the issues revolve around the attempts at reconciling two notions about people’s behavior with each other: people’s ability to make their own choices on the one hand, and the existence of (sometimes very rigid) social structures on the other. The ability to make one’s own choices according to one’s own will is generally labeled “free will”; in social justice circles which tend to have some knowledge of theory, sometimes the concept is instead sometimes labeled “agency” (because social theory splits society into the macro-level of structures and micro-level of agents). As far as I can tell, when not specifically used for theory, the terms are use equally vaguely, with equally idiosyncratic definitions that are more often implied than defined; which works well enough in casual conversation, but not when trying to model social reality, and not when trying to affect social change. Working with unstated assumptions tends to run people into problems, which is why uncovering the meanings behind common terms is important, and why creating stable jargon is, as well.

Hence this two-part essay, in which I’ll try to first pick apart how people tend to understand human choice-making, and then present a more realistic and more practical model.

* * *

One common idea described by the term “free will” is the notion of the ability to have chosen otherwise. This means the ability, when faced with the precise same series of events and the same circumstances, a person is able to wilfully make a different choice than the one they did make. In other words, the choice is not caused by external factors and also that it isn’t uncaused (i.e. random); rather, the cause of a choice is located entirely within the will of a person. Free will, in that sense, is its own uncaused cause. For the purposes of further discussion, this version will be referred from now on as “pure free will”.

Another common idea described by the term “free will” is the ability to pursue one’s own goals without constraint. This version does not require that a person be able to have chosen otherwise in exactly the same circumstances; only that a person is not artificially constrained in their ability to act in accordance with their own will. And if neither the available options, their consequences, nor one’s own will (i.e. one’s preferences, beliefs, desires, etc.) are altered, then the action will in fact be the same. This version will be referred here as “agency”.

To my knowledge, most people operate with an understanding of free will that is combination of these two, or some sort of muddled notion that they are synonymous. Most people believe that people have the ability to have chosen otherwise in the same circumstances, but at the same time believe that external forces do affect choices. The question tends to be about the degree of influence.

At the extreme end is “libertarian free will”, i.e. the notion that people have pure free will but are constrained in the exercise thereof by (threats of) physical violence (for a libertarian definition of the term violence), if only because people have a strong will to live and remain uninjured, and will therefore tend to alter their choices to avoid options that will cause violence against themselves. Aside from violence however, libertarians believe people themselves consciously cause the choices in their lives, and could at any point make any number of these choices. Consequently, both the credit and the responsibility for all choices not done under the threat of violence lies entirely with the individual who made them. In this model, social structures are pretty much limited to laws (interpreted as codified threats of violence), and as such the very concept of social justice becomes impossible; either something is just (meaning legally so), or it is not. Given the mountains of evidence of social and cultural pressures, patterns, etc. beyond there merely legal, this model of human decision-making erases too many influences to be of any genuine use in changing toxic patterns. Where these patterns express themselves in what appear to be “bad” or at least less-than-optimal” choice-making, the libertarian can only shrug and punish those who have made decisions that were also harmful to others. This model perpetuates inequality by the sheer refusal to acknowledge its existence, which manifests in inaction on the one hand, and in active interference with others’ actions on the basis that treating people’s decisions as anything other than purely derived from their own minds is unethical.

Many people are (luckily) not libertarians, even in current American culture where these ideas of “individual responsibility” and denial of the existence of the whole matrix of oppression (especially classism, but other axes as well) are most widespread and apparently inherent in America’s self-identity as a culture. Not being libertarian, or not wholly so, people acknowledge influence on decisions even beyond physical force (or the codified threat thereof). Even people not deeply involved in social activism or social research of any sort are generally aware of social structures that are not threats of violence but which affect human behavior so thoroughly that these behaviors become predictable to some degree. From this, what often emerges is a graduated understanding of a free will that’s still its own cause, but that can be bent by things other than physical force into more or less un-free choices. One of the most toxic versions of this conditional free will is the notion of the “true self”: the true self has pure free will, but it is very susceptible to outside manipulation (or assorted forms of brain malfunction)which adulterates the self into a damaged or “brainwashed” self that makes choices that are shaped by forces other than one’s genuine will. The “true self” is credited as the source of its choices; the adulterated self however is considered to be unable to make genuinely free decisions (and the more adulterated, the less capable of making them), and consequently the choices of the damaged or adulterated will are seen as less legitimate.

There are two main reasons for why this model perpetuates oppressive social patterns: the first is the fact that whether something is done by the “true self” or by a “brainwashed” or “damaged” self is determined in entirely different ways in regards to oneself (and by extension people like oneself), and other people (especially those unlike oneself): the former tends to be evaluated on a micro-level, analyzing choices in terms of individual preferences in the face of a very long list of situation-specific variables (referred to as idiographic model in sociology); when alternative choices can be imagined but discarded as less-preferable and/or less in alignment with one’s goals, the perception of the choice tends to be of one made freely, meaning by one’s true self, regardless of how it stands in relation to any social patterns. The latter tends to be evaluated by how closely it aligns with recognized oppressive social patterns, more in line with nomothetic explanatory models (i.e. ones that usually provide probabilistic explanations focused on a small number of general variables). This is more common the more the people and the patterns lie far outside one’s own experience, because the information required for a micro-level, ideographic explanation of a choice is less available, and because the foreignness of the experience renders attempts to “try to imagine oneself in their place” increasingly result in projection rather than empathy. Consequently, choices far from one’s personal experience tend to be identified as being shaped largely or even entirely by social structures and therefore considered inauthentic, belonging not to the true self but to the adulterated self.

The second reason for why the model of the corruptible true self leads to perpetuation of oppressive social patterns is what could be called normalized or invisible social structures. This is what social theorists in the ’30′s referred to as “total ideology”, a term that now is only going to make people think of totalitarian dogma even though it had nothing to do with that, making it somewhat less-than-useful jargon in non-specialized discussions. What the term refers to is the complete set of world-view-creating structures of a particular era, group, society, class, etc. that are so pervasive and all-encompassing that they become invisible to the people operating within these structures (think of it as somewhat analogous to air: the Earth’s atmosphere as measurable and perceptible qualities, but being ever-present and so basic to our existence, most of the time we do not perceive it: it feels like nothing, tastes like nothing, smells like nothing, and is invisible). In our society, this invisibilized structure is the one shaping a heteronormative, Christianity-based, capitalist and middle-class, white and usually male existence as default-existence. That is “normal”; deviation from this normal is socially visible, but it itself is not. Unfortunately, this pattern is perpetuated quite often within social science and theory as well (and by extension, social activism of certain types), when it analyses the structures of the “deviant” before it ever gets around to recognizing that the “normal” requires analysis, too, because it too is shaped by (often the very same) structures (e.g. the large gap between recognizing the necessity of studying the structures underlying femininity and social construction of woman, and recognizing that masculinity and social construction of man is also a necessary part of gender analysis). As a consequence, a student of society might learn a lot about the social structures affecting the life trajectories of poor people, women, racial minorities, etc. but never hear a peep about those structures affecting the life trajectories of middle-class people, men, whites, etc. In the context of determining whether someone is making choices in agreement with their “true self” or if they’ve been “brainwashed” by social structures, that invisibility of the structures shaping dominant patterns leads to declaring the mindsets of the white, straight, christian-ish, middle-class men as their “true selves” for lack of visible structures that might constrain them, but the mindsets of other classes as adulterated by the very visible social structures oppressing them.

It is extremely likely that this is how the “white saviour” complex among individuals and groups with a lot of social privilege (and therefore the least visible constraining structures) gets created: the unadulterated, non-brainwashed, rational members of the default category take pity with the poor brainwashed masses and decide that it becomes their job to un-brainwash them and protect them from the choices that are clearly not the result of their real selves, but only results of brainwashing AKA “false consciousness”. Something similar also applies to non-neurotypicality, mental illness, or addiction: the person is perceived to have a damaged “real self” and therefore make choices that aren’t “really” their free, voluntary choices. Consequently, they need to be protected from choices that the obviously more rational, less “damaged” neurotypical/mentally healthy individuals perceive as harmful or wrong or simply inappropriate.

These toxic outcomes of the two most widespread models of choice making (the libertarian model and the “true self” model) are why I think we need a new model which manages to treat people as equal agents without denying the effects of social structures and culture. We need a model that discards the notion that there’s such a thing as a platonic “true self” formed independently from the world as if it were secular versions of the soul. At the same time that model needs to incorporate the existence of social structures and cultural patterns in their entirely, acknowledging that all people are fully situated within the matrix of oppression, and that they are situated there for the entirety of their lives. Such a model, in other words, would need to treat all choices as acts of navigating the matrix of oppression, and all wills as shaped by that very same matrix. And it needs to do so without descending into micro-level-erasing degrees of social determinism.

* * *

I will discuss what such a model might look like based on what we know about people and how it can form the basis of better, less oppressive and paternalistic activism in the second part of this essay.

Karolina “Jadehawk” Lewis is an intersectional social justice writer and a student of environmental sociology and social theory. She blogs semi-regularly at

A FtM transgender perspective on the change in privilege

The issue of privileges enjoyed as a man compared to that as a woman can be a really unusual mix. Sometimes it’s the small things, and other times it’s huge. You can write it all down on paper, dissect it, and philosophize about it, but when you actually live in both those sets of privilege the differences are very stark.

How can someone live the day to day life of a woman, and still understand intimately how much more male privilege gives you? You have to live as both.

I lived the first 40 years of my life being perceived as a woman. I am very specific with this language because I am transgender. Although I am in the beginning of my medical transition, there is a huge difference in how people perceive me, and how I am treated now. Some of it is remarkable.

One of the first things I noticed is in my daily commute, I receive zero street harassment now. When I was in makeup, heels, and in public before, I felt I had to be on my guard at all times because you never knew when the construction workers would play out the cliche and say something horrible. I would have to fend off men in cars following me down the sidewalk when I walked, trying to ask me for my number. Even worse, were the bus creepers. There is no time in a woman’s life when drunkenly drooling incoherent statements about her chest is going to win you favors.

As a man, even a Trans* obvious one sometimes, I can walk anywhere I want day or night. My travel is not encumbered by anyone. If a man turns to talk to me, it’s because he wants to know the time, or if the bus has come yet. I would liken it to having a super power that allows me to do my daily travels without having to keep my guard up 100% of the time.

That revelation makes my life infinitely easier. If I want to go jogging before dawn, or late at night, then I can. Nobody will look twice at me. If I don’t want to own a car, and want to rely on the bus in a bad area of town, I can do it with impunity. Women are just not afforded that luxury. It’s a huge privilege to feel safe when you travel alone. It takes so much less mental effort to sort out. Being on your guard all the time is very taxing.

Another privilege I noticed pretty immediately is an allowance for one’s face to be serious. When I was perceived as a woman, I was often accused of having “bitchy resting face”. My neutral expression is stern, period. The fact that there is a phrase called “bitchy resting face” should tell you how women who don’t smile are perceived. I would have complete strangers tell me to smile regularly. If I was seriously studying, I would be asked if something was wrong. I would be told I’d be prettier if I smiled. It was all very intrusive. This cultural pressure to be pleasant is pervasive.

Now that I am perceived as masculine, nobody tells me to smile. Men are afforded stern facial expressions. If I am studying, folks nod sagely at me, and say, “Yeah, Finance class sucks.” I’m sure smarter people than myself have dissected this issue, but as someone that flipped this coin, I find it incredibly odd that my gender expression changes how folks feel about my stern expression.

In the same vein, as male, I am allowed to be competitive, assertive, loud, and bold. I am assured by my husband of 20 years, I have always had these qualities. The only difference is that now, presenting as male, these are good qualities.

When I was presenting as a women, the first thing that came up, if I behaved that way, was that I was a bitch. Over and over again, if I stepped up to a leadership role, or told someone in no uncertain terms there was a problem, that word was flung at me.

Now, I get patted on the back, and folks admire my tenacity. They tell me they wish they could be as assertive. This is a whole new realm of acceptance for traits I have had my entire life.

Also, If I am a real jerk, I get rueful smiles, and “Dude, it’s cool.” Then it’s all fine. That just shocked me. The instant pass I get if I mess up. I don’t get labeled the office bitch, only to have everyone treat me like I’m a real hard ass that’s going to snap at them. It’s like the “boys will be boys” motto now applies. It’s definitely seductive to be allowed that kind of out, even when it would be nicer if folks held your feet to the fire once in a while, so you’d learn not to be a jerk.

These are just a couple of the differences I have seen in how I am treated. These are generalizations, but they weren’t ones I expected to experience. There are so many small things I see, but I’m still in the beginning here, and I am sure, as I start growing whiskers, and passing to everyone, that there will be more.

Wolsey Bradley is a gamer, a cosplayer, and a perpetual student. He’s married to a fantastic man, and takes care of a very pushy cat. He’s also trans* and seeking transition medically, giving him a window into different gender roles.



Today is my birthday* and I’m using that as an excuse to do some major slacking off. But since I am a kind and thoughtful and sweet overlady, I would feel really bad about leaving you all hanging, so I have some linkies for you!

David is Fighting for refugee and immigrant rights over at Pharyngula.
Two articles on the biology online/Scientific American/DNLee debacle: one from from Wired science and one from Chris Clarke. And biology online apologizes.
More on the driving force behind the shutdown and impending debt ceiling disaster from Slate: Christian delusions are driving the GOP insane.
Secular Woman gives out awards to some truly awesome people.

Anyone else have links they want to share/discuss?

*I am mumbltymumblty-two years old.

Alexandra is the Hivemind’s wonderful and generous and thoughtful overlady. If she hasn’t mentioned it, today is her birthday and she would really appreciate some cake.

FILM REVIEW: After Tiller.

[TRIGGER WARNINGS GALORE: violence, harassment, rape, terrorism,
contempt for agency, animal cruelty.]

For decades, abortion providers in the United States have been the targets of terrorism*. Since 1977 so-called “pro-life” elements have engaged in more than 175,000 reported acts of disruption (including bomb threats, anthrax scares, chemical assaults and vandalism) and 6,400 reported acts of violence (including bombings, arson, death threats and kidnappings). In the past two decades alone, “pro-life” terrorists have murdered eight clinic workers including four doctors, two clinic employees, a clinic escort and a security guard, and there have been at least seventeen more attempted murders. While pro-choice rhetoric often centers on the pregnant person—as it should—the stories of their doctors are lost in all the noise about “baby killers” and the wholly fictitious Abortion Industrial Complex, except during brief periods when their assassinations make front page news. In the new documentary After Tiller, filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson set out to give these doctors a voice. And what they have to say is both illuminating and moving in surprising ways.

The Doctors

The “Tiller” in the film’s title is Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita-based provider of third-trimester abortions shot and killed in his church in 2009. The film takes us into the professional and personal lives of the only four remaining physicians openly practicing late abortions in the United States, three of whom Dr. Tiller mentored personally, and all of whom were his colleagues and friends. Tiller’s murder only steeled their resolve to continue this work; in the film, his is as powerful a presence as their own.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella granted Shane and Wilson extensive interviews and extraordinary access to their daily lives. Part of the reason the doctors chose to participate is their hope that “if more Americans could meet them, and hear where they were coming from—even if they still disagreed with the work that they did—they at least might not want to kill them.” If only. For all of the compassion these doctors show for their patients, for all of the bravery and commitment they display in the face of tremendous obstacles thrown in their way by lawmakers and anti-choice zealots, their enemies are of a decidedly different mind:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a nurse, receptionist, bookkeeper, or janitor, if you work for the murderous abortionist I’m going to kill you…I figured for every one I killed, I’d get another one to quit.”
-Clayton Waagner, anti-abortion terrorist, currently serving 30 years in an Illinois prison.

“Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgement upon our nation.”
-Scott Roeder, convicted murderer of Dr. George Tiller.

But if it sounds as if the doctors occupy the opposite end of the abortion extremist spectrum, this is not the case. These physicians think deeply about the complex moral implications of their work, and struggle daily to find the right answer to the question of what is best for people. Sometimes that answer is unequivocal: terminating a third trimester pregnancy. Sometimes not. But unlike that of their tormentors, theirs is not a black-&-white world, populated predominantly with innocent little babies and Evil Baby Killer villains.

The Patients

Which bring us to their patients. They come from a variety of religious, racial, socio-economic and family structure backgrounds, and collectively present the viewer with a wide range of circumstances surrounding pregnancy and the decision to terminate: we see several would-be parents who recently learned that much-wanted pregnancies are nonviable due to devastating fetal abnormalities; a young rape victim in shock and denial; an impoverished mother overwhelmed with family commitments who was unable to secure funds for an earlier, less expensive termination; and a haunting note from a desperate and suicidal 14-year old pregnant for the second time. Having never expected to find themselves in these predicaments, many agreed to participate in the film precisely because they saw sharing their own stories as the only way anyone could possibly understand their plight.

And that’s just what sets late abortions apart from earlier ones, isn’t it? No matter where one stands on abortion rights, no one envisions their future self facing a third trimester abortion, and thus it is all too easy to internalize the simplistic sound bites of abortion opponents without ever really thinking these through. When finally faced with the previously unthinkable, naive narratives bring only additional anguish and obfuscation to a person in a desperate and difficult situation, when what is needed is compassion and clear thinking. In their preliminary counseling sessions we hear these patients express stark, painful emotions: sadness, guilt, anger, grief, fear and plenty of ambivalence—although after ending their pregnancies every single one of them expresses great relief and gratitude. These doctors are keenly aware that their patients may very well feel differently tomorrow or years from now, and in this regard patients are counseled to show themselves some kindness, with the understanding that at this time, they made the very best decision that they could. This exchange is typical of the thoughtful dialogue that occurs before any termination is scheduled; it is in these scenes more than anywhere else in the film that the sensitivity of the doctors and their patients is most vividly on display, and their ethical considerations most evident.

One conversation troubled me, however. At a post-abortion follow-up visit, Dr. Warren Hern adamantly pressures a young rape victim to report her rape. Hern is portrayed as a deeply caring person, and part of his motivation here is that this victim deserves to see justice for her own sake. But he also explicitly reinforces the trope that she should report her rape in order to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else. But the implication that a rape victim is in any way responsible for her rapist’s subsequent behavior is 180 degrees off the mark. A rape victim usually has enough trauma and guilt to process without adding to it any responsibility for future victims. She has none. The rapist is 100% responsible for raping. Period, full stop. Here, Hern comes across not as callous, but rather surprisingly oblivious to the consequences for women who choose to report, and the very real concerns that affect those decisions. (See, e.g., here.) At the end of Hern’s conversation with his patient, she promises him she will report, and hugs him. I felt like screaming.

The Adversaries

And speaking of screaming. *ahem*

The filmmakers chose to represent the anti-abortion movement as the doctors themselves experience it, “as a constant presence in the background, whether standing outside their clinics in protest, or lurking in the air as a potential threat,” and they “were careful not to portray the protestors in any extreme or cartoonish way, but rather, in the moments we do have with them, to hear the more reasonable arguments they have against late abortion.” But the protestors are by their very nature extreme and cartoonish: ostentatiously reciting Christian prayers in front of clinics (in violation of Matthew 6:5), delivering self-righteous diatribes at community events, packing a church vigil festooned in “LIFE” regalia, holding up the tiny diaper of a prematurely born infant at a local zoning meeting—and that’s to say nothing of their signage, which ranges from deceitful to absurd to grotesque. But if Shane and Wilson were careful not to turn up the heat on protesters, perhaps this is because the doctors do such a fine job of it themselves merely by recounting their own lives. A doctor’s barn deliberately burned to the ground, killing 22 horses. Bullet holes through clinic windows. A gruesome protest at a child’s middle school on back-to-school night in an effort to intimidate her landlord father from renting space to Dr. Carhart. If that is not cartoonish and extreme, then nothing is. I was left with the feeling that the filmmakers let them off the hook too easily. (If you have the spoons for it, read the NARAL report Anti-Choice Violence and Intimidation to see exactly what this portrayal is missing.)

And of course we never hear any reasonable arguments for restricting abortions. In fact I have never heard a single one. Anywhere. Ever.

Shane and Wilson say that their agenda in making After Tiller was “not political, but humanist.” On the humanist front, they certainly succeed: anyone who watches the film will have difficulty painting abortion doctors (and abortion patients) as two-dimensional caricatures, the way their opponents frequently portray them. That the doctors continue to live and work with the awareness that an assassin’s bullet could strike them down at any time—and that their loved ones are also in danger—is more than just a ringing testament to their personal courage and commitment, borne of compassion for humanity and thoroughly thoughtful concern for what is best for people. When it comes to 21st century abortion politics in the United States, anything that moves the conversation in a humanizing direction is a most welcome and necessary political development. In this realm perhaps more than any other, the personal is political. And After Tiller makes a powerful political statement, whether the filmmakers set out to do so or not.

* If you think “terrorism” is bit of hyperbole, you are not alone. A U.S. government database maintained to track incidents of terrorism includes secular anarchists, animal rights activists, eco-terrorists and of course Islamic extremists, but only two anti-abortion attacks—and one of those was in Nepal. But just consider for a moment how such actions would be characterized if the perpetrators were overwhelmingly Muslims, instead of peaceful and loving followers of Jeezus Haploid Christ.

“I am the anti-abortion extremist, a terrorist to the abortion industry.”
-Clayton Waagner, anti-abortion terrorist serving 30 years in an Illinois prison.

Iris Vander Pluym is a godless, feminist lefty blogging at perrystreetpalace, a contributing columnist at The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy and Worldwide Hippies/Citizen Journalists Exchange, and an occasional guest poster at Pharyngula, The Greanville Post, and elsewhere. When she is not busy mocking conservatives and other fools, she is an artist and activist living happily in New York City’s West Village.


Call for submissions!

As you can see, it s What About The Mens Wednesday and the Hivemind has no content for you! Oh noes!

We need additional Mens to help David and TokenDude round out our Wednesday schedules. If you guys have an idea for a post (or a series of posts), please fill out our “contact us” form and let’s get this ball rolling!

Alexandra is the Hivemind’s benevolent overlady, who resides in that strange dimension where she has both too much time on her hands for her own good and she doesn’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. She is currently reading Deadline by Mira Grant.