That "social interactivity" essay
[ETA: This entry was originally f-locked; I've made it public by request, but I'd like people to keep in mind that I didn't originally intend it for public consumption, and heed well the caveat that I'm writing here about personal reactions, not trying to make broad pronouncements on how others should read or judge the essay to which I've linked. Also, I welcome constructive feedback -- including thoughtful disagreement -- but I'm prone to flaking out on discussions in this space (I will read everything, but I may neglect to respond to things that want a lot of thought), so one might want to note that before investing too much effort in engaging with me over it. Thanks!]
I've seen a couple links on my friends page to this essay on how to interact well with other people. I see a lot of good insights in there, but I also find myself uncomfortable with the author's approach, and so I'm using this space to noodle about what's bugging me. It isn't my aim here to dispute the value others have found in it, which is why I'm dumping this in my own space and not as a comment somewhere.
Starting with the whole "short bus" and "social retardation" phrasing, the author hits my "ableism" buttons -- while I understand what he's getting at with that concept, I'm not sure I like his doing it by analogy to cognitive disabilities, especially when his overall attitude toward "social retardation" seems to me to be "Get over it and learn to fit in."
He especially gets me with that attitude on #8, "Don't make excuses." He cites "OCD" and "low-grade Asperger's" as two examples of things that might be legitimate explanations for someone's behavior, but are not excuses. Making excuses, he says, "just makes you look more socially retarded because it says, effectively, that you do not believe yourself to be bound by the polite rules of society." Thing is, a big piece of the disability activism in which I'm involved is pointing out to the world that the "rules of society" are biased in their design, in the ways that they privilege some capacities over others, and that justice may require a different set of rules. The author is right that in arguing that the existing set of rules are inappropriate, one winds up emphasizing one's differences from societal norms, and so if one's goal is to look more normal, this is counterproductive. But another big piece of the disability activism in which I'm involved is the principle that differences are not something to be ashamed of, that passing for "normal" isn't and shouldn't be the goal. The goal is a world in which difference does not mean inferiority -- in which diverse capacities are valued.
This is not to say that there should be no rules in the world, but that the rules should always, as much as possible, come from a position of recognizing and valuing and considering everyone -- as they are, with the capacities that they have -- equally. Rules that are designed only by and for those people who fit into the "norm" are not good rules. And it is no solution to simply tell the people who are excluded from that process that they should try harder to follow the rules anyway, or that it is a personal failing if they cannot or do not.
I'm not inclined to take a strong stance that any of the specific rules on this list are unjust, but given that the author has acknowledged that following them may be more difficult for people with certain types of disabilities, I would like to see him assume more of the burden of proof on the point -- to persuade me that there's good reason to privilege the capacities that these rules privilege, and to disadvantage others. On many points, I personally am probably quite easily persuaded (although my judgment, here, is probably not the toughest test to which such an argument could be subjected), but on others, I'm less likely to acquiesce. For example:
15) Don't be "that guy" who sits in a corner and doesn't talk to anybody. You know exactly what I'm talking about, too. Maybe you're at a party and you really only know one person there. Maybe you're in a bad mood. Whatever.
When you do this - sit in a corner - you exude a passive aggressive hostility. What you're saying is that you are waiting for someone else to come and talk to you - that you are too important to make the first social move. Well, guess what? You're not.
Here, someone's sitting in a corner and not talking to anyone is deemed inappropriate because other people will interpret it as having certain meanings, and those meanings are objectionable. Is this actually the responsibility of the person sitting in the corner, or should others present be responsible for recognizing that the "passive aggressive hostility" they perceive is only something that they
are projecting onto the other person, or that the message they perceive the other person to be expressing is a figment of their own imagination? I suspect it would not be unduly burdensome for others to assume instead that the person sitting in the corner may have entirely different reasons for doing so. For example, someone may have severe social anxiety, and it may have taken considerable effort for them to simply get themselves into that corner where they could see others and be seen by them. They may welcome others' approaching them, but they may also just enjoy being present, or perhaps they're waiting for their own anxiety to calm down enough that approaching someone themselves becomes potentially pleasant. Does this hurt anyone? If the only problem with it is that it makes others uncomfortable, could an alternate "rule" be that they should take others' unusual behavior less personally, and meanwhile comport themselves in a way that is respectful of difference?
All that said, I think the author does a pretty good job of summing up some practices that -- if one can pull them off -- make it easier to get along in the world we've got. And that may be a useful thing, even from a perspective that would rather see a lot of the rules rewritten, because until that happens, many people will be better off figuring out how to get along under this set. Still, a survival guide for people with non-normative social capacities does not need to imply all the value judgments that I think this one does. At the opposite extreme, it could just as easily be written as "The system sucks, but here's how you might cope inside it, if you want to try to do so." Obviously, though, that's not how this author sees things (and I personally am likewise pretty fond of many aspects of the system he's describing), but I would still rather see a middle ground, acknowledging that criticism might legitimately flow not only toward people who have trouble with the rules, but from them.