I’ve long thought of getting a t-shirt that says “I’m the monster you met on the Internet.”
Mainly because in offline gatherings (of autistic people, at least), I appear much more harmless, if also much less capable, than I do online.
What’s this about? Well, on the surface, it’s about the fact that I’ve just gotten called “harsh” again. (No, I won’t say where, because the person already seems convinced I’m picking a fight with them and I don’t need them thinking I’m sending people over, too. The fact that I’m not picking a fight nor being nasty in various ways will probably never be acknowledged.)
But I have been meaning to write this entry for a couple weeks now, and the fact that I have just been called “harsh” again is just a catalyst and a good example of what I mean. The post itself has been forming itself in my head for far longer. I have previously covered various aspects of this topic in On the “angry” nature of my writing, Solving emotions rather than solving problems, and Sordid, anyone?
I’m pretty much unable to pad my writing. There’s two main kinds of padding I can’t add. I can’t add meaningless filler (a bad thing when you have writing assignments that are length-based). And I can’t add all the funny little signals people send to say “Look at me, I’m harmless, nice even.”
I used to have an excellent staff person, who didn’t send a lot of those signals in the offline world. She was a pretty gentle person overall, in how she did things, but she was always being mischaracterized as harsh, abrasive, and nasty. She wasn’t autistic. She just wasn’t stereotypically feminine. In a man, her behavior would not have seemed remotely harsh. Her lack of “feminine signals” was taken by many people to mean that she wasn’t a very nice person, when on the other hand she actually went out of her way to be nice to people. She just wasn’t people’s conventional idea of what a woman should be like: She had “masculine” body language, she didn’t smile constantly, she didn’t go in for random social niceties, etc. She actually lost jobs over this, jobs in which she was often more competent than other employees.
Note that she didn’t have to actually do anything particularly mean. It was what she didn’t do. Which meant that people then inferred a lot of things and viewed what she did do as mean, nasty, harsh, and abrasive in nature. She agonized over this, particularly over the word “harsh” that she was always being called, but she couldn’t change who or what she was.
I’m fairly convinced that most of what people see as my personality, good or bad, is imaginary. This is not to say, along with some of my previous doctors who made the opposite mistake, that my personality is non-existent. I’m just not shaped like people expect. There are things they are looking for, whole patterns they are looking for, that are simply not a part of me. Instead of noticing this, they imagine things into those blank areas, and their ideas of who I am can be stronger than even what I do or say to them. They then reinforce to others their views of what is inside these blank areas. I am sure to some extent this happens to everyone, but for me and many like me it’s a pretty pronounced and constant effect.
Part of the problem is that in order to communicate with people in language at all, I have to use a system of sending information that contains a lot of embedded assumptions about how people work. It seems difficult to get away from this, and people who know me by language can come up with some really bizarre interpretations, having to do more with the way language fits together than to do with what I meant in the first place. I view all language as a form of lying, although I of course try to minimize the amount of deception involved. But lying seems to be an unavoidable consequence of using language. I just try not to compound the problem by telling a whole nother level of lies on top of the inherent lies of language (unless there is a very good ethical reason for lying).
At any rate, one of the false overlays it’s possible to read into what I am saying, is a false overlay of harshness. The interesting, and dismaying, thing that I have found, is that a person can say genuinely harsh things (like wanting their child dead), but do so in a way that is covered over with a lot of particular language triggers, and be considered a nice person in the process.
I don’t use those language triggers. I don’t know if there is a word for those things in linguistics. What they appear like to me, is content that is there for the sole purpose of conveying a specific social impression of the person. That impression is supposed to be that the person is kind, compassionate, caring, nice, sweet, good-hearted, etc. What surprises me is that people read those signals more strongly than they read what is being said. To me, those signals stand out in stark contrast to what is being said, much of the time.
To borrow a technique from my EYEBALLS post, in the more extreme version of this, it must look to a lot of people like saying:
I AM A NICE PERSON I want I AM A SWEET-NATURED PERSON to I AM A NICE PERSON kill I WOULD NEVER HURT ANYBODY certain kinds of people I AM A NICE PERSON and have I WOULD NEVER HURT ANYBODY seriously I AM A NICE PERSON thought I AM A SWEET-NATURED PERSON about I AM A NICE PERSON doing I WOULD NEVER HURT ANYBODY exactly that. I AM A NICE PERSON. I AM A GOOD PERSON. I WOULD NEVER HURT ANYBODY. I AM A NICE PERSON. I AM A NICE PERSON.
I imagine that for people who read those signals, the signals drown out what is actually being said, which is “I want to kill certain kinds of people and have seriously thought about doing exactly that.”
That is, of course, an extreme example. Most people do not use it with anything that extreme. But I have seen people use it with things that extreme before, and I wanted to make the point that people can mask even the extremes of what I’d consider pretty damn harsh and hateful views, inside these “I am nice” signals.
The interesting thing being that the expectation at that point is to respond to the “I am nice” signals rather than to what is being said. It counts double against you if you not only respond to the content of what is being said (in the above example, the “I want to kill certain kinds of people” part), but also fail to add your own “I am a nice person” signifiers while doing so.
That can actually lead to the incredibly surreal situation where saying “Killing people on the basis of what kind of person they are is not a good idea” is considered more harsh than saying “I want to kill certain kinds of people and am seriously thinking about doing so.” All it takes is for the first person to lack “I am nice” signifiers and the second person to put them in at nearly every other word.
I have read of versions of pop psychology that take things so far as to claim that all communication and action is merely some version of giving and receiving those social signifiers. I don’t subscribe to that, because I can tell that people can act and speak for ethical reasons, but I imagine that people who do hold to those theories would imagine up all kinds of sorts of strange motivations in anyone’s writing that was primarily concerned with ethics or something else other than social signifiers.
What the signifiers are based on, of course, is incredibly biased by gender, class, culture, etc. And I’ve noticed that a powerful (in terms of existing, “accepted” power structures) person can lack more of the “I am nice” signifiers and get away with it, and a less powerful person can get away much less with leaving those out. Rich people, men, white people, non-disabled people, etc, are often given more leeway. I think much of the “bitter nasty cripple” stereotype is based on merely the absence of constantly smiling, agreeing with the nearest non-disabled person, and making oneself cute, pathetic, and ingratiating. I have heard people write about how (in American mainstream cultures) men are often afraid of women who don’t smile, and white people are often afraid of black people who don’t smile.
So that’s several strikes against me, in general, in the perceived-harshness department:
- I’m speaking essentially a foreign language that assumes the existence of personality constructs I don’t have.
- I fail to send out “I am nice” signals.
- I tend to respond to the underlying content (whether emotional or conceptual) of what is being said, rather than to the more deliberate signals that point often far away from the underlying content.
- I’m an “unfeminine” female, a not-little-enough-to-be-cute-anymore autie and gimp, and a (for the USA) lower-class person who will fight not to be treated like dirt on the basis of income. (In other words I’m really bad at “knowing my place”.)
It’s often difficult to tell which of those are at play when I’m being misunderstood as this harsh, nasty, angry person, but I am sure that more of those are at play than the people doing the misunderstanding want to admit.
Speaking of people not wanting to admit things, I had the very interesting experience awhile back, of engaging, along with some of my friends, in a long discussion with someone who had read this blog and insisted against all evidence that I was an incredibly angry and unhappy person. It turned out that evidence did not matter to this person, what mattered was that this was her “impression” of me. That “impression” outweighed every explanation she was given for why her impression might be mistaken, and she eventually said that even if we were correct about me, she was still going to go by her “impression” of me. On the other hand, she held up someone who has openly stated that she hates the way her body and brain work and wishes she could be “normal”, as a happy person that I should aspire to be more like.
By the way, I have of all things a dog who sends out “I am nice” signals galore. That’s in fact the bulk of her communication to people. “I am nice, I am sweet, I am friendly, I am nice, I am sweet, I am friendly.” I mean, even for a dog, her behavior in this regard is extreme, and many people comment on it.
The change in people’s attitude towards me has been astounding. Suddenly people who used to run away or make snide remarks at the sight of me, in one case someone who has run at me screaming and cussing, are friendly to me. I have not changed at all, but somehow being associated with this dog means her signals rub off on me or something. People gain a very different (and probably equally false) impression of me just based on the fact that I’m walking around next to someone with big eyes, a friendly face, and a constantly-wagging tail.
I have to say that their sudden civility (and before, I did not even have civility from most of these people, I had open hostility or fear) is pleasant. But I also have to say that it shouldn’t take a super-waggy dog for people to be able to realize I’m not an unapproachable, possibly-dangerous monster (and yes, the technical term for people like me used to be “monsters”, just as an odd historical tidbit).
There are of course auties who can send more of those “I am nice” signals than I can. They are generally more accepted by, and acceptable to, people who view those signals as important. When I am treated more, dare I say harshly, than they are, then it’s likely to be seen as my fault, because I can’t send those signals. Generally the perception of me can range from me not really being there at all (one way to read the absence of certain signals or aspects of personality), to me being a rude or scary person.
My friends are usually people who can’t send those signals, or else who can send them but don’t put a lot of stock in having to receive them in order to be convinced that someone is not being harsh, rude, and nasty. This includes both autistic and non-autistic people by the way. The ones who can’t or won’t send those signals end up getting the same amount of crap I do — often from people who can send “I am nice” signals and therefore supposedly aren’t “giving us crap” but rather “being nice to us” — and often getting blamed for the way they are treated.
People see us upside-down. They see parts of us that are not even there, do not even exist, the standard mental hallucinations and then some. And those non-existent things often take on more reality to them than what is in front of them. People can be so busy looking for things that are not there that they miss what is there, whether what is there is good or bad. And believe me, if most of my friends and acquaintances are any example, they miss out on knowing a whole lot of really nice, really cool, really interesting people because of their own preconceptions of what signals a person must send out in order not to be the opposite of that.
Of course, as long as what people “feel” that they perceive takes precedence over what they are perceiving, that’s going to continue to be the case, and a lot of people doing the wrong thing, including some strikingly wrong things, will be considered “nice” as long as they send out the “proper” signals, and a lot of people doing the right thing, including some strikingly right things, will be considered “mean” as long as they do not send out the “proper” signals. And, as I said, some of the nicest, most loving, interesting, ethical, funny, and fun people I’ve ever met will be considered mean, hateful, uninteresting, unethical, humorless, and boring.