I’m the monster you met on the Internet.

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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:

  1. I’m speaking essentially a foreign language that assumes the existence of personality constructs I don’t have.
  2. I fail to send out “I am nice” signals.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

super-waggy I-am-nice expert dog

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.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

40 responses »

  1. There’s another aspect to this: the Nice people can get away with mal-treating, mind-fucking, misusing and downright abusing others, not only without the other Nice people noticing, not only without noticing it themselves [some are the clever kind of sadist, of course, but i’ve met many who are well-intentioned], but even without the people they’re abusing noticing it.

    ‘Well-intentioned’ doesn’t mean ‘right’, in any sense. ‘nice’ doesn’t mean ‘good’. but it does often mean ‘safe’, in certain terms; and to those who occupy an habitable place in the hierarchy of power. (i think “hierachy of power” is a tautology.)

    Contrariwise, challenging accepted norms and assumptions makes one unsafe, and therefore not Nice.

  2. Usually it take me getting angry to post something with a really strong emotion. I can post something with lots of encouragement and positivite feelings, too, but I think on the balance (as far as my blog) I post more angry stuff. In that case, my stuff is really deliberately not padded with much if any, I’M NICE, NO REALLY I AM NICE, I’M NOT A THREAT TO YOU, NO THREAT, SEE MY HANDS? NO WEAPONS, SEE ME SMILE AND COCK MY HEAD ADORABLY? I’M NICE.

    I want people to worry about how mean I might be. Children are being killed and abused by people with all the NICE NICE people skills. I want to be a part of preventing that if possible.

    That’s part of the criticism you are getting, too, Ballastexistenz, they don’t like that you are criticizing murderous intent for what it is, murderous intent. You are supposed to notice, for instance, that Alison Tepper Singer is a NICE LADY, WHO’S JUST SUCH A NICE LADY AND WHO ONLY CARES CARES CARES.

  3. All barrier-breakers are considered “uppity”, not knowing their place. While some may see you as “unkind”, those who’ve been enlightened by your words see you as faithful and true, focused, no different than any other movement forerunner. We’ve got your back…

    It will be slow, but in time even the xenophobes will fade away, to be left in tight little paranoid groups commensurate with the KKK.

    As your word get outs, minds will turn towards, not away, from people with autism.

    I know mine has.

  4. Lots of people who aren’t hesitant to rock the boat depending on the circumstances are often considered by less-than-sensitive types as something they’re not. (“Always this” or “always that.”)

    Most often they’re oblivious to what motivates others: all they see is the argument, the pebble tossed in the calm waters of conventional. That’s what you’re running up against; it happens to plenty of people–it’s frustrating but not unique. In a setting geared to socio-political (and artistic) goals, it’s a common occurence among those who are a little less expressive than you happen to be, to respond by dismissing someone as angry. They are types who literally don’t understand passion, of any sort. (Especially passion for a non-economic cause.)

    There are plenty of us who don’t feel the urgency to be on all the time, and don’t feel compelled to look otherwise. Also, the reaction is far more pervasive in a setting in which it’s rightly seen as non-sequitor to move too far away from the topic in which the forum is geared. You’re a critic: of course you have positive things to say–they don’t see it though, because they’re too unnerved by any negative criticism to understand its context–or even the right to express negative criticism.

  5. 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.

    I’m a lot like that, myself. I don’t get “mean” but I get “irritated” a lot. It takes a lot of concentration to remember to smile at people when they come into my office. I don’t mind interruptions at all, but I’m such an introvert that these things just don’t come naturally to me.

    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.

    Yes. Which is just so sad – for the world, really.

    I admit to basing a number of my reactions to people on the “vibe” or “feeling” I get from them – but that is, for me, the spiritual aspect of how I perceive others. It impacts my reactions to people because if I get a negative vibe from someone, then no matter how “nice” they act, I cannot force myself to be friends with them. Friendly, okay. But not friends.

  6. I had a friend once, who on being barred from the Students Union for graffiti, used to announce himself thus

    Hi I am *** ******* I’m every thing they say I am and worse.

    Reckon that might suit me sometimes, having gone into a bar today only to be refused to be served on the basis that woman behind the bar, thought she had seen me somewhere and had a bad feeling about me.

    Was it the hat I asked, I know some pubs don’t like the hat. No I like the hat she said, whether that was being facetios of not I do not know. However I have been barred before on the basis of my resemblance to my brother, maybe he has suffered the same on my account. Whatever I do not recall this person ever, and certainly have never caused any trouble in that establishment, (which does have a reputation for arbitrarily banning people who don’t look right)

    Maybe it was the combat jacket.

    Whatever I rarely prove to be as bad as my internet reputation, except perhaps at the ASPECT conference, but then if I believe it is a setup and that the audience is politically niaive why not say so ?

    I am of course nice enough to people who know me but somehow I still send out scary signals to others.

    Here is the irony, if I was as scary as they think I am, I would not have walked quitely out of the bar/wherever and some of the most vicios bar room thugs wear smart clothes and would break a bottle over your head without a seconds regret if they were spoken to the way I am sometimes.

  7. Hi
    I think this post more than any of the others clarifies why “you are so hateful -angry “etc. I have found that most people have a very difficult time with the truth. Especially truth that confronts and that requires a change in their perception of themselves and how they treat other people. Your posts have helped me understand much more the ridiculousness of society determining if a person is “acceptable” or not. i.e. your recent post of chair-impairedness was super great ! I have always had the problem that you mentioned as far as reading people’s “signals”. I picked up on what they meant and oh my the response was “how could you say that ???” “Well thats what you meant right ? this is what you did and how you acted ” Then of course I got into trouble because I was creating conflict. No I was just trying to identify what the conflict was really about and what would happen next. and of course I was never ever really good about sending those “nice” signals. smile. Reading your post was like “oh wow THAT is why people said that I am difficult ??” Nice to know that I am not the only one with that “problem” What I have finally figured out is that when people try to solve “conflicts” it really means that they both want to keep their wrong attitudes toward each other without confronting why they have them in the first place AND keep their “nice ” reputation so they will be accepted by everyone.

  8. At 75 pounds now and with language that sounds like toddler babble to many, I see more and more people (esp. with younger children) cautiously back away or circle around us—from “the boy with something.”

    Not what I would call “nice” behavior.

  9. Don’t underestimate that dog. She is a very big “nice signal” all on her own. People associate nice dogs with nice owners, and harsh dogs with harsh owners. If you had a police dog for your canine, you’d get a different reaction.

  10. 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.

    There was this one multiple system we used to know– Astraea knew them better than we did, but they were friendly to us for a while. They were amazingly good at saying really nasty, undermining little things and couching it all in this self-help speak so that it wasn’t always immediately obvious just how nasty they were being. A lot of it was in the context of talking about their own “healing” and learning to make new “healthy” patterns of behaviour; “balance” and “setting boundaries” were two of their big favourites. You were supposed to cheer them on for healing and then it would turn out that “setting boundaries” meant allowing them to explode with rage at you, because if you said something they didn’t like, that meant you had infringed on their boundaries and threatened them. Or allowing them to kill people in their system because this was “maintaining the balance” and you couldn’t disagree, because they would go on about how it was healthy and right for them; therefore presumably no one had the right to judge them. They also played really sick sadistic dominance games in-system and talked about how healthy and beneficial they were for the people involved, because “(so-and-so) needs to be torn and ripped up every once in a while, it’s good for him.”

    Looking back over our correspondance with them, and with other people who did similar things, I’m often amazed at how much we were willing to overlook because we were desperate to believe that certain people supported and could help us.

    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.

    There are these letters every once in a while about our page. Not frequently, but enough that we’ve noticed a definite pattern. A lot of the time they’re dressed up as New Agey ‘how sad that you are not enlightened yet, but you can still be brought to the way of truth’ pretend sympathy. A lot of them purport to be able to see what is ‘really going on’ in our minds beyond the words.

    “Such an angry person, filled with hostility and hatred. How sad you are.” “Why are you so angry? So much anger, so much hate.” “I sense that you are full of hostility and I pity you.” Oh, yes, they always talk about how sorry they feel for us– sometimes in the context of talking about their “courageous recovery from MPD,” from “suffering you can’t even imagine.” And how sorry they feel for us that we choose not to integrate, or something.

    And this apparently is just based on things like reading our Myths page, not even any of the really ‘ranty’ things in the Opinion section. It’s interesting, because we were very careful to not make it sound as though we were venting against non-plurals as a group– just specific attitudes held by many– or against those who do choose to integrate (we’re pro-choice on that, we just don’t think it works as described much of the time). But people seem to infer it when it’s not there, and think that we “hate” others. It’s apparently the challenging of other people’s deeply held assumptions about plurality, itself, that some people perceive as an act of hatred.

    Maybe if we included lots of cute graphics and ‘inspiring messages’ and told people to ‘stay safe’ and so forth, and moderated our statements so that we didn’t ever appear to be expressing too strong an opinion about anything, we would stop getting the “why are you so angry” letters. But then we’d be lying and not being honest about what our actual experiences had been, which would defeat the whole point of the page.

  11. Being able to “pass for normal” some of the time is not always safe, either — people get angry when they realise that they were deceived, even though they were really the ones deceiving themselves by playing the “we’re all normal-okay people” game.

    I am reminded of a scene from the movie, “The Santa Clause” (not a misspelling). The elves are arriving at a small town jail to break Santa out … one of them says to the cop, “We’re your worst nightmare — elves with attitude!”

    We’re your worst nightmare. Oh, yeah…

    andrea

  12. Now and then I encounter someone saying that what’s unique about human beings is our ability to communicate. I have the suspicion that much of the time they’re actually talking about this kind of substanceless, “positioning” communication, an ability they share with dogs but not with many perfectly human beings.

  13. I’ve been charmed by bastards before; the ones who can do the ‘nice’ signals (or the ‘professional’ signals, or the ‘civilised’ signals ot whatever) are a hell of a lot more dangerous than the ones who can’t.

    I’ve sat with a small baby (about 5 months old) on my lap, and gone “Ooos an evil little git then? We’re going to roast you in the oven and eat you with sauce, aren’t we, yes, we are…” etc. Because I was trying for 110% ‘nice’ signals, the baby was gurgling away happily on my lap (baby’s parent knew that this was for demonstration purposes only, no mailice behind it). Are they so strong that they come first, and only afterwards we start looking for what people are actually saying?

  14. It’s not that the “nice” signals are so strong, M. It’s that many people have more “nice” receptors than those receptors that react to logic, content, information, reasoned argument. Perhaps it’s not numerical; maybe stimulating the affect receptors releases some happy-juice in the brain, while tweaking the content receptors simply demands more energy from the body-as-a-whole.

    Starting young, too, if your 5-month-old baby is a representative sample.

    Thanks, Ballastexistenz, for teaching me more about how brains work.

  15. I think it has more to do with what “language” we have been taught from childhood. I could never figure out why I “missed” so much when I was supposedly so “intelligent” (but with a not so obvious disability). After reading your posts I have come to the conclusion its because we were taught a different language than otherwise “normal” people. Example: a healthy baby is cooed at-competed to be held-touched and otherwise given the message ” we want you around”. a child with an obvious disability is given looks-NOT touched or held or otherwise told “we want you”. In childhood years a parent tells her “healthy child” when you go to college-get married-etc etc she sends the message “this is the role that you are expected to fulfill in life. a “disabled” child is told ” oh you just watch-we dont want you getting hurt”. Essentially given the message “not only are you not expected to DO anything that will put you on the same level with us but we will make sure that you arent included in the everyday life experiences that we participate in.” So we learn the language of “be grateful for the crumbs and dont be demanding”.
    I think thats the major reason why the term “angry crip” happens. Because horror or horrors someone has identified the game and forced people to confront the fact that they arent nice after all. That in fact they really do believe that certain people are the scum of the earth. And of course WE are the ones having mental problems if we try to figure out if a “friend” is really being nice or not. I wonder how many people end up in the counseling room simply because others were playing mind games with them. I’m realizing too thats one huge reason why people get offended. Its not because they are actually hurt its because their hypocrisy and coverup has been revealed. “How dare you tell me that I dont accept those poor handicapped people !” hmmm lets count the ways !

  16. rocobley: Because language is an abstraction, and abstractions (even “simple” abstractions such as the names for categories of objects) are inherently somewhat untrue and distorted compared to reality. That builds falsehood into the structure and nature of language.

    Everyone else: I’m sorry I’m not replying quicker. I’m somewhat incapacitated at the moment. I’m hoping I’ll get to reading and responding to people soon though.

  17. “Because language is an abstraction, and abstractions (even “simple” abstractions such as the names for categories of objects) are inherently somewhat untrue and distorted compared to reality. That builds falsehood into the structure and nature of language.”

    Amanda, I’m very sorry, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

  18. Basically, language is a slightly distorted version of reality. It can’t adequately contain and describe every aspect of reality, so there’s always some level of error in using it.

    In my case, I just try to minimize the amount of error, but I’m always aware that the words I or anyone else say are never going to be the exact truth. Sometimes it’s apparent that the level of distortion is going to be annoyingly high no matter which words I use, though.

    Using words to describe reality, and this is regardless of the size of vocabulary, still ends up being sort of like trying to draw a picture of something at such low resolution and with a limited enough color palette that the picture is fuzzy and the color is distorted. Someone really talented with words can even combine said limited colors in such a way as to give the illusion of even more colors and make the picture more recognizable (Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town is a good example of a talented poet cramming a lot of meaning-density in per phrase, so that seemingly nonsense phrases convey a fair amount of meaning to a lot of people’s minds), but in the end you’ve still got a really distorted, fuzzy picture going on.

    Does that make more sense?

  19. Yes it does. Not sure if it’s a universally applicable statement though. Of course its true for language that is about physical things, but language that is talking about abstract ideas such as, for instance, postmodernism, then words are the best, in fact, the only way in which such concepts can be described. You can’t draw a picture of postmodernism!

  20. Well abstraction isn’t reality, it’s… well… abstraction.

    I didn’t say that words were not useful for communicating about reality, though. Only that they display a distorted impression of reality. (As does all abstraction, including, perhaps especially, postmodernism.) But I wasn’t aware that abstract concepts were “reality”. I would think, in fact, that being able to convey that abstract concepts are “real things” like trees and rocks are, is in itself one of those distortions that language introduces to the world, which allows things such as postmodernism (which for all it claims to be otherwise, seems hopelessly mired in language-based conceptions of the world) to be represented as things at all.  They’re not things, they’re abstractions, describing an abstraction in words almost goes without saying, since words themselves are abstractions.

  21. That was a very interesting article. You clarified something for me that I’ve had trouble explaining to other people for years. I’m someone who automatically suffuses almost anything I say with a plenitude of “I’m nice” signals – not because I’m trying to obscure my message, but because it’s how I speak. Not putting in those signals is difficult to impossible. At the same time I have several close friends who don’t do so. For many years I described my best skill as “English-to-English translation”. I take what my friends are saying, that is usually being misunderstood, or not listened to at all because they aren’t saying it in the expected ways, and then I tell the same person the exact same thing, only with all the “proper” social signals in place.

    The results of this little exercise are interesting. “Well, why didn’t she just say that?” is the most common response. To which to appropriate answer (that I can never bring myself to give in this way) is “She did, dipshit. You just weren’t listening.”

    The most extreme example of this was between a minister and my husband. The minister in question sent us a letter regarding something my husband had done. It took me half an hour to pull the message out of the noise so that I could present it to my husband in some way he would find worth responding to. (As a large, white, middle-class guy, he generally gets away with ignoring the “I am nice” signals) I then had to spend nearly an hour translating his two-sentence response back to the minister in such a way that she wouldn’t be insulted – which given that my husband didn’t intend to insult her, seemed the way to go. The sheer volume of social nicety that had to surround a message of “I’m glad you decided to forgive me. I’d forgotten about the incident long since.” was patently ridiculous, yet she wouldn’t have taken it straight up without taking offence all over again.

  22. I know what Amanda means, cos I reckon tis cognitive linguists out of motor thery of language or some such Sundae conundrication ludovicus carolus notwithstanding whereof we must be silent.

    Meta language is the matter, that energises (and I am playing with verbal language here in more than one)

    language is ultimatly representation, encoding one thing standing for another never the real thing. doing is real, language is a pale reflection of that real of course in the old French meaning(naturellement)

  23. That’s probably why I so often get verbally attacked for expressing my opinion – as well as the fact that oftentimes when I express my opinion it’s to people who disagree and seem to think disagreement = insults and respond as such.
    Ettina

  24. Pingback: Feministe » The Person My Dog Thinks I Am

  25. I think something you may be missing, from your perspective, is that the OH I AM A NICE LADY, SO VERY NICE sort of communications aren’t “lying,” because a lot of neurotypical people have a tendency to actually act on the basis of the OH NICE LADY signifiers rather than logic — even the people that are giving off the OH NICE LADY signifiers. The “get along, go along” impulse is incredibly strong; the bad behavior that they say is reasonable may be things that they might never actually do unless they’re making aggregate decisions.

    To use an example: my mother is anti-gay-marriage. She will vote based on this reasoned belief. Every gay individual she meets is exception to the rule “gay people are bad.” Bad aggregate result; okay individual result.

    Conversely, there are a lot of people who give off a “creepy vibe,” or send off wrong or subtly distorted OH NICE LADY signifiers, who say perfectly reasonable things and then betray those reasonable ideals at every chance they get.

    I’m hesitant to believe that an entire subset of language is entirely meaningless.

    — ACS

  26. This is totally fascinating to me, and leads me to suspect that I am, in fact, *awesome* at giving off those “nice person” signals while somehow not doing a great job of picking up on a lot of social cues myself. I always get along really well with people in incidental social interactions: befriending salespeople, striking up conversations in lines, stuff like that. And I know that people who know me casually, especially in work environments, think I’m “nice” or “sweet.” But in some social situations– at parties, especially, when I’m stuck for extended periods with people I don’t know– I always feel terribly awkward, and as though I’m doing something “wrong”.

    Among friends, of course, I’m considered sarcastic, frequently bitchy, and give as good as I get– and I’m not even really changing how I interact, I’m just interacting with people who listen to what I actually say, and not how I say it. It makes me wonder how I’d be viewed if I *didn’t* have that unconscious ability to appear unthreatening. This is a wonderful post– thank you.

  27. jeffrey (yeah I know this reply has taken forever): It’s not the dog (who I now have a picture up of, by the way) that I underestimate. She’s… well… very very very sweet, and people react to her that way. It’s the fact that people think I had anything to do with it. She came to me this way. It’s just her personality.

    I did in the past have a German Shepherd mix, who was not at all mean (although she could get protective if she thought I was in danger), but you’re right, people did not respond to her the same way they respond to this one. But then, this one is a super-waggy expert in all things sweetness.

  28. I don’t think that “I am nice” signals are content-free, as much as that they are potentially incredibly deceptive, and do not necessary correlate with the person’s level of actual niceness. They are the equivalent of verbally saying “I am nice”: A statement that can either be true or a lie depending on who says it.

  29. You’re right, BE, about the “I’m nice” signals being potentially deceptive. But that’s not quite what I was talking about.

    What I meant is that a lot of neurotypical people act according to their monkey brain — the social-functioning “coprocessor” — rather than according to the logic-processing higher functions. Even when what someone is saying is obviously unreasonable and offensive, when it’s combined with OH SO NICE signifiers, the OH SO NICE signifiers may be more predictive of their personal behavior than the unreasonable things they’re obviously saying; most NTs don’t think about ethics as something they think about, other than as a series of axioms, but as something they do. As in: ethical behavior comes out of instinct, not reason.

    — ACS

  30. Are you saying that the “I am nice” signals are a predictor of actual ethical behavior, rather than ethical words?

    If so, I should mention that I also meant the signals override any (un)ethical behavior the people in question engage in, as well as any (un)ethical words.

    Most of the torturers I’ve known are “nice people” and that’s part of why they manage to avoid even a reprimand. One woman I know used to do all kinds of awful things to people, but she was “nice”. I don’t mean like Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter either, who was sickly-sweet fake-nice. This woman had the demeanour that caused people to believe that she was a down-to-earth, somewhat hippieish, and absolutely caring and loving woman. Even if they saw her doing things to her “students” that can only be described as severe abuse. Her “nice signals” overrode her actions and made them seem less heinous.

    I have seen the same thing happen with murderers and attempted murderers. (Including ones I’ve known. Uh, background, I’ve lived in institutions, I’ve known a lot of really scary staff. That’s how I know all these people who’ve done these awful things, and observed how people perceive them based on the other signals they give out.)

    I also remember a particular woman who I picked up on immediately as really scary. But I knew that she was sending out some kind of signals I could barely read, and they turned out, from what other people described, to be definite “I am nice” signals. She turned out to be doing a number of illegal and horrible things to both her coworkers who worked for her at the agency she was in, and the disabled clients of that agency. Whenever coworkers found out about her, I noticed they were always shocked, “…but she seemed so nice.”

    But there are also people in which there’s much less… I don’t know the word. Much less malice maybe. Much less intentional misleading in the “I am nice” signals, much less overt scariness than that woman. I have known a number of people who have done major and minor things wrong and gotten away with it on the “I am nice” signal grounds, including one woman who, stunningly, confessed exactly what she was doing and why, knowing it was illegal, but still manages to be okay somehow, because of the ever-present “I am nice”.

    The staff person I described in my post, was successfully slandered and nearly prevented from getting any more jobs, which was made far easier by her lack of “I am nice” signals and the definite “I am nice” signals of her fairly slimy bosses.

    Last year I was (along with many others) in a life-threatening situation due to the actions of a particular agency (not a disability agency), and we were basically told, including by the mayor himself, that the head of that agency was a nice and generous person and that therefore we should not bother him with little things like our inability to breathe inside his housing project. (I’m not making this up.)

    I’m not sure how much that last one was “I am nice” signals and how much it was the ever-present social networking crap.

    But I’ve definitely seen “I am nice” signals cover stunningly unethical actions, as well as words.  (I also, to clear up any confusion or generalizations about autistic people, do ethics largely by instinct, but I describe them in words.)

  31. Just to clear things up, BE, I didn’t mean to imply that you had to be intentional about ethics, just that you have to be more intentional than most people about making “I am nice” signals.

    — ACS

  32. Okay, I looked back up at what I wrote, and while I was thinking that, I pretty clearly wasn’t writing that. What the hell? Um. Sorry.

    — ACS

  33. Pingback: Sufficient Scruples » Blog Archive » Limping Up to Expectations

  34. At some point, you just gotta throw in the towel and not give a shit about “being nice.” My high school English teacher used to say that “nice” was the most meaningless word in the English language, and therefore we weren’t allowed to even use it in papers.

  35. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » Wow. Stuff about the anti-political nature of therapy.

  36. You are so unbelievably brilliant, Amanda. I don’t think people understand how priveleged the view from the outside of what society assigns as priveleged can be. I’m often judged by my “flat affect”, meaning my face shows no expression, to be having a depressive episode. Mainstream society can’t deal unless it can catagorize someone’s physical presence in terms with which they are familiar and comfortable.

  37. Pingback: QOTD: Empathy and projection « Urocyon's Meanderings

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