Politics, Ethics, and Mental Widgets


This topic came up during the last Autistic Liberation Front meeting. We were discussing the connection of autistic people to the rest of the world, and Laura Tisoncik made a comment — can’t remember quite what — that reduced a lot of the ethical choices we were talking about making, being a choice between love and disconnection. And how there were all kinds of fancy ideologies people could get into and so forth, but this still seemed like a better way to sum things up.

I have a confession to make that might startle some people: I’m not capable of holding a complex ideology — what I call a set of abstract mental widgets all connected to each other in the sky — in my head. If I try, it falls apart rapidly. I can’t sustain it, I can’t even fully build it, and I certainly can’t believe in it. I used to try, because I thought that it was a measure of my stupidity or something that I couldn’t. And my brain turned to mush every time and I got really frustrated and miserable. I’ve since learned that that’s simply not my strong point and there’s no way on earth I could do it and would be better off putting my cognitive resources somewhere more useful.

This is not easy in a world that mostly equates politics and ethics with vast, overarching ideologies, all neatly connected like a giant sculpture in the sky, and no piece possible to be moved because it would bring the rest of the structure down on top of it. Of course, this is also a world that also equates politics with greed, anger, and corruption, and in which many people who do engage in politics all the time (trying to understand various power structures and social systems and how to do something about the bad parts) actually deny that they are political at all because they view politics as something ugly and dirty, something about politicians, rather than about everyday people. So they do politics all the time while denying it to their last breath.

My versions of politics and ethics have to do with taking some really basic, simple values — such as love rather than disconnection — and applying them to situations that I encounter in the real world. The strange thing is, this tends to yield what look like views a lot more complex than you’ll generally see coming out of a complicated string of mental widgets. That’s because of the “real world” part of it — the real world is actually more complicated than any mental widget could ever be, and applying a simple principle or two to the real world yields results a lot more complex-looking (when taken as a whole) than erasing the real world in favor of a complicated (but not as complicated as the real world) mental widget.

But given the circles I tend to run in, I seem to bash into complicated, rigidly-held, abstract mental widgets all the time.

There are people afraid to condemn the Ashley Treatment because it throws some of their “feminist” mental widgets out of whack. Some people have argued that seeing Ashley as a human being is dangerous because of this thing called “abortion rights” which has to have all kinds of arguments behind it (including the inhumanity of human fetuses by virtue of cognitive ability, which has always struck me as one of the stupidest arguments for abortion in the known universe, but anyway) and if we see someone severely cognitively disabled as having personhood then oh my goodness we might have to rethink our definition of humanity and rights and the whole world (or at least Feminism As We Know It) will fall apart. That it’s really only their ideology (not the whole ethical world) that’s likely to fall down under its own weight doesn’t seem to occur to people, and they do this damage control of their mental widgets so they can keep them all neat and lined up and orderly and safe while other people suffer and die as a result. (And people think that I’m the one who’s screwed up for lining up blocks.)

(My favorite posts I’ve seen about Ashley so far, by the way, are all by someone named Thirza, who wrote Growing Up with Sky, Oh Now I’m Really Mad!, and I Am Not Responsible for Your Discomfort. Zilari has also written Ashley X: What People Aren’t Getting which sums a lot of things up.)

The reason I can come up with so many things to say on so many issues, is not because I have a beautiful bunch of mental widgets lined up in my head with all the proper ideas on sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and every other ism out there, lined up neatly and gracefully, preferably in line with a particular overarching academic ideology where you memorize which bits of privilege are which and plug and play and mix and match. I’ve certainly read more than my fair share of “theory” coming from that angle (on more than my fair share of topics), but it’s just not where my head goes when I’m looking at a situation. I just take the situation and try to figure out what’s true within that situation, and write about that.

That method seems a lot easier to me. I don’t have to hold a bunch of things in my head that are not happening in front of me. I don’t have to memorize tons of arcane ideas about how the world works off in word-abstraction-land. I just have to take a look at what’s going on, maybe cross-reference it to various forms of “what has gone on,” or “what is going on elsewhere,” and that tells me most of what I need to know. My head doesn’t have to hold the whole world because the whole world already exists just fine on its own without my head around to make sense of it. It seems, though, that for some people it’s either easier or preferred (it’s hard to tell which) to memorize all the proper mental widgets, and to violently force the world (or at least make a serious attempt) to bend to the shape of the widgets.

This doesn’t mean that people who apply mental widgets this way always get things wrong, or that I and others like me always get things right, or that I always disagree with people who use mental widgets (whether both of us are right or both wrong). We’re all fallible human beings, and sometimes mental widgets can provide a shortcut to the right answer. But overall the mental-widget approach to ethics and politics strikes me as far more violent, hateful, impractical, disconnected, and damaging, even if it’s also aesthetically pretty from a certain standpoint and fits very well into academia.

So, I am political because wrong, evil things happen in the world and I find that the only right thing I can do is insert myself in the right spot to do whatever I can about them. Because politics as far as I’m concerned is about doing what needs to be done about the misuse of power and its effects on people’s lives, not about a specific set of mental widgets or a political party or campaigning or something. I may do what other people call analysis, but I do it by throwing a few really basic ethical principles at a wide and interesting world, not by memorizing bunches of mental widgets and lining them up in the right places. I can be totally lost by people’s tall nets of abstractions built in the sky, and that may make some people think I’m stupid or incapable of “real” political thought, but I think I do just fine closer to the ground, and that from closer to the ground I may even be better equipped to dismantle a lot of the ideas-in-the-sky — such as mental age, to pick a recent example — that seem to trip a lot of others up in their neverending throwing of one set of mental widgets at another to see which one topples first.

I wrote the following a long time ago about this topic, but it still applies:

In towers tall they shout across
Impressions of the ground below
In folly but in certainty
The more they yell the more they know

I tried to build a tower once
I lost myself in winding stairs
That clattered down on top of me
My building skills not up to theirs

I tried to build so many more
They toppled faster with each try
The more I tried to work it out
The more my plans would go awry

And now my feet are on the ground
I feel and smell and see the earth
And now that it’s in front of me
I know what all those words were worth

Basically, I just can’t get all interested in whether this-ism clashes with that-ism or whether under the-other-ism it’s possible to believe such-and-such or whether you need to meld the-other-ism with yet-another-ism to come up with a belief system that can encompass whatever situation is being discussed. While I’m clearly capable of using my brain, there’s one particular kind of intellectual analysis that’s totally beyond me and that seems to set me apart from most people I’ve known who are considered academically brilliant. And that is the one that gives people lots of shiny widgets to bat around in their heads. It’s not just a matter of distaste, it’s a matter of incompatibility with my brain structure or something.

In the end, it’s also the mental-widget approach to politics that convinces a lot of people that they are too simple, dumb, or outright too ethical, to be political, even as they do things that are incredibly important politically. It’s not that intellectual sophistication never has any place in politics, but it’s not a prerequisite for being political, either, and does not have to be used to create ridiculous amounts of rigid mental widgets where anyone who can’t memorize and use them is automatically an Inferior Creature of some kind or someone who will never be able to do anything of importance ethically or politically. (Although the existence of this bias seems like a wonderful example of cognitive ableism in trendy political circles.)

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

42 responses »

  1. In one of the places I worked I would get into heated arguments, mainly with my boss, over his raicism and xenophobia. To my way of thinking to say that everybody who came from a certain country, or looked a certain way, was exactly the same and should all be theoretically tarred with same brush was not only unthinkable, it was ridiculous. I would say to him “I see that Ted Bundy was a white man. He was a serial killer. That must mean you’re a serial killer.” Of course I didn’t mean this, I just wanted to show him how applying generic principles to groups of people is stupid. Which got my boss rather flustered and yet he was unable to apply the rule of viewing every person and every event on an individual basis. He would read the papers and then apply a blanket opinion on various people or events.

  2. It’s my opinion that most people construct their lovely structures of mental widgets (I love that image), precisely because the real world is so damn complicated, and they can’t/don’t want to deal with it. Applying simpler principles to the real world ends up with all kinds of ambiguous, contradictory, or even paradoxical situations that make many people so uncomfortable that they will run off to their mental worlds without even an acknowledgement that they’re leaving the real for the theoretical.

  3. i am wondering how many cracks i managed to crawl through in academia to get as “far” as i got while having practically the same “problem” as you do about mental widgets (except i think i could deal with them more -or at least fake it better- 15 yrs ago than i can now). but i am pretty sure that when i find i have to “go with my gut-instinct” on political topics, the reason for it is something very similar to yours.

  4. >> I’m not capable of holding a complex ideology.

    I don’t know of anybody who is. They change daily to varying degrees. You already hold deep-seated feelings on feminism, civil & disability rights, religion. That’s really all any human being is capable of.

  5. I know lots of people who are. They build ideologies in their heads all the time, and can even compare one ideology to another and another without comparing either one back to the real world, or without doing so very often. I can’t do that, they can, that’s the difference.

  6. One particular reader is reading me incorrectly, then. I think I’ve got a fair better clue how my mind works than you do, and would appreciate you grasping that I may in fact have a clue what I’m talking about, having encountered these discrepancies my whole life. This is very reminiscent of being told that I must think in words, after all, I write in them. I have, in fact, discussed these matters with people who are able to form large amounts of mental widgets in their heads, and there is an immense discrepancy between what they do and what I do even if it leads to a similar-looking result. But I think I’ve already explained this, and would appreciate being treated as a credible reporter of my own mind.

  7. >> I think I’ve got a fair better clue how my mind works than you do, and would appreciate you grasping that I may in fact have a clue what I’m talking about, having encountered these discrepancies my whole life.

    I agree.

    >> This is very reminiscent of being told that I must think in words, after all, I write in them.

    I never said otherwise. You’ve written remarkably about how you experience the world–and you’re an authority on that. Some of what you say about cognition and proprioception I just cannot identify with. But I’m a speaker like other NTs, but I can tell you that as a speaker, thoughts are not always spelled out in words. Far from it.

    All I can say is you write comparatively all the time. That’s output resulting from comparative opinions on a vs. b vs. c, for what they’re worth. You’re (well formed) ideologies end up announced.

    It sounds more like you’re talking about the act of sitting somewhere and weighing alternatives of one viewpoint to another in your head silently. Very obviously you’re the only person who knows about what goes on that way. All I mean is you may be a little self critical sometimes, like a lot of people.

    There’s another sort of inverse aspect in which people may bat around widgets in their heads but they just don’t have the words for them. You, on the other hand, are formidable with words.

  8. Whatever you’re writing about is a good example of the sort of stuff that I can’t make head or tail of. You’re making connections that I’m not sure are actually there, and tying them together in weird places way over my head, and the only thing I can really do is walk away from it because communication never comes of this.

  9. The question is was Hegel capable of thinking the things he wrote about?

    The young Marx thought so, for the obscure theories of Hegel and Feurbach led to the interminable dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, the bugbear of many a street corner radical who in most cases had no idea what the slogan meant, any more than the average trotskyist could explain the transitional programme (and don’t ask me cos that was all more than 30 years ago when I studied politics)

    But for true 19th century inpenetrability you need to read Carlyles Sartor Resartus, if anyone can explain what that was all about I would be grateful.

    Trouble is these days I am still taken apart by dogmatic Marxists who consider the possibility of post modernism as much an affront to there weltanshaung as Hegel’s contemporary theologians viewed Geology as affront to there cosmology.

    I expect studying complex political theory was quite an undertaking after school, because besides Marx with whom I had a passing familiarity there was Thomas Hobbes to contend with, written in the same style of English as the Bible, quite a culture shock.

    Ok I am a sophisticate, I don’t care that’s what I am and I can justify that in obscure and impenetrable prose with the best (or worst) of them.

  10. You’re a Larry, is what you are. I don’t know another word for it. ;-)

    Seriously, though, your ability to think in certain ways has long impressed me, although I suspect I go about things differently.

  11. I’m an idiot. My take is that every correct thought, every solution to every problem all comes from Upstairs–from God. Direct from God. I of myself can do nothing. It’s hubristic to analyze the thought process, I wouldn’t and don’t want to even think about it other than to give all glory to the Creator.

  12. Not to diminish or disregard what you said about not being able to form complex ideologies, but I think you may be better off.

    What I’ve seen of ideology always seems to start by making rules to suit people, and end by trying to make people suit the rules. There seems to be a sort of blindness, where people can keep throwing words and rules and abstract principles at things to the point where they claim that what’s happening isn’t and what isn’t happing is.

    The bizaare connection between abortion and what was done to Ashley is a perfect example. People start of with what they want to see happen (not seeking to debate abortion, but a major motive for most pro-choice people is that a woman not have to sacrifice autonomy over her own body), and proceed from there to make rules. This involves deciding who is human, and who isn’t, and who gets control over what. And then the thinking that started with the desire to keep other people from taking control of women’s bodies winds up becoming so abstract that one can argue for forced hysterectomies in the name of reproductive freedom, and that not letting someone else take control of Ashley’s body for reasons unrelated to abortion leads directly to forced pregnancies.

    Clearly, you can grasp and write about complex ideas when it comes to politics, so it seems to me that the gap when it comes to ideologies is something like your tendency to percieve the actual content of what someone says, not the social cues involved. What you’re failing to percieve seems to be primarily a distraction from what’s important, and may leave you better able to see some of what is than people who get distracted playing with the rules.

  13. Oh — yeah — I realized eventually that it probably wasn’t a bad thing. It just took me awhile to realize it probably wasn’t a bad thing, because it was such a prized ability. The post was not meant as a “look how bad I have it” sort of thing, more like “I can’t do this one thing, and neither can a lot of people, but hey look at this other thing that can be done instead…” thing. (Which is why I had to quit responding to one of the responses because it was going off-track as if I’d said something else and that’s one thing I’m not always clear on how to deal with.)

    And yeah, you’re right — although I’d argue that it’s not the ideas that are complex that I write about, it’s the situations. I can handle complex situations. I have more trouble with complex ideas.

    It’s a hard one to describe the difference between, though, and I’m not sure it does look different on paper. I’ve just been in enough situations where I’m set alongside someone who can do that stuff, and required to do the ideology-stuff in a way where I can’t work around it my usual ways, and that’s when it becomes really obvious that it’s not possible. I think my ability to see complex situations can mask my inability to handle complex ideas-divorced-from-situations most of the time (to people who don’t know what they’re looking for anyway).

  14. The problem I have with ideologies is a matter of limited energy. I cannot read or take in volumes of discourse unless I wish to dedicate my entire life to it. So like yourself, I hope I consider each situation as it arrives.

    However, for example, I know I am an egalitarian, so I consider each situation backed up by the idea that we are all worth as much as each other, and things like gender, sexuality and disability don’t make a difference. And I attempt to apply logic.

    I touched on this myself just yesterday, actually. Sort of. But in my own convoluted way that might not be altogether accessible…

    I’m afraid I have been completely unable to write about the Ashley X treatment, it makes me very upset. However, there have been many excellent responses throughout the disability blogosphere including the ones you mention.

  15. Well perhaps I should follow a certain Johnny come lately Welsh philosophetaster on the ASA newsgroup and declare I am Hegel (and just as sloshed as Schlegel) :) cos dialectics apart I have a dialect of my own and dial up direct. Trunk calls to elephant in the room woozels notwithstanding.

    Well of the more modern philosophetasters the hardest read is Roger Penrose and the most annoying Stephen Pinker.

    Well what has any of that to do with Ashley X. Well Penrose at least has a novel way of granting free will in the face of the new Calvinism of the evolutionary biologists to whom Ashley X is dead weight.

  16. Based on what we’ve seen, political discourse, or political discourse in America anyway, is strongly biased in favor of those with mental widgets. In some places, it’s like you can’t even weigh in with your opinion without people wanting to know what “team” you’re with, what widget you have– are you feminist, LGBT, postmodernist, etc. And they won’t really accept “Well, not any of them, really, because I don’t ever agree 100% with all the views of any of the ‘teams’ out there. It’s *my* opinion, not me speaking on behalf of a group’s party line” for an answer. This is… considered less valid, or something. And that confuses us, because it seems to us that a certain amount of people join party lines for the same reason some people join religions– because they want someone else to tell them what the answers are; or because they agreed with a few of the major ideas and so they jumped on board and assumed all the others were right, too. In other words, to take the cynical view, because they wanted to avoid too much mental effort in trying to figure things out, and a preformulated widget saves you that trouble.

    This is why we rarely ever read ‘liberal’ blogs, anymore, actually– because even though a *lot* of our political views happen to line up along those lines, we often, while reading them, run into views that we don’t agree with at all, and just get so mad we don’t want to deal with it any more. Like, we *don’t* believe that “more money, more social programs” is a good answer in every case when it just amounts to throwing more money at a system that’s intrinsically broken to begin with, so they can take the money and use it to continue abusing and exploiting people. And our experience with trying to say “I don’t agree with that and this is why” is that, often, people jump to assume that you must have some *other* mental widget and draw sweeping conclusions about you based on that, or they just treat you as sadly misguided. So it ends up being an exercise in futility.

    Also, universal applications of single mental widgets to everyone can result in massive misunderstandings that didn’t need to be there. One of the most common ones is… assuming that everyone who appears to be of a certain group, who interacts with you in a certain way, can only ever have one reason for doing it. We notice this most often with eye contact– many people seem to have a widget that carries the assumption that “if this person does not make eye contact with me, they are racist/classist/ableist/etc, or just unfriendly.” Because someone’s widget may have it that the only reason for someone not to look at your eyeballs as you walk past them is because you’re uncomfortable with their existence, and the concept that for some people, eye contact comes across as about as friendly as saying “Hi, please stick your hand into this tank of live piranhas for a few seconds,” isn’t part of that widget. And the thing is, the principle on which the widget is based isn’t entirely wrong– for a lot of typical people in the dominant culture, it *is* true that many will avoid eye contact when they aren’t comfortable with you being around them or even existing. It’s using it as an all-purpose mental technique to size up every situation that results in problems.

    I’m certainly not claiming that we’re free of all prejudice or anything, and it drives us up a wall when people claim they are by virtue of being autistic, but… eye contact is not one of the ways in which prejudices try to express themselves in our mind. Anyone who were to watch us closely would see that we avoid it with everybody, not just those who look a certain way.

    Our whole view on the mental widget thing is… difficult to put into words, although you’ve done a pretty good job of explaining it here, I think. There was a time when we tried to have mental widgets, but it was, while technically possible, also unnatural to our natural thinking styles, and required us to structure our thoughts in ways that were harmful to us eventually, and to try to force out all our perceptions of things that didn’t fit the widget.

  17. That’s a fantastic image you’ve come up with. I’m stuffed to bursting with widgets, and now whenever two of them collide I’ll be able to think of them grinding together in my head :)

  18. There’s a great advantage in not having a large collection of mental widgets — consistency is much easier. If you look at things with just a very small set of tools, you’re not likely to get yourself caught up in a true contradiction.

    This is not to say that there will be people who can’t understand how you can say X and Y and mean them both, because they have the widgets for X and the widgets for Not Y, and can’t comprehend having both X and Y. They see an apparent contradiction — but only because they have too many layers of crap between them and reality.

  19. I have definitely been encountering a few people lately who seem to be a bit overly devoted to widget-maintenance, but I’m not sure if they even know it. My approach to ethics is very similar to yours — and that you’ve articulated it this way makes it pretty clear why I am getting into the kinds of debates I’ve been getting into lately, and why it often seems like nobody can actually address the questions I ask. It’s bizarre — I’ll write something, fill it with disclaimers and qualifying statements, and then get a response that basically consists of someone listing off their Widget Set as opposed to actually addressing my points.

    I’ve also noticed that whenever there is some kind of controversy that is covered by the media, a lot of people will sound like they are echoing each other. It’s freaky…like, I’ll read 5 different message boards or comment threads and it will sound like the same five people commenting everywhere. With any difficult issue, it seems that there are frequently some positions on that issue that are superficial but readily accessible to a lot of people. And so a lot of the discussion surrounding that issue ends up turning into noise, because it’s a widget-war rather than an actual information-sharing session.

  20. I wish I understood better what I should do with “mental widgets”.

    At good moments I actually think, and I try to really understand a situation because I care about it. Other times I “think” not-seriously / lying-ly. Sometimes I lie to myself because there’s some conclusion I want to come to whether it’s true or not (“I want to think I’m a good person, so I must not’ve done anything wrong just now…”). Sometimes I lie to myself, not because I want to come to some particular conclusion, but because I’m busy playing with shiny ideas and I forgot that truth matters. But either way it feels like lying, and it sucks, and it involves being disconnected from myself and ignoring the fact that things matter.

    I find that when I actually think, I think less in words than usual and I am less able to make conscious use of “mental widgets”. Also, when I try to speak my actual thoughts, it is harder to speak in whole sentences, to use words in a normal way, and to be clear. If I manage clear communication of real thoughts at all, it is often with a long time-lag, figuring out over time how to say some pieces that are both intelligible to others and related to what I was trying to get across. When I string shiny words together / lie to myself, it’s easier to speak in a way that is superficially fluent.

    It’s good to actually think, and it’s bad to lie to myself. I’m working on actually thinking more and lying to myself less, and I do lie to myself less than I used to.

    I don’t think that thinking about ideologies/”mental widgets” has to mean lying to myself. Cal Montgomery’s essay “Critic of the Dawn” deals explicitly with a couple of disability rights ideologies, and it sounds like Cal is actually thinking in the essay and is not stringing shiny words together.

    Similarly, it is quite possible to lie to myself without conscious use of “mental widgets”. And it is possible, without conscious use of “mental widgets”, to nevertheless be misled by some of the ideologies that are commonly assumed around me and that I never noticed alternatives to. Probably a lot of examples of prejudice are like this: people think they are just looking at a situation and seeing what’s there, but the thing they think they’re seeing (e.g., “such-and-such people aren’t really people”) isn’t in the situation at all. Explicitly spelling out my assumptions, and noticing that it is possible to see the situation in another light, can help free me. It can help me see.

    1. It’s good to actually think and bad to lie to myself.
    2. When I actually think, it is hard to consciously use mental widgets. When I lie to myself, it is often easy to consciously use mental widgets. So, if I’m having an easy time using mental widgets (or an easy time “thinking” at all), I’m probably lying to myself. With all the lousiness that implies.
    3. But I still think there’s a point to consciously considering assumptions, alternative viewpoints, etc. In other words, I still think there’s a point to consciously dealing with things that look a lot like “mental widgets”, at least for me, with my particular talents and limitations. It’s just hard to do correctly.

  21. Help me please…

    I work with a twelve-year-old child with autism. As I have autism myself, it has been a little like the blind leading the blind, but in a way this has helped. But next month he will be placed for the next year(s) in a segregated room for the “severe/profound”. No one will care what he thinks, what he wants, what he likes, or even if he has what he really needs. When I first got him from another school, he was strapped into a large, wooden chair, referred to in our schools’ system of treatments as “postural support”. This is because he needs to spin threads and will take things apart in order to do this. He also hits people at times.

    I have had a hell of a time in school myself, and the thought of him going on without anyone who gives a damn about him and not being able to say anything is about to wipe me out. He was really ticked off when he found out that he wasn’t going to be given any chance in school and now he is back to hating. He has pretty much given up already, but he is just a kid.

    But he let me know that he pretty much felt I was full of shit, and all the things I’ve been trying to convince him of for the past year or so. (I guess I was convinced that if I could make it, he could too. I kept trying to help him to be with the regular ed. kids as much as possible, so he wouldn’t be so lonely. The only other kids he has around him are unable to move around or communicate at all, and are much younger than he is.)

    His mother is not really able to help, as she is very passive and very defensive. She told me, though, that during the one year he has been in my group, she has finally started to see who he really was, his opinions, his silliness and sense of humor. I would take this to mean that I don’t have to worry about this kid at all, that his mom really is interested in who he is, except that he is still in shoes that are about two sizes to small for him, and he is unable to tell anybody.

    And why would it take her seven years, in the time she has had him in her household, to figure out that he is actually a person? I sent her a tracing of his foot so that she could take it to the shoe store, but I don’t know if she will do this. I have so far bought him clothes that he could work himself, so he could have some pride instead of being embarassed, and a pair of shoes once. I asked his mom for the clothes for a year, and she never even bought him anything. He only wore used stuff I got him out of storage in the library, for school clothing.

    I wonder why I spent so much time trying to get through to him if he was just going to be left, or be tied back up again in some other classroom. I feel like such a liar in getting him to hope that he could have anything better, and showing him just how much he could do by himself, and that everything about him is just fine.

    He only last month agreed to work with pictured cards so that he at least could let someone know when he needed something. Before, he let me know just what I could do with the pictured cards, his meaning very, very clear. But finally he had begun to have some hope.

    I have tried to help him type, but he does not get this yet. I wish he could type like you can, so he could advocate for himself, but he isn’t ready or interested yet.

    He knows what he went through before, and I believe he is expecting the same sort of treatment again, provided so nicely by the “Bossier Parish Public Schools of Louisiana” (thank you).

    If you know anything about his rights, please help me. He is about to be swallowed and eaten by the special ed. system so nicely set up in this country, where non-disabled folks can make lots of money off of the disabled in various ways.

    I don’t even know if his mom cares about anything other than the monthly paycheck from the state she gets for him. I believe from his reaction that he thinks she could care less, or at least she is too cowardly and defensive to take any action at all on his behalf.

    By the way, he was (supposedly) adopted by this mom, but for some reason he doesn’t have her last name. His brother, also adopted by her, does share her last name. Does this mean he has some rights in the state of Louisiana, as he may still be in the state system? (He does have a case worker.) Is there any advocacy program for him at all? Or is he just “stuck”?

    I can’t give up my job, saying things to peo0ple that probably wouldn’t get him anywhere anyhow. I really don’t know what to do at this point ( if there is anything I can do). I don’t really understand the system of a lot of things myself.

  22. It seems like you’re against people forming coherent worldviews. It’s possible to judge policies on a case-by-case basis, but an ideology ends up forming usually automatically, and it’s possible to have both a zoomed-out and a zoomed-in perspective. So, for example, the abortion issue steps into feminist territory, but recognizing that doesn’t make a person unable to see the issue for what it is. What people try to maintain is not statues in the sky, but worldviews without internal inconsistency, and this is accomplished by the ability to hold many values at once. In fact, it is a necessary outcome of it.

    By the way, I love your blog and YouTube videos :)

  23. Actually, in my experience, ideologies don’t form automatically for everybody. There’s a certain type of person, maybe a certain type of personality or brain wiring or a combination of both, that’s inclined to forming them, but while I spent many years trying to hold them or form them or try to argue using them, it was never something I could maintain. The price of trying to do an argument-from-ideology for me was, and still is, overload and shutdown, sometimes to the point of physical pain, and the world around me turning into a fragmented diversity of infinitely different things and situations that all looked so dissimilar that I lost the ability to spot even rudimentary patterns in them, and my mind running round and round in circles devouring itself over minutiae of those ideologies, and experiences I’d had which those ideologies didn’t even seem to acknowledge the existence of and had no place for.

    And yet, I continued to feel that I was just “not trying hard enough” and being “intellectually lazy” (I was actually told things like this in a few cases, where someone who was able to argue very adeptly from ideologies was confusing and blinding me with semantics) for a long time, because whenever I tried to use them as a way to pit my own conclusions and values against others’, I did horribly at it, even when I knew the other person was really wrong or misguided (in the sense that they had their basic facts wrong and refused to acknowledge it, not just that I didn’t agree with them).

    I’m not saying this to make anyone feel sorry for me. I don’t try to argue with ideologies any more, since my brain is clearly not designed to work that way, and I don’t think pity is a very productive response anyway. I’m just noting that I found out they don’t work for everyone because I tried, it turned my brain into a pretzel, and I found I could still make ethical decisions and form broad ideas about the patterns of how the world and people work overall when I wasn’t trying to create or maintain this stuff in my head. (And Amanda’s post here clarified and put into words a lot of these things I’d sensed for a long time.)

    It sounds as though you’re equating having an ideology with having consistent values or morals, or a consistent understanding of how the world works overall. And I don’t experience those as being the same thing at all.

    The closest I can get to describing what people who were really into ideologies seemed to regard them as, when I was trying to emulate them closely, was some kind of magical algorithm of everything– as if life were a computer program or something. With any given situation, real or imagined, all you were supposed to have to do was plug in the right variables in the right places, and an answer would come out the other end– about whether something was right or not, what action you should take in a certain situation, etc, etc. (And contrary to some stereotypes about autistics, I don’t experience my brain or my way of thinking as being like a computer, nor do I see the real world in the same terms as a computer program. A computer program is completely artificial, and its boundaries and limitations are totally defined by the person who writes it.) Once you had just programmed yours “right,” so the thinking seemed to go, you could drop absolutely any question or situation in the entire world into it and get the “right” answer, or at least the best one.

    Well, actually, it often seemed to be a combination of the computer-program approach and “scanning for keywords”– they’d read over what you were saying, look for certain words or conclusions about certain issues, and then try to match those up against a list in their heads of all the ideologies they knew of. Once they thought they’d found the ideology that “matched” with you, they would then begin to argue against all the viewpoints they associated with that ideology, even if not all of those were viewpoints you had ever actually held. The end result, when I ran into people like that, was often that they seemed to be arguing with some illusion of me that their own minds had created, rather than addressing the real me and my actual words and points. As soon as they thought they had an ideology to match me with, they immediately shifted over to trying to argue against the concept of that ideology that existed in their mind, rather than really paying attention to anything I was saying.

    That’s one of the more prominent problems I’ve seen with trying to use ideologies as all-purpose tools to understanding the world, and one of the more prominent ways in which they can lead you away from reality rather than closer to a better understanding of it. (As a side note, I don’t claim to be immune to that forming illusions of people and arguing against them thing, not at all. I’ve done it, but I did it a lot more when I was trying to shove ideologies into my brain and keep them there, because each one seemed to come with an attached list of ideologies that were supposed to be in opposition to this one, and concepts of what those ideologies were all about, and what the people who subscribed to them were like and the arguments they made and how to counter those arguments and the arguments they would make against *those* and how to counter *those*… etc, etc. It would always eventually spiral into a vortex where I got caught up in an endless loop of arguing with imaginary enemies in my mind, and stopped being able to make any sense out of the world at all, if I didn’t make an effort at some point to pull myself out of it.)

    So a lot of it ended up seeming like just so many semantic games to me, in the end.

    I don’t believe I lack a coherent worldview, or morality, or the ability to decide what is best or right in any given situation. I can and have identified situations in which someone is behaving wrongly or mistreating others. I do have views on political issues, and have considered what to do in the cases where one of my views seems to contradict another one, or two of them seem to be at odds. The ability to spot contradictions, hypocrisy, etc, isn’t the same as the ability to hold ideologies and bat them around and use them to spar with others. (In fact, I’ve noticed that some people strongly attached to their ideologies don’t notice when aspects of those same ideologies contradict themselves, even when you try to lay it out to them in clear terms– they just keep spinning you round and round in semantic circles.)

    In fact, I’ve seen a good deal of moral wrong come out of the idea that because a person has a “right” or “good” ideology, it somehow follows naturally that every action they take will be good or right or rational or so on. (And, conversely, from the idea that because a person has the “wrong” ideology, all of their judgements and opinions will be wrong and/or it isn’t possible for them to do any good for anyone.) I have read a lot of things– real experiences, not what-if games in people’s heads– that influenced my views, strongly, about the potential for evil in everyone, and how people who thought they were immune to abuse of power, or similar things, turned out not to be at all. I try to keep things like that in the back of my head when making decisions, but that isn’t the same as trying to fit them into an all-encompassing, all-purpose ideology.

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  28. Thank you for what you have written about widgets, Amanda. You have helped to explain to me what has been happpening to me in university and cleared up a lot of mystery. I have been feeling very stupid the last couple of years because I finally made it into the graduate program and, as I now realize, it’s all about the widgets.

    I can work with widgets a bit, but the whole thing is very slippery to me. When I write a paper (my field is political science) I look at what is. Then I think about what is (and maybe what should be) and formulate my ideas. Then I go looking through the literature and that’s where I start handling other people’s widgets and, usually, piecing together a bit of this and a bit of that as supporting “evidence” for the ideas in my paper.

    I thought I was really good at the academic thing, until I took a graduate seminar on International Politics. The whole class was about memorizing different widgets and the names of the people who put forth those widgets and comparing widget A to widget B. Between that and the class format (twelve people sitting around a table, having a discussion about the readings that I didn’t understand. The group discussion thing was overwhelming and exhausting and I am only glad that I had three days off after that class every week because it took all three of those days to recover.)

    I felt like a complete idiot in that class. And I got a low grade because I didn’t participate well in the group discussions, upon which more than half the grade was based. And whenever I *did* manage to understand one of the widgets, I’d feel angry because it didn’t really explain what happens in the real world. The only reason I passed the class is because my grades on the essay tests were good and that only happened because we were allowed to bring in notes for the tests so I had the widgets explained in my notes and I spent the whole test time writing about how widget A doesn’t explain the situation in Iraq or widget B doesn’t explain the Cold War, etc. In other words, my grade was based on how much I know about current events and world history, not on how well I understood or embraced those widgets.

    Now that I read your post about the widgets, I feel less stupid and I begin to understand why I’m having the problems I’ve been having with my academics. Thank you for putting that into a better perspective for me and showing me concretely what it is that I need to develop work-arounds for if I’m going to finish my degree.

    I guess I shouldn’t have chosen a field that’s so dependent on widgets, but I didn’t fully realize what I was getting myself into. I only wanted to study things like how power works, how a society can be made more just, how policies move from an idea to a law, etc. I am not good with abstract things (philosophy gives me headaches) and didn’t realize political science was going to be as abstract as it has been turning out to be.

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  37. I feel like I’m one of those people who needs to rely on mental widgets at least some of the time because I’m so ‘disconnected’ and I can’t seem to help it. But at the same time they cause me a lot of pain and confusion sometimes. I’ve had experiences where something someone says about X-ism sounds “right”, and then the opposing argument sounds “right” too. Sometimes, I feel completely alienated from the social justice scene because I lack some essential quality- empathy? Naturalness? Compassion?- that I feel everybody else must have.

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