Tag Archives: Language

The Fireworks Are Interesting

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The closer you get to the heart of things, the more words fall apart. First they get shaky. Then they start contradicting each other or getting paradoxical. Then they just fall apart, dissolve, vanish.

The way my thoughts work creates some similar problems for language. And it’s not just that I haven’t found the absolute best combination of words to translate my thoughts with. It’s that on a fundamental level the thoughts don’t translate.

My thoughts, such as I am aware of, are mostly observations of the world, that I have allowed to slowly and quietly settle themselves into patterns. They are not symbols of those observations. Symbols would have a better chance translating. They are also silent — no words pop in to describe them, there is no “loudness” about them, they don’t announce themselves with any kind of fanfare. I suspect to many people they would seem like an absence of thought.

I have also observed words. I have seen which clusters of words attach most frequently to which situations. And that is how I use words — as imperfect translations of situations that present themselves in my mind. I use words because they are the most readily recognized way to communicate with most people.

[With some people, words are not necessary. There are better ways to communicate. That is wonderful in every sense of the word.]

The way I use words can present problems though. I start with a situation and then I throw words at it. The problem is for any given situation there are many ways you could approach it with words. Some of those words might even seem contradictory if set side by side. But it’s not that the situation itself is contradictory, it’s just that language can be complex that way.

For instance, in my last post I described what could be called, and what are often called, subtypes of autism.

Someone replied saying they don’t believe in one type or many types of autism but that it seemed from my post as if I believe there are many.

The reality is more complicated than that.

Autism is not a thing. There are only the people who get called autistic.

I recently tried to describe the process that led to modern notions of autism. I have read many of the original sources for that and for other areas of psychiatric classification. My language skills were less fluent than stuff I normally publish online, but even though I am eating again (I was sick when I wrote it) I still can’t come up with more fluent language for the description I gave of the way ideas of autism have come about.

Were original people designated as autistic.

Original people had their be.

Original people had their “seem to professionals”.

Those not the same.

Then people later might identify with the be. Or with the seem to professionals. Or with the seem to professionals of the original seem to professionals.

So later version of who is autistic ==

People be like original people be.
People be like original people seem to professionals.
People be like original seem to professionals seem to later professionals.
(…)
People seem (to self or professional or family) like original people be.
People seem (to …) like original people seem to professionals.
People seem (to …) like original seem to professionals seem to later professionals.
(…)

Which total complicate what people see now as one thing and try to find one common deficit.

So when I say autism it is a shorthand for a modern language-based classification of a bunch of human beings that involved a lot of biases, historical accidents, and clutter-minded evolution of the sort I described above.

So when I say subtype of autism I mean there are people with some cognitive things in common, who also happen to be classified by those stilts-upon-stilts-upon-stilts standards as autistic. I mean to refer to real live people that I have observed patterns in. Not the baggage that comes with the words.

So I could just as easily have described us in a way that involved a questioning of the entire category system that gave birth to notions like “autism has many types” or “autism has one type”.

This may not be the same reason that the guy who replied to me doesn’t believe in those things. But it is still a lack of belief in those things. And my lack of belief in those things is not changed by my use of the words that most people are familiar with — autism, subtypes, and so on. My lack of belief in those things also is not a good reason for a troll to reply saying something like “If you don’t believe in those things then stop calling yourselves autistic damn you.” To say such a thing is to take my words on entirely the wrong level, and such comments will be cheerfully deleted.

There are third, and fourth, and fifth, and so on, ways to describe the situation in the last post or for that matter in any of my posts. It can be hard to know which one to use, whether to combine a few, or what. And no matter which way I choose, I will be leaving out a world of important things.

Because of this, please don’t persist in telling me what I believe after I have confirmed I don’t believe it. It doesn’t matter if you come up with ten separate examples of words you are totally certain prove I believe something or come at it from a certain viewpoint. If I say I don’t, then I don’t.

To get back to the way I think, I am not even certain I have “beliefs” (even if I use the shorthand as if I do). Once you peel back the layers of language that I use for communication… I have observations and experiences, I have patterns of observations and experiences, and so on. “Belief” seems to require jumping up into language again. So do many other concepts that seem more language-based than anything. Language forces me to use many concepts that have nothing to do with the way my mind works when I am not writing. Those concepts form weird mesh-like frameworks in people’s heads and they then associate me with the mesh-like frameworks instead of with the person beneath them. (And it’s not just me this happens to, but everything.)

But if you look between the words (not the same as between the lines), rather than at them, you can start to see things far more interesting than the words themselves. (This is not abstract. This is as concrete as it gets. The words are the abstractions.)

The use of language has the annoying property of insisting on the reality of lots of abstract concepts. Even seemingly concrete words like “green” are arbitrary, and different languages will divide the colors different ways. (The Irish language, I am told, has more than one word that translates as green and one of them involves colors that in English would be specific shades of green, grey, and brown.) Whereas just looking at an object of certain colors doesn’t require figuring out how any given language classifies them. So literally anything I perceive has to go through a horrid process of translation and distortion and oversimplification. Even the most “literal” language is hopelessly abstract compared to what language is trying to describe.

Every single time I write, I pick up a set of tools. Those tools are the phrases I cobble together into sentences.

“Subtype of autism” is one example of such a tool. It is a shorthand for certain people that I have made certain observations about.

Just because I happen to use the nearest available set of translation tools does not mean I have, in picking up those tools, agreed to the entire worldview of the people who built the tools. I don’t have to agree that autism is a real thing, or that it is not socially constructed, in order to use phrases that include the term. I use these tools because the alternative is silence, not because I have picked up an entire set of beliefs about the world with every phrase I use.

Even more, my failure to describe something does not mean I haven’t observed it. A friend once told me that she envisioned my brain as having these enormous clumps of detailed information, but without a way to access most of it. Most of what I know, I can’t say. What I do say is just an approximation of a sliver of what is in here. Notice how much trouble I had describing part of the history of autism. Even when not sick almost all my attempts have looked similar. Does this mean I lack awareness of what has happened? Does this mean I view autism as a concrete reality, as a type of neurology, as all these other ideas words bring in? No. Not even if I use the word “neurotype”. I know this can be hard to understand but it’s true. No matter what I say will leave out 99% of the information and distort the rest. Don’t be fooled by words.

All of this is just a reminder for everyone, of how and how not to read the words I write. I am not trying to force anyone, or to say everyone is able to do this. I am just trying to give a reminder of how I do and don’t work. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t sweat it. It’s hard to get words to make sense on a topic as completely opposed to words as this one. It’s a little bit like seeing antimatter and trying to use matter in it’s vicinity. The fireworks are interesting.

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Why I never expect to be right

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A friend of mine read my post on my reaction to the blog carnival theme of intersectionality. She and I have fairly similar thought processes, and both arrived at the same conclusion about intersectionality as a concept. (That is, that it’s a fairly abstract theory-land construction of a very real-life situation and that we preferred practical descriptions to using an abstract term for it.) However, she arrived at the conclusion instantly, and it took me a whole post worth of muddling before I figured it out. And today I finally realized why there was such a time discrepancy in our reactions.

The fact is, I come at the world as if everyone knows more than I do, thinks better than I do, understands more than I do, and is generally in all ways superior to me. It’s a deeply ingrained unconscious reaction and has nothing to do with reality or even how I think about these things (I don’t even think that kind of inferiority/superiority exists. But that’s how I think.

Don’t tell me I shouldn’t feel this way because people who were classified as gifted children/child prodigies never feel this way. It’s not true. First off, I never knew I was classified that way until (ironically) I was at an age where I no longer even tested that way (which I wouldn’t know for many years to come). Second off, I doubt the knowledge would have given me the equally ridiculous sense of superiority that it gave many children around me.

Why? Well look at it through my eyes: I was in a world where everyone but me seemed to know sone important thing that I didn’t know. My receptive language was barely there, and I relied on patterns and the keen observation of non-word-based aspects of the world around me to navigate the world. I was good enough at it that nobody guessed the extent to which I didn’t understand things, but bad enough at it that I ended up making and wearing a fake nude suit out of construction paper in response to finally watching the behavior of other people to try to piece together what was wanted of me during an assignment that was due that instant that I hadn’t even picked up on as existing. (The kid I was partnered with kept drawing attention to his hat, and lots of the paintings in a book we were supposed to give a presentation on were wearing hats. Lots of them were nude, too, so I stood in front of the room covered in orange construction paper reciting fairly random sentences.)

And understanding language was only part of it. It seemed to me that everyone other than me was moving along to the pattern of music that I couldn’t detect. And that every time I tried to insert myself into the pattern, no matter how hard I tried the music turned dissonant and terrible and pushed me out again. So I would never have guessed that my ability to turn written into spoken words, or my general ability to find and memorize and analyze the world through patterns, had been impressive enough for a five-year-old to earn me a high score on a test that people believed all sorts of ridiculous things about. (Meanwhile the people who tested me thought those abilities meant so much that they would disregard my receptive language scores and all other scores that didn’t make sense to them. My guess is that my being white and middle-class also helped them forget.). I still remember the test and the manner in which I worked out the answers. I literally didn’t know the meaning of the word “test”. But my answers were apparently impressive for a five-year-old (not so much for a fifteen or twenty-two-year-old, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, despite my talents, I never really compared them to anyone else or even knew I was ‘supposed’ to. I only knew that I was outside this intricate dance that everyone else seemed perfect at. So when I did learn to compare myself to others, I only noticed my faults. And as I got older, and the gap widened between my abilities and other people’s expectations (whether the generic.l expectations of someone my age or the inflated expectations of ‘gifted’ children), I only became more convinced that I was uniquely defective and destined for some sort of hellish life of the sort that I knew ‘had to happen’ to people who didn’t measure up.

This has resulted, even now that I understand how nonsensical such comparisons and hierarchies are, in a deeply held assumption that if lots of people write about something I can’t seem to write about, then it’s because they know something I don’t. I almost never think that my way of understanding things is real or valid. So I frustrate myself by bashing my head on a concept for (at least) hours before realizing that my instinctual reactions to the concept have merit. And even when I figure out they do, I am sitting there just waiting to hear that I am just ‘too stupid’ to contribute anything to the discussion.

How (not) to ask me questions.

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This post is in the spirit of Eyeballs eyeballs eyeballs. Picture the person in strong/bold letters as talking very rapidly and very loudly with only the shortest pauses in between.

DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’? . Let’s see… “cat”, “do you,” what is she… how do I connect these to meanings… YORSAENWIHCHDUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’ (head goes blank again, blank look must be on face) KAEH’ KAEH’ (WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND START SLASHING HAND ACROSS IT) (okay what was she saying again, something about cats, why cats?) DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH SUHMPEEPUHLLAYIK DHAIRSAENWIHCHKAE’ DIHNDHUHMIDUHL
“do you want”… “some people like”… argh why won’t she give me a minute to think? SUHMPEEPULLAYIK
DHAIRSAENWIHCHIHSKAEH’
why does she drive out any words and meanings I’m figuring out by piling more words into this? (IMPATIENTLY WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND SLASH HAND ACROSS IT) KAEH’KAEH’LAYIKDHIHS …argh. Just say yes and she’ll stop.

Translation:

She’s holding a sandwich on a plate. She says, “Do you want it cut?” I sit there looking confused, finally having figured out that these are words and that one of them sounds like “cat”. Within half a beat of me figuring that out she says, “Your sandwich, do you want it cut?” This drives all the interpretation out of my brain and I have to start over. While she’s saying it I’m just barely getting meaning out of the first sentence. And as I slowly progress in understanding them, she keeps interrupting it. “Cut! Cut!” She mimes cutting through a sand with her hands. “Do you want it cut? Some people like their sandwiches cut in the middle.” I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on, having so far only managed to retain the idea that I’m being asked a question. She mimes cutting again. “Cut. Cut. Like this.” Etc. I figure out she’s asking something, that it’s in a yes/no question pattern, and that if I say yes she’ll probably stop throwing words in my face.

The problem is that a question has urgency about it. It has “you have to answer this” somewhere in it. It turns on this whole program in my head devoted to giving random answers to questions to get them to stop. And then a lot of people will barely wait a single moment after asking a question, to go on and ask more of them. They don’t realize that as they’re doing this they’re just throwing on more and more language to process. And that each time they ask a question, the message I get in my head is “Urgent, urgent, needs response, now need to figure out how to respond,” and I have to then backtrack and figure out what the question is if I don’t want to just give a random answer (I have a bunch of templates stored in my head for question types that have easy enough answers to randomly pull out to get people to stop asking them). And then halfway through my figuring it out it gets interrupted by another message of “Urgent! Urgent! Answer them!”

So the end result is a huge pile of urgency in my head and no comprehension until the person has finally shut up and gone away.

And text is only slightly better than this. If you expect me to rapidly process a question, you’re expecting that it’s a really good day for language processing. If you keep asking them over and over, you’ll just add to the stuff to process, not make it easier to answer. And there are a lot of people whose style of question-asking seems to be along the lines of stacking questions on top of each other. Sometimes it’s assorted variants on the same question. Sometimes it’s slightly or even majorly different questions asked two at a time and leaving me wondering which one to answer — “Do you want to do something do you want to go to the park?” is one of my least favorite question styles. It’s like a run-on question.

I noticed some time a year or two ago, that I do a lot of my communication with staff people without relying on the language content, and that one of the problems with new people is the amount of language I have to produce and understand in orienting them to the job. Someone who’s been here awhile will hand me something, and say what to do with it, and I won’t even hear them saying what to do, I just know from routine that it’s always what I do with it and the words don’t matter. Even if the words are something I have to answer, I find myself often able to give yes/no answers without having a clue what the person is saying. I noticed that a huge amount of the time people are working for me, they have no idea that I am not hearing the majority of the words they’re saying. I just know all the motions to go through and all the responses to give and I do it largely based on where they are positioned, where I am positioned, how each of us is moving, and what objects are being handed around.

And when people — strangers or just people unfamiliar with me — do notice that I’m not noticing what they’re saying, they seem to have a tendency to say something in a snippy tone along the lines of “Do you have a hearing problem or something?”

Note that I can often figure out what people are saying, sometimes even quite quickly. But it takes a certain level of effort, focus, concentration, energy, and ability to do that on that particular day. It helps if the topic is very familiar. And none of it ever feels natural or easy.

The problem is that explaining my incomprehension to others is so familiar that I can do that, and most of the responses, by rote, leaving them with the impression that their questions and responses are somehow all being understood when they’re really not.

I also do understand a whole lot of things with a delay. I now understand the entire conversation this person had with me half an hour ago. And there are still vivid memories as far back as 25 years ago that I am still trying to figure out the words to. I go over and over the sounds in my head and try to put them together into something meaningful. Often one day I’ll just spontaneously realize what someone said to me when I was 3 years old.

There are also times when there’s no comprehension possible, including no awareness that the words are even something that ought to concern me any more than white noise would. All of these different things are largely the same as the auditory version of the way I explained reading to be in my post titled Safety Hazards.

But at any rate — the best thing to do with a question is make sure I’m paying attention (and this doesn’t have to mean “looking at you”, it means focused on understanding what you’re saying), then ask one question (not a double-decker question either) and wait for an answer. You might get a quick one or a slow one, but the more you throw words on top of words, and the more pressure you put on, the more you slow me down. And the more likely you make it that I’ll give an inaccurate scripted answer if I answer at all — which isn’t fair to either of us, so I try hard to suppress that. If the interaction is over something where you can hand me an object that’s capable of prompting me in the right direction, all the better.