I recently read Create Your Own Economy by Tyler Cowen. It is an interesting book touching on many subjects, including how the internet might be changing the culture, and on the neurological roots of aesthetic opinions. In it are two interesting quotes about autism-spectrum disorders on page thirty-three.
“But I do mind when in spite of so much effort I still miss cues, and someone who has much better inherent communication ability than I do but who has not even taken a close enough look at my perspective to notice the enormity of the chasm between us tells me that my failure to understand is because I lack empathy. If I know that I do not understand people and I devote all this energy and effort to figuring them out, do I have more or less empathy than people who not only do not understand me, but who do not even notice that they do not understand me?” – Jim Sinclair, a web writer who describes himself as autistic.

“I have personally been accused of being cold, shallow, selfish, insensitive, egotistical, repressed, emotionally dead, incapable of emotion, and incapable of love…If you’re like me, these accusations tend [to] come as a shock. You know that you are a sensitive and caring person; you can see these tendencies in yourself and can identify their outward manifestations. How could you be perceived so harshly?” – Jason Seneca, who self-describes as Asperger’s.

After reading this I was immediately reminded of how conservatives and libertarians are often described as selfish and uncaring, often to their frustration. After all, many of them give to charity, many care for their family members, and the very reason that they support the policies they do is that they believe they are helping to build a better community. I keep hearing that believers in limited government are selfish and don’t value community. This is far from the case. In fact, many recognize that it is selfishness that leads to crony capitalism, which leads to lobbyists, which leads to big government, which leads to the loss of liberty and prosperity for everyone – and they care about the liberty and prosperity of others.

On the other hand, conservatives claim that it is liberals who are selfish, always wanting more power for the government, and always wanting more hand-outs and entitlement programs paid for with other peoples’ money. This upsets liberals.

I’ve wondered for a long time if differences in political opinion might have a neurological basis. Tyler Cowen now lends some credibility to this idea. If I understand the main thrust of his book, it seems to be that we all order our minds differently and have different sensitivities and insensitivities. He claims that we are all autistic (Cowen uses the word in the cognitive sense, not in the personality sense or the behavioral sense) in varying degrees when it comes to some things, but not necessarily to others. We tend to show a talent for memorization, of picking up on small details, and of noticing patterns, when it comes to those things that interest us. If we do not readily see patterns when it comes to certain systems, in the same way that we do not sense the aesthetic values of certain forms of music when others do, we may miss important trends underneath the chaos and we may question the motives of those who say they do see patterns.

This idea that we have different sensitivities and insensitivities is also raised in Marshal Mcluhan’s book Understanding Media. In his case, he is speaking of sense ratios being affected by culture and upbringing, rather than by physiological factors, but the idea is the same. Here is an excerpt from page 121:

“As late as 1930, four-letter words made visual on the printed page seemed portentous. Words that most people used every hour of the day became as frantic as nudity, when printed. Most ‘four-letter words’ are heavy with tactile-involving stress. For this reason they seem earthy and vigorous to the visual man.”

So it could be that what offends one person does not offend another, what one person gets out of marriage another does not, the exhilaration some get from competition scares others, whether for income, mates, or something else, comfort to some might be slavery and oppression to others, whether this means a heavily rote job or a nanny-state, and some may fear death less than a painful life, while others may sense the nobility in holding onto life at all costs. The best system for arranging public life then, it seems to me, is to live and let live, respecting others enough to allow them to do what they want to themselves, even if some of these practices might come across as offensive, and refraining from imposing our ideas onto others.

Could this theory also explain phenomena such as why some see racial connotations in discussions of food stamps, when no such connotation was intended? Could this be why Tom Tancredo was called a racist? Could this be why Obama is sometimes seen as arrogant or condescending? Could it be why some saw Romney as being easily frazzled in the debates, while others saw the same in Obama? Could it be why some see Obama as a weak leader while others don’t? Could it be why some people don’t seem to understand sarcasm, parody, and irony and take them completely in the wrong way? While many heard Sarah Palin and George W. Bush create new words by combination and assumed of them low intelligence, others saw creativity, mastery of humor, and poetic genius. Why allow the shackles of language to keep you from saying what you mean? I actually thought many of their more famous sayings were very clever, giving multiple layers of nuanced meaning. Could this be why some want to see their candidates cry and show emotions to show their humanity and thereby connect with people, while others want strong protectors that never waver (shouldn’t our public officials be the best among us?). Outside of politics, a man I knew once said, “Oh, well,” in order to brush off a minor inconvenience my group was facing and to put on a brave face for everyone else, leading by example. A woman in our group took it the wrong way, assuming that he didn’t care about the problems it was causing her and that he had no desire to try to avoid the problem in the future. Could this be why some thought Al Gore was more charismatic than Bush and others thought George Bush was more charismatic than Gore? Could this be why some sense dishonesty in some politicians’ body language while others do not? Could this be why I perceive myself to have an above-average variety of interests, while others perceive me to have a below-average variety of interests? Could this be why some people are accused of being argumentative that don’t see it the same way?

At my old job, I once found a slice of bell pepper that reminded me of a snail and pointed it out to a woman I used to work with. She told me it looked more like a turtle. I just wasn’t seeing it, so I asked her to point out the different parts. The way she had it, the head was bigger than the entire body. I asked, “Don’t you think it looks more like a snail?” She insisted that it only looked like a turtle and started to get irritated. I wanted to just drop it, but those around me started to claim that I was being argumentative by insisting that everyone should see things my way. From my perspective, it was she that was being argumentative by first refusing to accept my way of seeing the slice, then by refusing to have a normal, civil, everyday conversation about it, and then by turning something so trivial into an argument. I NEVER said it didn’t look like a turtle; I only asked if it didn’t look MORE LIKE a snail. Could this difference in perception of who was argumentative be explained neurophysiologically? If the determination of argumentativeness is so subjective, is it even possible to assign any meaning to the word “argumentative?” Does the word have any meaning at all?

People sometimes accuse me of being argumentative and say that I promote incivility. Are they not jerks, but actually see it that way? I say that Obama promotes incivility in the way he takes extremist positions, pits groups of Americans against each other, accuses people of things they don’t do, and rubs in his victories. Is it possible I misinterpret him as others misinterpret me?

Are the people we interpret as autistic really normal, and we only interpret things this way because we are autistic? Are the people we interpret as normal really varying types of autistic, but we think they are all the same because we are also autistic? Is there any such thing as autism? How could anyone ever tell – even in principle? If our most basic perceptions are so heavily flawed that we can’t even agree on the fundamental facts…wait, you know what? I’m right and you’re wrong; that’s all there is to it. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, some truths are just self-evident. That is the ultimate problem with this paradigm of thinking in terms of autism and sense ratios; eventually it becomes self-defeating and those making the argument shoot themselves in the foot.


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