Part 3 — Empathy & Philosophy: the Neurotypical Response7 min read

If you’ve fol­lowed this series thus far, thank you for your read­er­ship. In order to pro­vide you with con­text for this article, you will need to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on empathy.

Neurotypical Responses

Almost unan­i­mously, neu­rotyp­i­cals responded over­whelm­ingly neg­a­tively towards Elise, calling her vari­a­tions of a bully, a nar­cis­sist, robotic, arro­gant, tone deaf, hos­tile, too hard on her mom, unfeeling, harassing, con­de­scending, lacking in empathy, self-aggrandizing, a know-it-all, and abu­sive.

Other than the alle­ga­tion that telling someone they are being manip­u­lated is implying that they are unin­tel­li­gent, no one was able to give me a spe­cific reason for why they felt that Elise was so hos­tile, arro­gant, and abu­sive.

“They” are Like That

Some neu­rotyp­i­cals, after being probed for an expla­na­tion as to why they felt the way they did about Elise, responded with an uncom­fort­able, “Well, you know, they are like that.” Just to gain clarity and leave no room for error in inter­pre­ta­tion, I asked. “Do you mean autistic people are hos­tile?”

Yes, that was what they meant.

I wonder if the article had been exactly the same, with only the small change of Linda being said to be autistic as opposed to Elise, would the responses have been the same. I also wonder if the article had not men­tioned autism at all, would that have influ­enced the answers.

Character Attacks

While this sec­tion focuses on the feed­back to the article from neu­rotyp­ical people, it is rel­e­vant to note that there were no autistic people who made char­acter assaults against either Linda or Elise. They only crit­i­cized Linda’s actions, the resounding sen­ti­ment being that Linda should have allowed her daughter to speak and should have been okay with dis­agree­ment. Some noted that Linda attacked Elise’s char­acter. No neu­rotyp­i­cals men­tioned that Linda had offered any char­acter assaults against Elise.

Character Assaults and the Facts

For the sake of per­spec­tive, let’s examine Linda’s com­ments to Elise, in order:

You’re just brain­washed. You’re just ready to fight any­thing from a con­ser­v­a­tive stand­point.
You’re not always right, you know.
This isn’t a dis­cus­sion. You’re barking at me, and I’m just trying to watch the news.
Why do you care?
His name was Rick. I’m just trying to watch the news and relax, and all you want to do is start argu­ments. Can’t you just respect my opin­ions? I’m not dis­re­specting yours.
No, you’re being a bully. Can’t you just show a little respect and empathy? Be nice for once and just enjoy some quality family time, okay? This is not a com­pe­ti­tion. I’m just trying to unwind and have my coffee.

In every line of text from Linda, there is at least one implied or direct per­sonal attack:

Brainwashed, ready to fight, not always right, barking, why do you care, all you want to do is start argu­ments, bully, show a little respect and empathy, be nice for once, not a com­pe­ti­tion

From Readers: narcissistic, arrogant, know-it-all, self-aggrandizing

Elise spent upwards of twenty hours reading the entire piece of leg­is­la­tion being addressed. She read analyses from experts in var­ious fields. This is no small time-commitment and is the equiv­a­lent of half of a work week. Why would someone spend so much time doing this research? If she were brain­washed to reject any con­ser­v­a­tive view­point, then she would not have done all of that research? The article even states that Elise doesn’t speak on issues until she has con­ducted thor­ough research. Elise’s state­ment would not have been an opinion at that point, but an empirically-grounded con­clu­sion.

So, why did people believe that Elise was being nar­cis­sistic and arro­gant? What is the dif­fer­ence between Elise’s hard work and Rick’s? Is the answer to this ques­tion simply that it is learned behavior? When the com­men­ta­tors on the news channel shouted down the aca­d­emic type who would have, pre­sum­ably, given an empir­ical analysis of the leg­is­la­tion and its impact on the working class, Linda smiled. Let him have it, she thought. Did Linda, and those who empathized with her, learn to reject people like that because they inter­nal­ized some­thing they have seen on the news? Perhaps, but I believe the answer to that ques­tion is much more com­plex. I’ll dis­cuss my infer­ence in the fol­lowing article.

It would be easy to place the blame on the par­tisan nature of pol­i­tics, but most of the people who read and responded to the article were staunch lib­erals. Many of them were also aca­d­e­mics, including people with a master’s or doc­toral degree. A few were pro­fes­sors.

So, where is the disconnect?

I believe the answer to that ques­tion and much illu­mi­na­tion about this dilemma would be better illus­trated if there were more diver­sity among the respon­dents. Most of those who did respond were white, from America, and from middle or upper socioe­co­nomic back­grounds.

Of all the things neu­rotyp­ical people said, none of these came up:

1. No one men­tioned that Elise brought the issue up in con­text as it appeared on the news. There was no one who brought up that the status quo, as estab­lished by the com­men­ta­tors on the news sta­tion, was to shout people down. Linda was already enjoying a “heated” polit­ical inter­change.

2. It was never men­tioned that Linda was using ad hominem attacks (char­acter attacks not related to the dis­cus­sion) while Elise was just sticking to the facts, albeit in very direct, atyp­ical lan­guage.

3. Most neu­rotyp­i­cals who responded char­ac­ter­ized Elise’s type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as ranting, hec­toring, bad­gering, yelling, bul­lying, and aggres­sive, and not one person of any neu­rotype men­tioned the way Linda used char­acter assaults on Elise. No one accused Linda of being aggres­sive or of bul­lying.

4. No one noted that Elise only men­tioned the research she had done in response to her mother accusing her, falsely, of being “brain­washed” (biased) and of fighting any­thing that con­tra­dicted a con­ser­v­a­tive view­point. Elise actu­ally worked very hard to remove her bias before entering the con­ver­sa­tion by reading the law itself instead of someone’s inter­pre­ta­tion of it and by reading objec­tive analyses from experts in mul­tiple fields.

5. No one acknowl­edged that Elise thought about how her par­ents had no retire­ment and little sav­ings, and how her father is sim­ilar to Rick, who has worked sim­ilar hours but is older and his body has suf­fered from the intense labor.

6. There were no men­tions about how Elise saw the Black man speaking about how Rick’s per­spec­tive and the posi­tion of the news orga­ni­za­tion would harm minori­ties, and how that fur­thered Elise’s frus­tra­tion. Elise knew that minority pop­u­la­tions would be helped by the leg­is­la­tion.

7. No one men­tioned the empathy– or lack thereof– of the news sta­tion and the com­men­ta­tors on it.

She thought her mother was stupid…

What most struck me was that many people felt, after reading the article, that Elise believed her mother was stupid, and that Elise thought she was better than her mother. The article states clearly that Elise knows her mother is “very smart.” Here is how sev­eral con­ver­sa­tions I had with my readers went:

Reader: Elise thinks her mother is stupid and that she’s smarter than her mom.
Me: What in the story made you feel that way?
Reader: I don’t know, just the way she talked.
Me: Can you iden­tify any­thing spe­cific that Elise said which made you feel that she thought her mother was stupid?
Reader: Just the overall sense of it. Her mom was just trying to relax, and Elise is yelling.
Me: Did you notice that the article said that Elise finds her mother to be very smart?
Reader: Doesn’t seem like it.

At this point, I could sense that I had cre­ated the same dynamics that were at play with Elise and Linda in the case study from part 1. In trying to define and under­stand per­cep­tions, it was impor­tant to me that I under­stood my readers; how­ever, in asking them to dis­cuss their per­cep­tions, I felt a shift in the tone of the con­ver­sa­tion.

My readers became guarded, careful, and tense, which was some­thing I did not intend to happen, espe­cially since many of them are per­sonal friends and acquain­tances.  All of them had give to me their time and their thoughts, and I was truly grateful.  I didn’t want to offend or harass my readers.  Several just ended the con­ver­sa­tion by let­ting me know that they had some­thing else to do which sud­denly came up. It was a polite way to let me know that they were fin­ished with the dis­cus­sion.

Lastly, and per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant point of dis­cus­sion, is that a few neu­rotyp­ical people remarked that Elise’s mother, Linda, was just not very smart and would never change. They said that Elise needed to realize that her mother was a lost cause and that argu­ment was just going to damage their rela­tion­ship.

Reflections

If you’ve fol­lowed this far in the series, thank you. The diver­sity of thought with the responses pro­vides tremen­dous oppor­tu­nity to eval­uate pat­terns of per­cep­tions that are socially nuanced and oth­er­wise hard to define.

In the next post in this series, Part 4: Empathy & Philosophy — Different Perspectives  I’ve broken down the responses from autistic people and posited more ques­tions about what that means. In the mean­time, I would love feed­back on the fol­lowing ques­tions. Please leave a com­ment with your thoughts.

1. Do you think the sce­nario would have played out dif­fer­ently if the sub­ject were related to sports and the mother was watching a sports net­work? Or if it were related to crafts, and the mother was watching a DIY net­work?
2. Have your per­spec­tives changed at all as you’ve read through the series? In what ways?
3. What ideas or thoughts have you had in reading this series?
4. What ques­tions do you have, or what ideas would you like to see explored in more detail?

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