|Cupcakes are grand, but they are unlikely to drive significant social change.|
Via Wikimedia Commons.
At this intersection of philosophy--What am I? Who am I?--and science--I am a pack of neurons that takes in stimuli, processes and integrates them, and issues responses that characterize my entire individuality--sits the nebulous human construct we call "emotion." As much as we consider ourselves to be "rational," the fact is that the influence of hormones and other chemical messengers on our pack of neurons modifies and modulates their intakes and outputs in ways that layer over any basic rational framework we may have.
Sure, we can compute. That computes. But those signals that modify inputs have undergone millennia of evolutionary shaping to facilitate survival. And you know what? Evolution doesn't give a rap whether or not what keeps you alive makes "rational" sense or not. If imagining that unicorns exist keeps someone getting out of bed every morning, and--more important from an evolutionary perspective--perky enough to get back into bed and have sex and reproduce--then evolution doesn't care whether or not unicorns actually exist.
So emotions, with their hazy and vaguely threatening chemical underpinnings and expressions, have a purpose for us. They are a response, a communication, the walloping limbic core in all of us around which we try to wrap the rational bits we're so proud of. Of course, emotion overwhelms almost everything we do, and it's frankly irrational to think that somehow, being rational is going to get the upper hand.
We communicate and respond with emotions, and thanks to FOXP2 and possibly some other genes, we also designate these feelings using spoken and written symbols called "words." Words, of course, are not only symbols for emotion. They evoke things tangible--like trees or rocks or platypi--and intangible--like love, hate, and offense. Because they carry the heavy load of that walloping limbic core that rules us all, whether we admit it or not, words--words, words, words--can land with a crushing force when we don't use them carefully, especially when they evoke or target emotions. Interesting, is it not, that these symbols, concocted themselves from subsymbols on the page, can land with the softest brush of a feather or the hard blow of a hammer and either way, elicit powerful responses that well up through every human physiological pathway into the inchoate manifestations we call "emotions."
Their purpose, these emotions and these words that symbolize them, is multifold. One of those purposes, as I gleaned recently from a paper I was editing, one that intersected philosophy and neuroscience, is that in human society, emotion is a glue. We group together not because of rational processes and agreements but because of shared, deep emotions. How many times have you watched a conflict online only to find that One Voice that expresses an emotion just like your own, a mutual feeling that sometimes even leads to friendship and continued association? How many first dates end just because one party says, "Oh, I love XYZ" and the other party feels exactly the opposite?
But really, how rational is it to end a potential relationship or start a new one simply because you have the same or opposite reaction--that we call emotion--to the same stimuli? But, of course, that's how it works. When you feel a strong emotion and find others who share it with you, the result is a bond, like a couple of shared electrons filling the same need for one another. When others don't share that emotion with you or purposely make clear that they think it's foolish, the outcome is a strong negative response, one we call "offense." The result is decreasing overlaps in the emotional Venn diagrams of our commonalities and differences. Eventually, the overlap may disappear completely so that we become isolated groups, or factions.
I think that most humans probably understand this relationship between offense and expressing disdain or scorning a deeply held emotional belief. It's one reason that so often, when we know we're about to offend, we precede our offense by saying, "No offense." Why say it unless you're aware that you're about to disparage or dismiss a deeply held emotion that the other person feels?
A way around committing this offense is, of course, to try to respect the other person's viewpoint or emotion. To engage in a little perspective taking, putting yourself in their shoes, imagine being them, with their ears, eyes, and pack of neurons. To try to absorb what their lives have been like--what words they've heard that have crushed them, what looks they've received that have suffocated them, what abuse they've experienced for not being "normal," what others have done to them to tap their very spirit dry. If you've done that, then you don't need to predicate anything you have to say with "no offense" because you will know that saying it will offend or not. And if it will, then do not say it.
Why am I writing this? Because our packs of neurons in our family don't translate into what society considers the "typical" packets. We've all struggled. There have been bullies who have--generally, at least, without the intellectually dishonest prelude of "no offense"--left scars both literal and figurative. There is society, the one that thinks my son's Asperger's is a copout for us, his parents, because he was always "picked last for dodgeball" (in our case, presumably, when he was three). There are the very able people out there who don't understand what it means to go through life without daily, incessant, offensive messages from almost every human being they encounter that they suck or can suck it for who they are, for how they are, for what they are.
Because autism, you see, isn't a costume. It isn't a tumor growing inside a person or a malformation that threatens a life. Science says it's a certain kind of pack or packs of neurons, the very core of a human being.
If you have not lived a life like that, one that has been bereft of an emotional glue that groups you with others who feel as you do--then you are privileged indeed. If you are privileged, your humanity demands that you listen to those who are not. When they tell you that words offend or that actions offend--that these things cause them pain--as someone who had the privilege of not living their lives, your humanity obligates you to harken to what they are saying. It obliges you not to demand that they not be offended. I am obligated to listen, to understand, and to act because if I do not, my son will grow into a society that thinks it's OK to belittle him for who he is. Into a world that thinks his autism is somehow a separate skin from his pack of neurons, and that this conception of it makes it OK to mock and deride autism. Him.
Some people don't like conflict. It makes them want to duck away somewhere, out of the volley of words because, yes, words injure and wound and mar. But as I tweeted the other day, big social change doesn't happen over tea and cupcakes and a bit of civil conversation. It's messy, it's emotional, it's painful, and it requires both calm-headed people and fanatics to shift the Overton window of what's within the bounds of social acceptance, of being human.
As much as my emotions overwhelm me, as much as I do take offense that is often intended, I will not shun the conflict. I engage with it, fully. I will always try to put myself in the other person's shoes, taking their perspective and working as hard as I can to be respectful, to not deride, to not use my own emotions against them. Even as I stand by what I think is right, I will work not to offend. If I'm doing my job right as a human being, I've incorporated the other person's perspective sufficiently to understand whether or not I'd offend them. Having done so, I can avoid saying something that deliberately will.
If I do offend, I will apologize. Emotions bind us together, and perhaps one of the strongest emotional glues available for any group is the feeling of resolution. Sincere apologies are the Super Glue of community building. If you bemoan the absence of a community, you might consider starting with saying, "I am sorry." Ali McGraw had it wrong: Love actually means saying "I am sorry" pretty often, and unless you're vying for the title of Oldest Three-Year-Old, you ought to consider it.
This ability to take a perspective on someone else's life, to feel their feelings, to listen to the pain they're expressing--it's called empathy. Can other animals feel empathy? Maybe. But of all the things we, as humans, think highly about ourselves--like our pride in our "rational" minds--the one thing that may distinguish our collective pack of neurons from that of most other animals is that we can articulate that understanding. The question is, Can we also be human enough not to ignore it?
Happy to share this upshot of a recent contretemps online over attitudes about autism: Evolution of an apology. See the power of "I am sorry"?