Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Over at Backboards and Band-Aids, we've got an interesting discussion about public safety. EE, the host, recently saw a guy on her college campus offering free hugs. She just felt uneasy about the situation and called a campus police officer about him. He turned out, not surprisingly (at least to me), perfectly legit. He just wanted to, well, give free hugs to anyone who wanted one.

She's defended her actions, saying the guy just seemed creepy and that we should always trust our guts. Basically, better safe than sorry.

Now, EE's no crackpot, at least as far as I can tell. I'm not sure if she's old enough to drink, but she's already happily married with a baby on the way, in charge of EMS at a hospital and attending college on her own, studying pre-med. She's accomplished a heckuva lot more than a large majority of folks her age (when I was her age, I hadn't accomplished as much as she has either), and has my respect in general.

Reluctantly, I beg to differ with EE on this one. Simply appearing or acting "weird" is no reason at all to call the authorities.

People do indeed behave suspiciously, and sometimes their behavior needs to be checked out by police and maybe others. I myself have posted previously about how certain behaviors, however much you or I personally may mean no harm doing them, can definitely be cause for suspicion. My message has been - Put yourself in other people's shoes as much as possible, look to see if what you're doing could give reasonable people cause for concern, and if so minimize it or stop it as much as you possibly can.

For example, following a woman walking alone at night and approaching her in a dark, deserted area definitely gives her reason to wonder if you intend to beat or mug her - or worse.

Looking inside a parked car that isn't yours? Or multiple parked cars? Especially while acting furtively like you don't want to be seen doing it? Definitely suspicious.

A simple feeling that someone is "creepy" - or, as EE put it - weird? That's a horse of a different color. In a free society, people are going to do things and generally live their lives in ways that some other people are going to find creepy or weird. In fact, there are some free spirits, offbeat characters, call them what you want, who do this more often than others. Many other people find it much more comfortable to blend in and not do anything unusual - and of course that's their right - and so maybe nobody will feel they're being weird.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Anyone has a right to avoid anyone else for whatever reason. If you feel someone is weird and you don't want to be around him, feel free to give him a wide berth. If he approaches you or contacts you, tell him to get lost. If at that point he persists, go ahead and call in the law.

The point is, in a free society where we pride ourselves on respecting diversity, simply not understanding someone's behavior or feeling uncomfortable around someone isn't a good reason to call the cops. At that point, you cause other people inconvenience, upset and perhaps worse, and I think it's only fair to have something definite - what the police like to call "specific articulable facts" or "reasonable and articulable suspicion" - before you do.

It also gives the police something definite to investigate. If all they can say is "Someone felt uneasy about whatever you were doing," how is the person going to respond to that? S/he may not even know who felt that way, let alone why.

It certainly is important to minimize murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and other crimes. It's also important to keep our society a welcoming place for individuals and communities of all types, including - no, especially - those who like to do offbeat things and introduce the rest of us to new ways of living. I think the above approach is a good balance of our needs.

You might say "But what does this have to do with Aspies and autists in particular?" Good point. We have no specific reason to believe that the "free hugs guy" was an Aspie, for example. Plenty of NTs find themselves in such situations.

However, we Aspies and autists are disproportionately likely to be stigmatized as "weird" based on our mannerisms, staring or not holding eye contact, an uneasiness in our body language which simply means we feel we don't fit in but could be taken as sneakiness or even guilt, etc. We really need to help lead the fight for fairer treatment, because if we stand by and watch while NT nonconformists are hassled because of how they "make" people feel...well, what are we going to say when it happens to us?

What do you think?


Medic61 said...

As someone who plans to offer "Free Hugs" to strangers (hopefully on the great lawn of my campus), I have to think that the guy wasn't creepy. Maybe he was different. Maybe it's because he's male. But I'm doing it because there are so many studies on how beneficial human touch is, and anyway, I really hope to brighten someone's day with a hug. But, perhaps people with smaller "space bubbles" don't like that idea at all. It's a tricky situation!

Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Hi Jeff,

I agree with you 100%. As long as the hugger does not force himself on potential huggees, why on earth would the police need to be called? What's sad is that in our fearful and biased society, the hugger puts himself at risk for people to heckle him and harass him for doing something outside the "norm." Wish we could all just live and let live.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hi Sam,

It's really sweet of you to offer hugs. I completely agree with you that human touch means so much. Even if I didn't know you from a hole in the wall I'd accept your hug.

I know some other people feel differently, especially with regard to strangers, and I support their absolute right not to accept any hugs. If someone were to try to force a hug (or any other physical contact) on them after they made their wishes clear, then by all means call in the law.

As for the guy - well, yes he was different in some way. EE herself couldn't say what was wrong about him. The point is, I believe in the right to be and act different without getting hassled by the police.

Last but not least, Sam, I hope from the bottom of my heart that no one hassles you.

Tanya - couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you for your kind words!

Jeff Deutsch said...

This situation reminds me of my opinion of homophobia. So many heterosexual guys flip out at the thought of entering a gay bar, or even being around homosexual guys. The interesting twist, to me, is that if they are so afraid to just be around homosexual guys, if they are too afraid to simply say, "No, I'm not interested in a date" then they are basically saying they are unable to tolerate what women put up with (constantly) from heterosexual males. It is much different if someone asks a simple, polite question, such as "Can I have a hug?" or "Would you like a hug?" or "May I buy you a drink?" than if they physically attack someone. People, in my opinion, have poor communication skills and treat many others they deem different or "unacceptable" as not worthy of politeness.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Shanti,

That's a very interesting point. I hadn't thought of it that way but it certainly fits.

It reminds me of an experience I had 20 years ago. I had just transferred to Cornell - among other things it's very gay-friendly - and I met a jazz musician, old enough to be my father, whom I'll call Ralph.

Ralph invited me to visit him anytime, and asked me for my number (back then most people, including me, didn't use email). I gave him my number, thinking "whatever".

Then Ralph would call me at least several times a week. Then he would visit me at the house I lived, actually going inside and playing the piano (either the door was open or someone else let him in, because I wasn't home at the time). Then I happened to run into him and a male friend of his on the Arts Quad, and he said he wanted to go into politics as "the first homosexual president of the United States".

At that point I knew I had to talk to him.

Next chance I got, when Ralph was visiting my house again and using the bathroom, I came up to him and said "Hey, you may be gay - but I'm not". He thanked me for telling him, and he never called or visited me again. Though he was still quite friendly when he chanced to meet.

I agree with you completely that all too many people stigmatize folks who just act "different" or "strange". We need to push back, for the sake of both LGBTQs and straights, both Aspies/autists and NTs.

Jeff Deutsch

kristi said...

Wow, this is really something to think about. There are different people everywhere....people need to accept that. Calling the police seems a bit extreme. But you never know what could trigger a bad memory, perhaps something happened to this person and they feel uncomfortable around "so called weird" people. Simply letting a person know to back off usually works.

Thanks for visiting my blog...I'll add you to my reader.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Kristi,

You are absolutely right in that innocent things can trigger bad memories. Those triggers can cause anxiety, panic attacks, fainting, even suicidal thoughts.

That's part of why I favor very strong punishments for bullies - including those in uniform - as well as rapists and child molestors.

Survivors need to be able to interact in society, and that includes dealing with triggers in ways that don't inconvenience others. If a free hugs guy or a clown (or a priest!) causes a flashback, one needs to call a therapist or a suicide hotline (such as 1-800-SUICIDE/1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-TALK/1-800-273-8255) if applicable. Calling the cops to complain about an innocent person does no good and probably will do harm.

You are also quite right in that asking someone to back off usually does work.

Last but not least, thank you very much for your readership! I look forward to more of your thoughts.

Jeff Deutsch