Monday, September 28, 2009

Interesting Correlation of Traits

This Sunday's Washington Post magazine gave an interesting discussion of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's personality and career. (Disclaimer: Ms. Rhee and I went to Cornell together, but I have never interacted with her.)

Ms. Rhee established her reputation early on:

She said what was on her mind, even if it stung. Finally, one day, her mother had just had it with her daughter's blunt, even brusque, manner. Inza Rhee said to Michelle, "What is wrong with you? You just don't care what people think of you!"

Ms. Rhee is known as a take-charge reformer. Her supporters call her direct, driven and zealous. Her enemies consider her rude, tactless and dictatorial. She may not be an Aspie, but she's certainly someone with whom many of us can identify.


Rhee attributes her directness to her roots. "Korean people are not the most tactful," she says. "I grew up with Korean ladies who'd say, 'Gee, you've put on some weight.' It has for as long as I can remember driven me crazy when people beat around the bush instead of saying, 'Look, I need you to do this.'"


[Ms. Rhee's housemates] were initially taken aback by Michelle's frank approach to everything from race relations to love affairs. They soon grew to appreciate that Rhee would stick by them no matter what.

Karla Oakley, who worked for Rhee at the New Teacher Project, which Rhee founded in 1997 in New York to train teachers for inner-city schools, got the full Michelle treatment when she confided in her boss about her doubts and hopes regarding a new boyfriend. Rhee's face instantly gave away her misgivings and Oakley didn't have to wait long before Rhee told her straight out: Get rid of the guy.

"She was right," Oakley says. "She generally is."

Food for thought. Assuming Ms. Rhee is an NT, it seems that also NTs who are blunt can also be very loyal - a linkage we've already associated with Aspies. (And if you want to get it straight from the horse's mouth, she's hosting a live online discussion tomorrow, at 1pm ET.)

Speaking of teaching, ten years ago today at this time I was on a plane crossing the Pacific to start my teaching tour in Beijing. I'll always remember my time there - the food is great, but don't drink the water and don't breathe the air! In fact, I still correspond with a few of my students. And I'll never look at "Chinese" food in America the same way again.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Teachers Accused of Bullying Student, or Man Bites Dog

It seems some people are in hot water after student Alex Merritt has accused them of homophobic taunts in school. If this is true, I'm sorry for Alex, and I hope the perpetrators get their just deserts. Why is this news?

The alleged bullies are teachers.

It's bad enough people bully others, worse still that people bully others they have power over and are supposed to set a good example for. Worst of all...people seem to think this is a headline story.

It's like the Nickelodeon kids' comedy I grew up with in the 1980s: "You Can't Do That on Television." Part of the show was devoted to "Opposite Sketches," like the teacher asking a student if she's chewing gum, she saying "No" and he replying "Why not?". And to top it off, he then takes part of his gum out of his mouth for the student to chew. You get the idea.

In one opposite sketch, a girl comes home crying that she's being bullied in school. Her father reminds her to report these things to the vice principal. She tearfully replies that the bully is the vice principal. Laugh track.

I suspect that's how people viewed politicians' deliberate misdeeds a generation before that. Now, we've got occasional scandals. Yes, there are problems with a media that digs its teeth into politicians' private issues. Basically the same problems with police and courts that dig their teeth into ordinary people's private issues such as spouse abuse and child beating.

We're finally accepting the reality that bullying in school is a serious problem, and acting on it. I'm not saying every single policy to deal with it is a good idea. Knowing that we have to deal with it isn't just a good's the law now.

Teachers' bullying students seems to be one of our last frontiers of denial. And I speak from personal experience (and there's more where that came from).

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Many bullying incidents were provoked. The victim said or did something that started it, or made a bad situation much worse. That's why Aspies are particularly likely to be bullied by peers or teachers. We don't readily see that someone could be really upset, and we don't necessarily know about certain unspoken conventions (eg, about showing respect). So we often say and do things that tick people off, they respond nastily and we're left wondering what the heck happened...and why.

Does it excuse that kind of nasty response? Heck no. Let's go back to school: Teachers don't accept "He started it!" from their own students. They respond "Well, you didn't have to respond. You could have walked away." Why do teachers exert themselves like that? Presumably to set a moral example so the kids will grow up and behave better.

There is no excuse for bullying, and it needs to be condemned...especially when it comes from teachers. Bullies - students and teachers alike - who do it should be punished. That's one thing we owe victims.

Another thing we owe victims is helping them through a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves and their own words and actions, and where called for teaching them explicitly about how to talk and act differently so as not to tick people off. Or if people do get ticked off - which happens from time to time to anybody except maybe Casper Milquetoast - at least they'll still have friends to rally round them so their enemies will think twice before crossing the line. Predators of all species tend to pick on the loners.

Even in school, let alone out in the world, people who hate you can and will find many ways to hurt you that can never be punished. People who like you can and will find many ways to make your life better.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Etiquette and its Discontents

Christine Rosen has written an interesting Wall Street Journal article, "Lifestyles of the Honest and Awkward," about "Adam" and other signs that NTs at large are starting to recognize Aspies.

Ms. Rosen makes a good case for better tolerance and even empathy for folks who behave eccentrically.

She also says:

As traditional social norms and old-fashioned rules of etiquette erode, we are all more likely to face the challenge that regularly confronts people with Asperger's: What rules apply in this social situation? In a world where people routinely post in excruciating detail their sexual preferences on their Facebook pages, is it really so shocking to have someone note his own sexual arousal in idle conversation?

IMHO, Ms. Rosen has overplayed her hand a tad.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of etiquette have been greatly exaggerated - if not exactly unprecedented.

If anything, over the last two decades etiquette has made a strong comeback in America - backed up by the force of law. Think of no-smoking rules in restaurants, sexual and ethnic harassment policies in schools and workplaces and increased discretion on the part of police and other authorities to stop, question and even arrest people whose behavior just gives people the willies.

More broadly, maybe things like ethnic jokes, attacks on homosexuality and insulting women aren't against the law (yet?), and people used to do them all without a second thought. Rest assured that if you utter them in 21st century America your name will be mud.

As for the old etiquette, let's not write the obituary just yet. Last time I checked, saying "please" and "thank you" - and writing thank-you notes as appropriate - are still important. A large majority of people still consider applauding speeches and the like to be just plain good manners. Some people continue to think it's rude to talk to strangers without being introduced.

Sex talk in public? Well, I have a fair number of Facebook friends, and none of us posts our sexual issues. Yes, more than a few folks post about sex, and yes we have talk shows about any imaginable topic. Those are still exceptions to our culture, not the rule. Titillation over sex talk makes better news and hotter water-cooler gossip than, say, trends in home remodeling.

And if you see or hear sex talk on the screen, you can just click on something else, or change the channel or just turn the darned thing off. What if your date casually mentions being sexually aroused? Especially if you're a woman?

No doubt Adam - as Aspies sometimes do - was just giving a running commentary on his feelings at the moment, and didn't intend to act on them. The fact is that rapists commonly "groom" their victims by crossing verbal and physical boundaries, to both desensitize their soon-to-be victims to sexual advances and see how much they can get away with. Many women know this, and everybody should. That kind of talk is considered gross for the same reason we've evolved to consider things like dead bodies, rotting food and feces to be gross - because they're signs of danger.

And suppose you do know that your date is just talking off the top of his head. What else does he do off the top of his head - quit his job, sleep with someone, buy expensive stuff, yell at his boss or landlord - or at you?

A bit more etiquette that (hopefully) hasn't died out - give the benefit of the doubt, live and let live, and when you have to address problems do so privately, courteously, constructively and give the other person a fair chance to respond. And consider possible lack of intent or knowledge on his/her part. Would be nice if more people did this, wouldn't you say?

Etiquette certainly has adapted. It's not about to die...and that's a good thing.

H/T: Ari Ne'eman, The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The L Word

My acquaintance and classmate Edward Malone - a Stanford grad, lawyer and very smart guy all around - recently wondered out loud on Facebook:

Rather than continuing to focus on the emotional outburst of [U.S.] Representative Joe Wilson who called the President [of the U.S., Barack Obama,] a liar, why don't the cheerleaders in the mainstream media do their job and investigate whether the President was actually lying?

Excellent question.

Now, I'm not going to get into the health care debate here, nor am I going to hold forth on whether President Obama was actually lying, engaging in acceptable political maneuvering, mistaken or telling the simple truth when he said that illegal aliens wouldn't be covered under his proposal.

The broader question is: if someone is lying, what's wrong with calling him out on it? The way I see it, an honest person would welcome the chance to defend her views, and a dishonest person should be called on it.

What's more, if we condemn people who call others liars, we get the same results as if we condemned, say, people who investigated child abuse. You wouldn't be surprised when we got more child abuse, would you?

Not to mention that sometimes lies are directly at someone else's expense. For example, if a group of friends arrange to meet somewhere, and one of them shows up without cash to pay (this being one of those rare places that doesn't take credit cards), the organizer might feel embarrassed at having forgotten to tell him that credit cards aren't accepted. Lying - "I told you to bring cash!" - wouldn't just save the organizer from embarrassment, but also put it on the shoulders of the friend...unfairly. If the friend responded "No you didn't," would he be doing a Bad Thing? I say heck no.

One may say "But what if it was a lie for a good cause? Should we unfairly condemn the person in that case?" Let's assume for the sake of argument that there is such an animal (outside the rare instance of, say, a homicidal maniac knocking on your door and demanding to know where your kid is). If there are extenuating circumstances for something you do, then you shouldn't get angry at the mere statement that you've done it; you can just say "Yes, I did it, and here's why...."

For example, we normally abhor violence. And if I say "John hit Mary," if it isn't true I'd better be prepared for some consequences. On the other hand, if John hit Mary because she in turn had just smashed a bottle and was raising the jagged-edged top half over Larry's head, John needn't get angry at all by my saying he hit her. He can just point out "Yes, I did that because she was about to seriously hurt Larry."

Now let's get back to lying for a good cause. The way I see it, unless the group you're in is fundamentally evil, you have an obligation to abide by its standards. (If it is fundamentally evil, you need to leave. If you're reading this, you probably can manage that.) Abiding by its standards doesn't just mean not saying "Hey, I'm going to break the rules right now," any more than avoiding stealing just means not saying "Your money or your life!" It means not breaking the rules covertly either.

Maybe your 15-year-old son is especially mature for his age and can handle R-rated movies, and you don't feel you should have to go with him. Quite understandable. Is it OK for him to say he's 17 so he'll be treated like the mature person he really is? No.

If you feel that a situation should be treated differently, you can try to persuade others to see things your way. If you can't, maybe you don't have such a compelling case.

And if there's an across-the-board policy, like the age minimum of 17 to see R-rated movies unsupervised, that means there's an interest in consistency, and you certainly have no right to breach that.

Bottom line: Most of the time, people should tell the truth even when it's inconvenient. That's not just my opinion - the very fact that people get so angry about accusations of lying means society recognizes how important it is. Precisely because it's so important that people tell the truth, I think it's a good idea to call out liars when possible. And it's certainly hypocritical to lie and then get mad when someone calls you on it.

Interestingly, we have so many other phrases for it: "Not being entirely straightforward," "fibbing," "" and so forth. If someone says that, you're expected to understand that somebody's being accused of knowingly saying something that's untrue - that is, of lying. But somehow if you use the word "fibbing" it's not supposed to cause the same kind of upset. Can someone explain that, please?

And why is saying that someone is lying, or that something is a lie, equated to calling him a liar? Last week, I drove Emily home from work...does that make me a cabdriver?

Bearing in mind that most people lie on a daily basis, maybe we could recognize some basic distinctions.

That said...I also know that certain bodies - including the U.S. House of Representatives and the British House of Commons - have explicit rules against calling someone a liar. Or for that matter a fibber, or otherwise even implying that someone is being dishonest. And truth is no defense.

I also know that back in the old days, calling someone a liar or a cheat was considered cause for mortal combat. (For that matter, it still is, just not among folks like congressmen and presidents.) The idea is that if you accuse someone of being dishonest, you're in effect saying that there isn't enough room in town for both you and him.

So just in case some people know something I don't - stranger things have happened - let me put this out there, especially to my NT readers. Does accusing someone of lying make her feel - in a way she can't overcome - that she can't work with you anymore? Does it give her cause to believe you feel that way?

And if so, is avoiding that social turmoil worth the downside of letting people lie even to break the rules or hurt others?