To see human nature as it is, you have to be someone who finds the norms of the society bizarre. You have to be someone who finds it hard to identify with them. You have to be an outsider who lives here, on earth, among people.
In Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness Of Other People, the IIT topper Balki is such an outsider. These conversations unfold when he visits the home of Unni, a 17-year-old friend of his who had committed suicide three years ago:
A boy asks nervously, “Balki, do you believe in God?”
“Yes”, Balki says in his surprising baritone.
“What a coincidence. Even I believe in God.”
“OK, All of you”, Balki says, “Thanks. Now I need to speak to Unni’s parents alone. Bye.” And they leave reluctantly. Balki shuts the door and faces Ousep and Mariamma.
Observe that Balki’s answers are matter-of-fact, and to the point. He is blind to their feelings when he shuts the door tight when they leave reluctantly. Yet, he does not intend offense.
Mariamma holds the boy’s hand and tells him something about the passage of time. Then, for Ousep’s benefit, she mumbles a confused, but flattering biography. He was always a genius, apparently. She says she has known Balki from the time he was a little boy.
I can imagine the boy feeling totally out of place, hoping that the conversation would move to something more specific. He knows that the flattery is naive and fraudulent, and perhaps feels something akin to pity.
“We have met,” Ousep says. “Briefly, a long time ago.”
“Three years ago,” the boy says.
Balki has a more precise answer.
Mariamma touches the boy’s cheeks with the tips of her fingers. “Nobody visits us any more, Balki,” she says, “All his friends have stopped coming. One by one, they stopped. Then one day, guess who turns up.”
“Who?” the boy asks.
They look at each other, confused. “You, of course,” she says.
“I see. I don’t easily understand this style of speech.”
The way Mariamma speaks is not too unlike how a typical Malayali mother speaks. But, Balki is puzzled, takes it very literally, and comes to his senses only when she explains what she means. Autistics are not good at reading nonverbal forms of communication and social cues.
See a similar passage in Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism: A Manual for Parents and Professionals (Maurice, Green, & Luce, 1996): “We find ourselves continually trying to draw her into our conversations. “Rebecca, what are you doing?” “I’m eating.” “What are you eating?” “Pasta.” “Good. What’s pasta?” “It’s a food.” “Good! Is it delicious?” “Yes.” “Say, ‘It’s delicious.’ ” “It’s delicious.”
She feels his face again. Balki is not embarrassed; he even bends a little to make it easier for her to cup his face in her hands. ‘I don’t mind being touched now,’ he says. ‘When I was little, I did not like being touched; I would scream if anybody touched me. Unni used to put his arm around me. I used to hate it but I grew to accept that it is a sign of friendship.’
Autistics are generally are not very comfortable with physical contact. They need not put their arm around boys in school, or shake hands with people when they meet or part. They need not even notice others reaching for their arm. I remember once telling the dude at the Metro station, “Don’t touch me.” He then said in a mocking tone, “Don’t touch me”, and went on to move the metal detector over me many times.
See this passage in Tyler Cowen’s “The Age of The Infovore”: “There is now a fairly common understanding, or focal point, that a meeting or good-bye among autistics will not be preceded by a handshake. Many autistics do not enjoy this form of contact, and some hate it, so why do it?”
The Social Desirability Bias Of Neurotypicals
On Unni’s classmates, Balki says to Ousep:
‘They are stupid,’ Balki says, as if it is an unremarkable fact. ‘Most of them, they are very dumb. Did you find them dumb?’
‘They are like anybody else.’
‘Exactly. People are generally dumb. They are small petty animals, who want to do their small petty animal things. Unni was smart. I liked him.’
This is precisely how an Aspergers person talks about people, with utmost contempt, often empathizing with someone who is different, pointing out the contrast. I pointed out this passage to a friend and she says that she is surprised that she did not notice the stark similarity with the way I speak when she read it.
Once I noticed an older man feeling uncomfortable and staring at the floor whenever I said, “Stupid people”. After a point, he said, “Don’t say stupid people!”, and I understood what was going on. I do not know why people are so sensitive to such general, categorical statements.
But, a passage in this novel on the boys who failed the IIT entrance examination is interesting:
They become alert when they hear words like ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’ or ‘stupid’. Even when these descriptions are not about them, the words land painful blows in their hearts.
“When lies sound better than truth, people tend to lie. That’s Social Desirability Bias for you. Take the truth, “Half the population is below the 50th percentile of intelligence.” It’s unequivocally true – and sounds awful. Nice people don’t call others stupid – even privately. Suppose intelligence research were impeccable. How would psychologically normal humans react? With denial. How can stupidity be a major cause of personal failure and social ills? Only if the world is full of stupid people. What kind of a person believes the world is full of stupid people? “A realist”? No! A jerk. A big meanie.”
‘Do you have a hunch about Unni at least? Are you following a particular line of investigation?’
‘Balki, we don’t have to sit here and try to figure out why Unni chose to die. That would be mere speculation. What we must do is talk about him, talk about him without a motive.’ Balki nods; When he finally speaks, he remembers Unni in a neat, chronological way.
Observe. He needs a motive, even while having a conversation. He remembers everything that happened in a neat, chronological way. Autistics generally can keep a lot of information in their minds in a neat, orderly fashion. Tyler Cowen thinks that autistics are capable of arranging, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing in a way ordinary people can’t—and that this is the essence of autism. They can recall what they have read and heard, often verbatim.
Balki’s first memories of Unni are of a boy who was not exceptional in any way. Unni was a moderately gifted student who was not considered bright until many years later. Balki, on the other hand, was always a clever freak, and for that reason he did not have friends. Even the teachers hated him. But he had Unni, who put an arm around his shoulder, who took him by his hand to include him in the games that the boys played. When Unni was eight, he gave Balki a memorable reason why they were friends. He said that Balki reminded him of his mother. Two days later Unni would explain, without being asked, ‘My mother, too, is very smart, but a bit nutty.
Literalism and Human Progress
Everything else about Unni, when he was a little boy, was unremarkable. Ousep does not like it when Balki uses the word ‘ordinary’. But then he knows what Balki means. Balki means ‘ordinary’.
Autistics often mean what they say. I would just say that this should just make it dealing with them easy, and pleasant if you are a decent human being.
As Tyler argues in “The Age of The Infovore”, “Autistics often have a direct and even blunt style of speech and that is in my view refreshing. A preferred strategy for communicating or coordinating is simply to say what you mean, and that can do a great deal of good for communication and coordination. You also could say it is a focal point, among many self-aware autistics, not to be so offended by any perceived directness from the other person. So it’s wrong to think that all the communication and coordination problems lie on the autistic side of the ledger.”
But, the political implications of direct speech and literalism are much broader than people imagine, or would like to believe.
“Leo Strauss argued that, prior to the rise of liberal regimes and freedom of thought in the nineteenth century, almost all great thinkers wrote esoterically. I have been unable to find any statements, prior to the nineteenth century, criticizing esotericism. It is very difficult for us to grasp that, for example, in many earlier societies, indeed in much of contemporary India and Japan, husbands and wives, parents and children can pass their whole lives without ever once openly declaring: “I love you.”
Arthur Melzer thinks that the movement against ambiguity led to human progress. Clear, direct prose that became more of a norm in the last two centuries was a predominant factor in economic growth.
Jonathan Haidt makes a similar point, though he does not quite make the connection:
“The two major ethical systems that define Western philosophy were developed by men who either had Asperger’s, or were pretty darn close. For Jeremy Bentham, the principal founder of utilitarianism, the case is quite strong. For Immanuel Kant, the case is not quite so clear.”
Why is direct speech so important? Why does literalism matter so much? The reason is obvious:
“Ousep does not like it when Balki uses the word ‘ordinary’. But then he knows what Balki means. Balki means ‘ordinary’.”
“The problem I’ve noticed with the well-groomed approach to economic education is that it makes the audience like you more, but understand you less. If you refrain from bluntly stating economic truisms, you make more friends. But they are your friends because they don’t grasp that you are defending socially unacceptable conclusions. There is no nice way to tell people they talk too much. Similarly, there is no nice way to tell people that the minimum wage causes unemployment. If a normal person is still smiling after you make your point, he probably didn’t get it, because the conclusion is inherently unsettling. What good does it do if the public understands you without liking you? Only a little. But if economic education is your goal, it is far worse if the public likes you without understanding you. Once people know your position, there is at least a chance that they will start wondering if you’re right. The people who want to send economists to finishing school have their hearts in the right place. Economists do need to communicate more effectively with broader audiences. But I think their diagnosis is wrong. The main reason the public doesn’t listen to us is not that we are boorish, but that we are BORING.”
Unni said, ‘so many many people. Nature has to keep making billions of people so that by pure chance, finally, one person will be born who will make it.
‘Does it make sense to you?’
‘If you eliminate that bit about nature having a goal, what Unni said is just a layperson’s description of the theory of evolution. Nature keeps producing millions and billions of nearly identical organisms for ages, then something happens to one creature by chance and a new species is born.’
Read a similar way of framing one’s works, by taking words literally, making necessary qualifications, in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. She, I think, was an autistic writer:
“I could not endorse its literal meaning: it proclaims an indefensible tenet–psychological determinism. But if one takes it as a poetic projection of an emotional experience then that quotation communicates the inner state of an exalted self-esteem.”
The Clear-Thinking Misanthrope
Read this passage:
‘There were thirty-two boys in the class when it happened,’ Balki says. ‘Everybody saw it, everybody was a part of it, but nobody can explain it. Balki begins to rock gently in his chair. ‘I was sure nobody would have told you this. Maybe they didn’t want to say anything bad about Unni to his father. People are so small. The way they think, they are so small. Or, maybe, they are still afraid. They still want to believe it never happened.’
Normal people do not care much about the truth. They have no respect for reality. Now, think. An ordinary person who hears Balki’s contemptuous remarks would say that this is a sweeping generalization. They would whine that not everyone is like that. But, that would be taking it too literally, just like Balki takes their statements literally. There is no common focal point.
As Jason Seneca argues in Voices Of Autism:
“Many neurotypicals prefer happiness to truth. Don’t believe this one? Try a simple experiment. Ask your non-Aspergers friends and family the following question: “Assume, hypothetically, that I had conclusive proof that there is no life after death. Would you want me to tell you about it?” You may be surprised at the number of people who answer “No. It is a product of the higher value placed on emotion. They would be giving up an enormous amount of emotional well-being to gain a truth that does not directly benefit them. From this perspective, it’s simply not a fair trade.”
From Musings Of An Aspie:
“If you get a new haircut and you’re not sure how it looks on you, don’t bother asking a neurotypical. Most will tell you it looks great, even if you look like this. Why? Because when a neurotypical woman asks her friend “how do you like my new haircut?” she isn’t looking for her friend’s opinion, she’s looking for validation. When her friend says, “I love it” she may mean I love your hair, but what she’s really saying is I love you and value you as a person. So when your neurotypical friend says “how do you like my new haircut?” and you, being your Aspie self, reply, “It’s a little short in the back but I like it”, your neurotypical friend hears I secretly hate you and think you’re ugly. Confusing, I know. What if it went on to talk about how some neurotypical are so socially adept that they get promoted into positions they don’t have the knowledge or skills for?”
We can explain away much of the horror we see on earth with this tendency of normal people. I am not exaggerating. I need not.
Unni started telling stories standing on the teacher’s desk. ‘Has anybody told you about his stories?’ Balki asks.
‘Yes. But some deny this ever used to happen.’
Balki laughs; he leans forward and asks in a teasing whisper, ‘Those who did not deny it, did they tell you what his stories were about?’
‘They said they don’t remember.’
‘That’s what I thought they would say.’
They do not even mind denying what happened in front of their eyes. And Balki really knows how they speak, and how they rationalize—how they lie.
Balki releases a hiss of air from his lungs. ‘You have met so many boys from our class, you went to them as the father of a dead boy, not just any dead boy but Unni Chacko. Yet they hold back information because they are afraid, they are afraid of everything they were, everything they are. People are such cowards, people are so pathetic.’
I have noticed that even when they cut my best passages, they do not care whether it is an extraordinary piece of writing, or whether they are doing it to an extraordinary writer. Some old man has to throw some nickels on the floor, and then these men and women sprawl on all fours, drooling, yelping, and howling like stray puppies.
It ends poetically:
Ousep realizes why he has been feeling hopeful in the presence of this boy who has a reasonable contempt for the world. It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity. By standing outside the huddles of man, he sees a lot, and what he often sees is the evidence that people are not as smart as dogs think they are. And he wants to see it time and again. In the fog of ambiguities and mysteries, he desperately searches for truths because truth usually shows humanity in a poor light. Balki and Unni are similar in that way. Unni, too, was exceptional, he was strong, so he did not need to belong. Unni, too, stood beyond the bonds of people because that was a good place to stand and watch. And Balki does not want to concede that such an endearing foe of the ordinary was ultimately defeated by the world. For that is what Unni’s death is until proven otherwise – a defeat. Balki will do all he can to take Ousep closer to the truth.