Is It Me Who Lacks Empathy?

I’m somewhere on the autism spectrum. So, it was never obvious to me that people with Asperger Syndrome lack empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen thinks that people with Asperger Syndrome have an extreme male brain, which means, they have low ability to empathize.  To begin with, we have a direct, blunt way of speaking. This is not the only reason why he thinks so. But I will not get into all that here.

I think I know what this means. When I was a teen, no one could make a loose statement within my hearing distance without my expressing my disapproval, usually with detailed arguments. I found it hard to believe that people found it offensive because this would not have offended me. For long, I did not even know that this offended people.

When I was fourteen, I remember my uncle walking away when I was having a “debate” with him. I didn’t get this. I didn’t know what triggered this extreme reaction. It took me over than a decade to see that people see disagreement as a sign of conflict. Now, I don’t even doubt that direct speech offends people. But it is still not clear to me why direct speech is seen as a vice, or at best, as just another communication style.

It was introspection that failed me. I don’t find it hard to separate the idea and the person. I didn’t know that people conflate ideological disagreement with personal conflict. People find it exhausting when Aspies (People with Asperger’s Syndrome) go too far in arguing their case. It is true that it is pointless to force conversations on others. But, people are so different. When I was young, I did not know that neurotypicals (Ordinary people) find such conversations tiring. Neurotypicals who were offended by my argumentative nature did not know that I did not hate them either. It is introspection that fails neurotypicals. The failure to understand each other was mutual.

In college, I largely kept to myself. But, I noticed that whenever I had a debate with them, my college mates said that I am a recluse because otherwise I would have been beaten up and tortured. I found this amusing, but they were not amused for long. When I started working, I often pointed out the mistakes of others because that was the only way I could do my job in the best possible manner. I did not know that I came across as someone who nurses grudges, and enjoyed dominating others. Initially, I did not even know that people resented what I did with the purest of intentions. I was just being helpful.

I can easily claim that I find it more exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend myself against their implicit accusations, and expect them to meet the indirect demands I impose on them. People are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal enmity. I suspect this means that they are deficient in the cognitive component of empathy. They are also unable to be friendly to me despite the disagreements we have on ideological matters. I suspect this means that they are also deficient in the affective component of empathy. Is it me who lacks empathy?

If directness makes people uncomfortable, this is a problem with people and not with direct speech. People are not straight-forward when they are not fully comfortable telling you what they really think. People prefer indirect speech because they assume they would be judged for simply telling you what they think. Aspies prefer direct speech because they find it hard to imagine that they would be judged harshly for telling you what they think. They themselves are very direct.

The central theme of Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on male-female differences suggests why people with Asperger Syndrome prefer direct speech:

“People with autism show a broader interest in systems. You’re trying to find the system, and find the mechanism behind how it works. I’m going to explore the idea that autism is linked to minds that are wired for science.”

If the minds of Aspies are  predominantly wired for understanding and building systems, it is not hard to see why they prefer directness. People who are primarily interested in understanding reality communicate more directly than the people who are primarily interested in what other people think. People who care too much for what other people think are less likely to buy into unpopular truths. It is hard to be liked by saying what others don’t want to hear. The communication styles of people are largely a reflection of their cognitive style.

If this is true, it is hardly surprising that Aspies are over-represented in math, physics, and engineering. People who are more interested in physical reality than in people flock to hard sciences and math. People who are more interested in people than in physical reality tend to choose literature or the social sciences. Most social scientists who defend true, unpopular positions have certain autistic personality traits. This is especially true in economics because economists are often more hard-nosed than other social scientistsNot without some disapproval, Simon Baron-Cohen observes that physicists are often very arrogant, and hell-bent on proving that they are right in believing what they believe in. It is tempting for many to dismiss this as a sign of low empathy or sheer disregard for other’s feelings. But, if people who are more interested in understanding reality are more vocal about their beliefs, this cannot be such a bad thing.

Think about this. Deborah Tannen observes that only the western capitalistic democracies find direct communication a value, even though the west does not practice what it preaches. But, if the prosperous west values direct communication more than the rest of the world, there should be a strong presumption in favor of direct communication. But, Tannen thinks that there is nothing wrong with indirect communication if everyone knows what you mean. True enough, but not everybody knows what you mean. Indirect communication smothers every aspect of our lives. This is not hard to see.

Consider this. Signing a prenuptial contract is very rare, even though half the marriages fail miserably in the United States. People want marriage to have the veneer of idealism, though this is a matter more of appearance than substance. But, if you are not romantic at heart, you are already enduring the truth. There is nothing unromantic about writing a prenup. But, to request a prenuptial agreement, you need to convince your partner the value of having one.

People are hesitant to request a prenup because directness sends all the wrong signals. Half of them may regret this, retrospectively. Every day life is full of similar situations. Men and women rarely adduce the proof that they do not have sexually transmitted diseases before having sex with each other. They believe that male-female relationships thrive on implicit, non-verbal mutual understanding, and that drawing up an agreement might destroy romance.

I do not want to disagree. But nearly two million people die every year because of AIDS. In all the situations I mentioned, the risks are substantive, but people do not notice. The cost of direct communication is high, but it has to begin somewhere. The people who initiate this are outliers. It is improbable that they can nudge people in the right direction without wasting words. Anyone who says what others don’t want to hear know that even getting the issue straight is something of a chore.

When people are not comfortable disagreeing with each other, it is hard to convince others, even if you are obviously right. If this is true, saying what you think in no uncertain terms is not a sign of intolerance, but the first step towards tolerance. When someone breaks the unwritten rules of interpersonal communication, empathy is about listening calmly, carefully.

People who are willing to defend true, unpopular positions are dynamos of self-responsibility. They may have high expressive needs, but this hurts them more than it hurts their peers. This is the rarest of all virtues. Disagreeableness is the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over agreeable is what human progress is all about.

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