A couple of days ago I wrote about the perils of giving Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Quotient to a group pulled from the general population and saying it tells us anything about autistic people. It's just as dubious to use his work to test the members of a specific group, and then insult them by calling them autistic if they score high on it.
But that's exactly what a group of researchers have done to Libertarians:
Libertarians have the most “masculine” style, liberals the most “feminine.” We used Simon Baron-Cohen’s measures of “empathizing” (on which women tend to score higher) and “systemizing”, which refers to “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Men tend to score higher on this variable. Libertarians score the lowest of the three groups on empathizing, and highest of the three groups on systemizing. (Note that we did this and all other analyses for males and females separately.) On this and other measures, libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional. On a very crude problem solving measure related to IQ, they score the highest. Libertarians, more than liberals or conservatives, have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology...
Libertarians are the most individualistic; they report the weakest ties to other people. They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They have a morality that matches their sociability – one that emphasizes independence, rather than altruism or patriotism.
That's Jonathan Haidt, author of the recent bestseller The Righteous Mind, talking above. Emily Esfahani Smith of the Washington Times and lead author Ravi Iyer make the link to autism explicit:
The libertarian style of thinking can even verge, in extreme cases, on autism.
The University of Cambridge-based psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher, famously has shown that people with autism exhibit two critical features: They test exceptionally low on empathizing scales and exceptionally high on systemizing ones. Empathizing governs social relationships — Are you able to relate to other people? — while systemizing governs understanding and analysis of the outside world. Everyone falls somewhere on the empathizing-systemizing scale.
Libertarians score very low on the empathizing scale and very high on the systemizing scale. In other words, they are highly rational moral thinkers, less emotional than both conservatives and liberals. Two of the leading moral thinkers of Western history — utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and deontologist Immanuel Kant — were also incredibly gifted systemizers but deficient empathizers. Today, Bentham and arguably Kant would might be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
There are upsides to such a coolly analytic cognitive style. For instance, libertarians are better at logic problems, says Mr. Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and the lead author of this study. The downsides include a “greater susceptibility to autism,” he says.
“Any ideology or philosophy, taken to an extreme, likely resembles some pathology or another,” Mr. Iyer explains.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes that liberals are motivated by only one of six moral foundations, the need to provide care and prevent harm. In this segment of his talk to CCARE, he discusses the other five, which are:
Proportionality/Cheating People should be rewarded or punished according to their actions
Loyalty/Betrayal People should sacrifice their own interests for the group.
Authority/Subversion Society requires us to respect leaders and institutions in order to function well
Sanctity/Degradation Situations in which the body is especially vulnerable, like eating and sexual contact, require special care and cleanliness.
Liberty/Oppression People should be free from bullies.
I'm not going to summarize Haidt's specific examples and arguments here. He is talking to a liberal audience, trying to show them that the approaches they take on political issues alienate people who value all six moral foundations. I am more interested in how these five values affect the role that autistic people play in society and factions inside our own community.
When people see someone who is not visibly disabled using a special parking place, it violates the proportionality foundation. The expense of educating autistic kids in public schools does, too. All I see in those situations is my desire to protect autistic people from harm and give them what they need. People who do not view autistic people as sacred victims are more likely to (inaccurately) see someone who is trying to cheat.
I think this value also motivates the parts of the parent community who want to protect their children as sacralized victims by denying the needs of adults or less obviously impaired autistic people. There are prominent parent advocates who view people with Asperger's as cheaters, trying to steal needed resources from their kids.
And, if we are going to move forward, we need to start making arguments that appeal to these people, both inside and outside of our autism community. We've got to insist on the reality of the challenges that autistic people face while continuing to emphasize the contributions that we make. We must resist efforts to redefine autism so that it automatically excludes the people who prove most obviously how valuable we can be. It's worth noting here that one of the people who has advocated most loudly for that is Thomas Sowell, who is one of Haidt's conservative heroes.
I think it's interesting to see how strongly the four remaining foundations influence the segments of the autism community who remain committed to the idea that vaccines cause autism. Many of the recent over-the-top attacks on IACC have centered around accusations of betrayal. Authority figures like Andrew Wakefield are believed in the face of all evidence. The emotional force of their argument comes from the idea that vaccines are poisons that violate the sanctity of the body. And the government that forces people to unwillingly vaccinate their children and Big Pharma are the bullies behind it all.
I don't think that there is a particular correlation between believing that vaccines cause autism and being politically conservative. This is one of the reasons I am doubtful about the ways that Haidt applies his work to politics.
Jonathan Haidt's talk to CCARE on how to encourage compassion has four major topics:
1) Morality is about binding groups together around sacred objects/leaders/principals
2) Liberal morality is built mostly on one foundation: Care/harm; leads to sacralization of victims
3) To relieve suffering of victims, liberals violate the other five foundations; commit five types of sacrilege
4) In praise of constrained parochialism
In the second part, he explains what morality is.
For the last few moths I've been studying the ideas of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, especially his new book The Righteous Mind. I've done one post already about how his concept of sacredness might help make sense out of the conflicts between the various autism communities. After Joe Scarborough's comments linking autism and murder, I want to use Haidt's ideas as a framework for a lengthy discussion related to autism, morality, and scapegoating.
I will begin with a series of posts explaining the arguments that Haidt is making about morality and society, structured around a talk that he gave to the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Although I am highly skeptical of many of the things he says here, I am going to hold off on critique because these ideas are complex and need to be understood before they can be picked apart.
He is introduced by neuroscientist James Doty and his own talk begins at about seven minutes into the clip below.
One of the reasons I have been fascinated by the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is his idea that sacredness plays a crucial role in building groups and societies:
The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
Haidt warns that the mechanism of binding people together with sacredness is so strong that it may become impossible to be objective about sacred objects or beliefs:
If something is a sacred value, you can't make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can't think in a utilitarian way. You can't sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into "intuitive theologians." That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.
You can see sacredness at work most clearly in religion, of course. In Christianity, as in Hinduism and many other religions, there's a very explicit vertical dimension running from God at the top to the Devil at the bottom. Religious Christians generally see the bible as holy; it's not a book like any other book; it has to be protected from threats to its holiness. Those threats can be physical, as when somebody spits on or burns a bible. Or those threats can be threats to its veracity and authority, as arose when Darwin's ideas began to spread. There's a direct contradiction between Darwin and the book of Genesis, so something's gotta give. Some Christians started reading Adam and Eve as metaphor. But those who really sacralized the bible were not able to make such a compromise. They went the other way. They became even more literalist, more fundamentalist. The bible goes up, Darwin goes down.
Of course, this makes it harder for them to understand the biological world around them, and they are then forced into a lot of bad biology, such as intelligent design. Sacralizing distorts thinking. These distortions are easy for outsiders to see, but they are invisible to those inside the force field.
And I really mean force field. Sacred values act like a powerful electromagnet, generating moral flux lines. Everyone and everything must fall into place along those lines. Here's an image of a magnet under a piece of glass, with iron ore shavings spread on top. The shavings all fall into line. Within a moral force field, deviance is deeply disturbing. Apostates and heretics must be banished or executed.
Haidt believes that "morality binds and blinds," bringing us into teams who fight for our sacred objects and are incapable of tolerating criticism of them. His book The Righteous Mind applies his ideas mostly to differences between political liberals and conservatives (with somewhat mixed results).
There are two reasons why I think these ideas may be especially important to the autism community. The first is that I think autism can often be a disability of sacredness. Some of us develop routines or interests that are sacred to us and baffle others. Some of us get fired because we are immune to workplace moralities and need to be banished as heretics. We seem less dependent on others to develop a sense of what is sacred to us, and less able to adapt our sense of the sacred to those around us.
Using the idea of sacred objects has been useful to me in being able to express myself without offending people quite as often. I think other autistic people might benefit by asking themselves what other people around them hold sacred, how that varies from their personal beliefs, and how to start working around that.
The other reason I think we need to start talking directly this is because of conflicting beliefs about what should be sacred have shattered our community into warring and cannibalistic factions. We sacralize everything. It is impossible to talk about too many topics without offending too many people.
Think about it.
We sacralize autistic people as victims, of caregivers and thugs who kill them, of a society that fails to care for them, of bullies at work and school, and of vaccines that "injure" them.
We sacralize treatments. You are not allowed to criticize Risperdal in some places and facilitated communication in others. Some people become so opposed to drugs that they prefer to see autistic people suffer painful electric shocks instead.
We sacralize words. People attack others for calling themselves "people with autism," "autistic people," and "aspies."
We sacralize diagnosis. People view changes to the diagnostic code with horror and base their views of themselves and others around who is diagnosed and who is not.
We sacralize individuals. St. Temple of Grandin. St. Simon of Theory of Mind. St. Alison and St. Ari and St. Jenny and all.
We sacralize parenthood, especially mothers, to the point where many of us have been willing to excuse parents who kill their children.
We sacralize our own sensitivities with "trigger warnings" and poems, simultaneously sacralizing our own insensitivity by calling all complaints about our behavior "ableist" or "the argument from tone."
We sacralize attitudes, about cures, about causation, about science itself.
We sacralize beliefs about autism and disability:
"Autism is a socially constructed disability."
"Autism is a word that should only be used to refer to people who meet my definition of disability."
"Autism is a horrible, life-destroying disability."
"Autism is not a disability."
"The only disability is a bad attitude."
If a shared sense of the sacred binds some communities together, maybe this is why we are so fragmented.
And maybe just understanding that a little will help make it easier for us to come together where we can.