Theory of Mind & Autism
I don’t remember my childhood, except for a few fragments here and there. My best guess for why I don’t remember my childhood (besides traumatic experiences, of which there were undoubtedly many) is that the me that remembers wasn’t there at the time. It, I, had not been constructed yet.
There’s a well-known example of a three-year-old who is shown a small object being hidden somewhere in the room while its mother is outside. The child is asked where the mother will look for the object when she returns; the child answers that she will look in the place where it is hidden. The child assumes its mother knows the location of the object because the child itself knows where it is. It hasn’t yet learned to recognize (or theorize—since we don’t really ever know for sure) that the other people (bodies) around it have a consciousness independent of its own.
There are lots of assumptions in the above paragraph. Whenever we use language we are falling prey to culturally conditioned assumptions passed down over the generations, through language. Language itself is a system of assumptions out of which, it might be assumed, a self-aware self constructs itself. Language creates a matrix or womb (commonly known as the mind) through which it can procreate and propagate itself. How and why? To know the answer to that we would have to ask language, and language, like the UFO, like the magician, and like the government, lies. How do you know when language is lying to you? Its lips are moving.
Autistic people, at least the more severe or low-functioning kind, are said not to develop the capacity of theory of mind in the same way ordinary (neurotypical) people do. For the autistic person, as for the small child, everything is experienced as an extension of his or her own consciousness. This also is an assumption, assuming for example that a small child or autistic person experiences consciousness as belonging to them, or as existing in some way separate from their larger environment. The consciousness that has become embedded in the language matrix of “mind” and shackled to a mental self-construct, can only perceive everything through that lens, as belonging to a similar sort of selfness.
How can we think outside the box when thinking is contingent on the creation of boxes to think inside?
One thing we can observe with reasonable certainty is that autistics have difficulty adapting to social rules. They find it hard to adopt the correct behaviors because imitation (the means by which creatures adapt to their social environment) does not come naturally to them. They have to observe behaviors and copy them without every really understanding why these behaviors are being performed. That is something we all do as children (or so it seems safe to assume); most of us forget this and take on the imitated forms of behavior so completely that we end up believing they are generated internally and fundamental (like that mind-constructed self thingy) to who we are.
When I went to private, single-sex school in the UK—complete with uniforms and military training—never for a single day did I believe in the behaviors I was imitating. I learned to imitate consciously, as a means not to get into (too much) trouble. I was not so much imitating as imitating imitation. As a result, I learned how to get around the social norms being laid down, how to adapt them to more closely match my own internal sense of reality so I wouldn’t go completely insane. I literally re-tailored my uniform and turned the institution’s brand of conformity into an expression of my lack of conformity. Clever. Innovative. Necessary for my psychological survival. None of that would have been possible if I had fully taken on the institutional programs and internalized them. I would never have questioned the behaviors I was imitating, and I would have had no interest in adapting them to better fit my own interiority. Apparently for some of us, innovation is the only way to function.
Why do autistic children get imitation wrong (i.e., fail to be socialized)? According to the theory of mind model, it is because they can’t put themselves in the other person’s shoes—they can’t imagine the thinking that drives the desired forms of behavior. Neurotypical people, in contrast, having developed theory of mind, create an internal narrative to explain the behavior which they are imitating. The behavior then becomes innate and the mental self that is created to justify the behaviors becomes the internal prison guard keeping them in line, keeping them hardwired to the social matrix.
For most people, imitation is unconscious and internalized. They are like method actors who become the role they are playing—as compared to the kabuki theater of autistics. Autistics appear crazy or damaged to well-adjusted people, just as I was seen as a freak at my school. The degree to which I was tolerated—I adapted my rebellion to ensure it didn’t threaten the system I was rejecting—suggest that I had at least enough theory of mind to guess how insane people would regard my own behavior, and to adjust it accordingly in order not to get expelled.
It is telling in this regard that, in his Bloodlands lecture, Timothy Snyder points out how, during the late 1930s, those who stuck their necks out to rescue Jews were mainly outsiders and “deviants” (Snyder’s word), people who were already marginalized (or who chose to marginalize themselves) by society. Like the gypsies persecuted by the Nazis, these outsider-types were people accustomed to being in a liminal state. Since they didn’t belong to the dominant social group and yet co-existed with it, moving between the margins and the mainstream meant they were effectively on the inside and outside of society at the same time.
Ironically, such marginalized people (especially when self-marginalized) can have more freedom within a society than those more established in it (just as homeless people have more freedom, in a certain sense, than movie stars or CEOs, and just as I had more freedom at my school). This sort of bilingualism loosens the hold of the language/social identity and allows for an internal flexibility that amounts to ideological freedom. Marginalized people in 1930s Europe were more sympathetic to the plight of the persecuted people, not only because they could identify with them, but because they were less threatened by the loss of stability, or of identity, that was occurring at a group level—having never really felt like they’d had it to begin with.
Invasion by Language
A social identity begins with our family unit. As we grow older, it extends outward to embrace the idea of a “world” to which we, human beings, belong. The longer we live, the more we “expand our horizons,” the larger our social identity becomes. In the West, this is considered progress, ideologically speaking. It is often lumped under the liberalist notion of tolerance and inclusivity, while subtly or not so subtly endorsing and even enforcing homogeneity.
For example, socially marginalized people—usually following a period of persecution—are encouraged to identify, to take pride in, their marginalized status (gay pride, black pride, transgender pride, autist pride, etc.), but only so they can be incorporated into the larger collective, integrated or, in the words of the Borg, assimilated. Marginalized groups band together to assert not so much their right to exist separately from the larger social community but their right to belong to it. Paradoxically, the right to be different is asserted not as an end in itself, but as the means to the opposite end, that of becoming the same. As a result, the category of sameness expands to include more and more races, sexual practices, neural divergences, and so on, just as the Borg expands the more races it can assimilate. Biological facts become “politically incorrect” because they undermine the ideology of equality that can only implement its agenda by erasing all differences between people, and eventually, the idea of individuality itself.
Transhumanist tracts often include some sort of orgiastic anticipation of a future, Borg-like hive consciousness erasing all differences between human beings, even while transhumanism is sold as the apotheosis of human individuality. The dominant culture pushing the transhumanist-homogenization agenda also holds up individuality as the highest value, an obvious irony that is rarely recognized, probably because the transcultural values that drive the agenda are truly “transhuman,” i.e., do not pertain to any sort of human experience—potential or otherwise. The problem is that ideology (any set of values sourced not in experience but in language) and individuality are mutually exclusive. When an ideology is formed around the idea of individuality, it can only become the opposite of itself—a Borg to shadow and assimilate the Starship Enterprise.
The Starship Enterprise had for its Prime Directive (its foremost ideological principle, in words) that of non-interference. It broke this code every episode, not simply because otherwise there would be no show that week, but because the same set of values that created the Prime Directive was congenitally (so to speak, while lacking any genitals at all) blind to its own infractions. The values of human beings—including those on the Starship Enterprise—are not only firmly embedded into their behaviors but inseparable from those behaviors. In other words, Kirk and co simply did not—could not—see the recurring imposition of their values as a form of interference. To them it was always a form of assistance—of doing the right thing. As with American foreign policy (and domestic for that matter), “morality” overrules “law” every time, because those who create their own laws will always create the necessary loopholes to get around them.
Who or what the “those” refers to here (besides bureaucrats and Plutocrats) is unclear, because once again language (and ideology) appears to be in control of human beings, and not the reverse. Probably this has to do with the law of the unconscious, namely that whatever we suppress or disown always controls us at a hidden level. Language only appears to be the creation of conscious minds; in fact, it is the means by which the unconscious constructs a mental self by which to operate in a word of objects and images. We are living in, or as, a never-ending series of remakes of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which we are snatched from infancy on, and the means of invasion is language. As for that which invades—it is by definition beyond our comprehension, because that which creates language can’t be identified by it. It is our “God.”
The Evil Men Do
Rene Girard has pointed out that, in liminal states—stateless states, nations stripped of sovereignty— mimetic violence rapidly escalates. There’s a conundrum here: imitation is necessary for socialization—the creation of a socialized self and the adopting of language—to occur. And where imitation and socialization starts to break down, liminality (lack of structure) increases and the collective and individual sense of identity begins to falter. At this point, mimesis kicks in with renewed fury, both boosted and distorted by the anxiety of social incoherence and identity loss. The society that is breaking down is at risk of accelerating that breakdown in a mad, mimetically violent dash to try and restore order (Nazi Germany again being a handy template for watching the process in action).
Once institutions and group arrangements begin to break down, once the social cohesion begins to erode, people no longer know how to behave. In confusion, they look for charismatic leaders, “false ceremony masters,” to guide them. Distress and confusion (panic) combines with the attempt to imitate what others are doing to relieve the tension. This is commonly known as mass hysteria. Since the greatest danger of this kind of lynch mob situation is that the members will turn on each other, the essential thing becomes to find a common object on which to release all that pent-up fear and rage. Enter the scapegoat.
I already looked at (in part two) how theory of mind might be a primary, perhaps not yet identified, reason for this escalation of violence. People attack each other—or more frequently join forces to persecute a weaker social member—not because they want to, but because they are in a state of near-panic and don’t know what else to do. Worse still, they don’t know what their neighbors are going to do to them. The more stressed they get, the darker their imaginings, and vice versa, in a rapidly escalating social frenzy of terror and rage. Since the hardest thing to do when everything is going to hell in a hand basket is nothing, it is the dark imaginings that many people act on, and act out—that act through them—making their worst fears reality. And yet no one is really “responsible.”
“For evil to prevail, all that’s required is for good people to do nothing” is the moral assumption that underlies and overrides any consciously contrived Prime Directive, from now to forever. The unspoken (because un-cogitated) assumption is always that one’s social identification is equivalent with good, and that anything outside of that is akin to evil. The assumption is that being identified with “the good” allows for one to identify (and combat) evil, and vice versa, that recognizing and opposing evil affirms one’s allegiance to goodness.
The reverse may be closer to the truth: for evil to prevail, all it takes is for “good” (socially adjusted identity, or “pod”) people to get busy trying to eradicate evil in order to spread their version of good.
The third, generally unexplored option is that of not trying to beat the system or join it, but, as in my school daze, of appearing to join it as a means to pass relatively uncontaminated through it. This is the liminal approach of neither resistance nor compliance. It may just be the only approach that is not entirely futile.