Posted in Passing as Neurotypical, Social Rules

Looking Out For Number One: Even Nice Guys Do It

I have blogged before about watching old Survivor episodes and finding it interesting to learn about human nature within the context of a game. I strongly believe in the power of games to teach Autistics about social skills. While we’re doing something (not merely socializing), we can also look around and listen to other people and learn what they’re like in a context that makes some degree of sense to us. In watching Survivor, I think I’m finally starting to understand neurotypicals better. One big lesson is that neurotypicals always put themselves first.

The Central neurotypical Rule: I Am Number One

I suspect this should be obvious because when I say it, it seems so, but really, it hasn’t been that clear to me. Part of the problem, I think, is that I had internalized a lot of social rules about sharing and what is expected of me as a woman (girls are nice). But when I watch Survivor, I see being nice as a game. Strong game players will use niceness as a way to manipulate people, but they are always thinking about what they need.

I watched a lot of this play out in my principalship: the priests and pastors would always be thinking of their schools first. If one of the rest of us had it harder, and they had it easier, that was a-okay. I felt alone in my desire to grow the pool of students for all of us so that we all could win because I really didn’t believe in a zero-sum game. Meanwhile, everyone else was playing a different game: we won’t hurt you, and we might help you, but if and only if your helping yourself can in no way (even tangentially) impact us. Whenever I tried to grow the pool for all of us, it was attacked as possibly hurting the other schools.

Had I learned this lesson sooner, I would have done things differently. I would have recognized that, because we were in crisis, we needed to focus on ourselves first and exclusively. We might have still closed, but I would have gone farther and had a better chance at staying open had I focused on saving us any way possible including directly competing with the other schools.

And yes, that would involve breaking the rules I learned about how to get along with other people. That would have been directly in conflict with the rules I learned from the Catholic church, but when I observed priests breaking these very rules themselves, I realized they weren’t real rules.

Everyone else puts themselves first.

Religious Principles Are Not Necessarily Laws

We’re told it is supposed to go in this order: put God first, your family second, and your job third. I interpreted that to mean that God wants us to work together first. How others appear to be interpreting it is that we take care of ourselves and our family (if we have one) first, after we pray and do the big picture, ten commandment things. The nuances of religion are more debatable than I thought.

See, part of what attracted me to the Catholic faith was its rules and structure, which make it easier for me to follow. But what’s frustrating is that, what seems like rules and structure, still have a large degree of interpretation involved. In some ways, this should have been obvious to me, as I know in Judaism, the Talmud explains a lot of the rules and the writers, as I understand it, can still disagree with each other.

What Common Law Tells Us about Rules

My law training also tells me that part of how common law (the system the U.S. uses, which we inherited from Britain) works in this way, too. Unlike Code law, where there are rules written down, common law operates like this: Judge A decides that if you kill a fox on the king’s land, you owe money to the king because it’s his fox. Why is it his fox? It’s on his land. Judge B reads this ruling and then hears a case about a fox killed on a poor guy’s property. He can’t change the law that has been written, but he can distinguish this new case from the previous one. He can say that foxes killed on the king’s land belong to the king, but foxes killed on other people’s land belong to everyone, or he can decide that yes, this is just like the previous case and you owe money to the poor guy since it’s his fox. He could even say, well, the king owns all foxes, so any time you kill a fox, anywhere, you pay the king. Normally, the cases link up and any similar cases are decided the same way, and rarely does a judge just ignore the judges from before him.

Thus, under a common law system, if you kill, say, a leopard, on another guy’s property, you don’t know with 100% certainty that you don’t have to pay for that leopard. The judge might say self-defense is an exception (you weren’t hunting; it tried to kill you), the judge might decide that a fox is a “hunting animal” so it has value, but a leopard is a “wild animal” that can be killed whenever, wherever without paying for the privilege. You only know what cases came before you (and the average person doesn’t know that, usually) and how they are normally handled.

What does this mean for Autistics?

I think the lesson here is that one reason that we are at a disadvantage in society is because of our common school experiences. When we’re little, we’re taught, overtly, about sharing and other perceived friendship rules. We’re overtly taught to say thank you and please. Many of us share maybe a little too much and say thank you too often because we know: that’s a rule. We know this because, though we might have picked these rules up on our own (maybe?) since we seem uniquely programmed (or so it seems to me) to be nice to people and think about the person who is the underdog, we miss the more important stuff like which rules are suggestions, to be broken and manipulated at will.

I think this means that we need to do like the attorney in Great Expectations who was all firm at work and a marshmallow at home: we need to adopt two personas. Our work persona has to put ourselves first. We have to guard our time and focus on learning the work culture and pretending to be a part of that culture. We have to do the time-wasting chatting with colleagues because that is how we get ahead. They are very transparent about this rule, and yet we Autistics bristle at it and try to get ahead without playing the “chat with people” game. We may even have to talk about sports and the weather. But we do not talk about the things that matter most to us; we do not open up our hearts and souls, desperate for people to understand us.

But at home, we do our activism. We fight for a just world. We snuggle our kitties. We talk about our hopes and feelings.

Because putting ourselves first, that means recognizing that this is all a game and that the rules we internalized are not rules, but suggestions and strategies. We can employ them, or not, and it really isn’t going to matter all that much.

Two Caveats

First, the observations I made about everyone putting themselves first may well be uniquely Western. At the same time, there is the human trait of self-preservation. Within a culture that seems to be group-based, people will do just about anything to not lose face in front of the group, as I understand it, which makes me think that still is putting oneself first. But I could be wrong.

Second, yes, I know many of us Autistics can be jerks. We are ableist, racist, sexist, classist, etc. because we mirror our greater society. But I’ve noticed that many of us (certainly at a higher percentage than the general population) seem to be open to intersectional conversations and fighting for those who are treated badly when we are made aware of problems. We will sacrifice more, often more deeply than we ought to, to help others. Yes, some of us entrench in society’s rules, but it seems like those of us who got hyper-empathy, at any rate, feel so strongly that we can’t not help. I wonder if this is because we internalized the “be a good Kindergarten friend” rules, or because we would have been like that anyway.

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