Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Being an Ally - A Quick Primer On Supporting The Marginalized In Your Life

“I’m an ally.” It’s a phrase those of us in activist communities hear all the time. Sometimes, it describes us personally – perhaps we have friends or family members who are part of certain oppressed groups and we want to show solidarity and support – while at other times, it describes those who associate with us and want to provide support to our own struggles. In either case, it’s a politically charged and complicated term, and its so very easy to be a progressive person who means well yet falls flat when trying to do this properly. Recently, I came face to face with this myself when, while having the best of intentions, I accidentally invalidated the identity of a transgendered girl I had been talking to on OK Cupid by speaking too much about reproductive parts. Granted, that was far from the only thing we talked about, but it was the topic of conversation between us quite a few times. Were you to have asked me in the moment, I’d have defended myself by saying that I was only being honest with myself and her to ensure that we were compatible in every way. Truthfully, I’m not even sure she felt invalidated because she never seemed offended and in fact appeared to be more than willing to talk openly. And yet, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was failing in my attempts to support the rights of the Trans community. I spoke with a trans friend, explained the situation in more detail to him (including that I was willing to keep an open mind and did everything I could NOT to be reductionist, but couldn’t help but feel that I had been anyway), and he explained to me how tricky a situation it was. That by some definitions, what I’d done WAS wrong, but also that it appeared that I’d tried everything I could to avoid falling down the slope before I finally succumbed. He ended our conversation by saying that my attempts not to invalidate, coupled with my reaching out to find out how I could do better, in fact made me a good human being and ally, which I appreciated. And yet, the entire situation both rattled me and made me realize how very easy it is to slip up and fall down the slippery slope into normative privilege land.

So how do we avoid it? How, as both members of oppressed groups and allies of others, do we do everything we can to be the best allies we can be while avoiding the pitfalls on the way? I don’t have an easy answer for you (and I say that as both a spectrum dweller and someone who tries his hardest to be an ally to others), but after much thought I’ve come up with a list of things that can at least point us in the right direction:

“Leave the War Outside!” Checking Your Privilege At The Door and Recognizing That Everyone’s Truth is Different

I won’t lie, the title of this section reminds me of the cliché World War Two-era bar where patrons – both German soldier and civilian alike – were encouraged to “leave the war outside” for civility’s sake. The funny thing is, we can actually learn from this example and apply it to privilege. Essentially privilege is, among many things, the assumption that our personal life experiences as members of a group with social power are applicable to everyone (including marginalized and oppressed people). “Leaving the war outside,” in this context, means to take a momentary step outside your life circumstances, and try to see what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s the very important realization that your life circumstances are as genuine to you as those of someone else are to them. The sad reality is, we all need this reminder on occasion as even the best of us have the tendency to forget this by virtue of human nature. After all, the easiest perspective for us to understand as humans is our own, as it is the only concrete experience of consciousness we have at our disposal. Any time we look at, say, a member of the trans, LGBTQ, Neurodiversity, or hell even furry community and think ‘well that’s weird,’ because it doesn’t jive with our internal narrative of normalcy, we are doing this. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re doing it – that’s how deeply engrained this tendency within us is. Every time someone calls for a cure to the ‘terrible’ disease that is Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example – no matter how well meaning this call may be – they are engaging in this kind of behaviour and invalidating the existence of those of us on the Spectrum. Likewise, fat shaming “out of concern for their health” and countless other such micro-aggressions do the same thing. The best solution to this problem? Adopt a live and let live philosophy when it comes to others – after all, people in marginalized groups don’t NEED you to understand the details of what they’re going through as much as they need your acceptance of the validity of their existences. Even if you think it’s strange, remember this; no one asked you. Just go with it.

Don’t Police The Tone of Social Justice Conversations!

This is another common one on the internet, and one I’ve come across countless times online myself. A member of a marginalized group expresses genuine anger at some injustice or another perpetrated against their group. Not long after, a chorus of sheltered, privileged voices are screaming out about how aggressive this person was, and how they should ‘tone it down’ and ‘be more open to a reasonable discussion’ since, after all ‘you get more bees with honey than with vinegar.’ The thing is, this one is complicated because strictly speaking, it IS true that people respond better when being talked to than when they’re faced with anger and aggression. It’s even understandable that people would strive for this – after all, in an ideal world, this WOULD be the best way to engage in such conversations. The key thing to remember here, however, is that we do not in fact live in that world. Those who call out for calm, reasoned conversations often have privileged life circumstances that make it easy for them to step back and treat social justice issues with a calm, theoretical eye. Not every one has that ability, least of all those who face racist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic/ableist microaggressions each and every day. The fact is, when you face constant comments denouncing the legitimacy of your life experience, you will be angry. And most often, when in this situation, you also won’t have an outlet because society will be against you (funny thing about living in a society where certain groups are more prized than others). When you have your back up against the wall, are facing discrimination on one side and lack any forum for legitimate expression on the other, you WILL lash out in anger. To deny oppressed and marginalized people this anger under the guise of ‘keeping things civil’ is to silence their voices. I’m not saying you CAN’T be someone who prefers reasoned, level-headed discourse about these subjects – certainly calm quiet activism has its place and is effective in its own way. But if you are one of those people, go back, re-read the first section and remember; your way is not everyone’s way. Remember that everyone deals with these things differently. They aren’t any less valid.

Don’t Know How Best To Be An Ally? ASK! (But Don’t Assume)

This is probably one of the most important ones on this list, because it respects the agency of oppressed and marginalized groups. To borrow a phrase from my own cause in the Neurodiversity struggle, there should never be anything about a marginalized group without input from said marginalized group. (“Nothing about us without us!”) It is not the place of an ally to assume that they know how best to be of help to an oppressed group, no matter how well intentioned that assumption may be. If you aren’t sure how best to be supportive to those of us who need allies, then please ask! Odds are, we’ll be happy to talk to you about it. Be careful though; while it’s a matter of practical reality that, at least in the Neurodiversity struggle, it falls on us to educate others about our needs, don’t ever assume that it’s our RESPONSIBILITY to do so. There are lots of great resources out there – educate yourself, bring what you have to the table, and ask us for clarification. If you do your homework, I for one will be happy to help!

Understand The Difference Between “Guilt” and “Responsibility” (And Don’t Take It Personally!):

This is one that hangs lots of people up online, especially as it regards both racism and sexism. After all, when taken out of context, hearing things like “everyone’s a racist/sexist” can sound downright discriminatory. I mean, we were all taught not to lump people into groups right? Likewise, saying “all white people are responsible for racism” seems very accusatory. When faced with this, remember; there is a very significant difference between guilt and responsibility in this context. I don’t think there’s an activist alive who would say (unless you are an ignorant pig) that you’re personally guilty of any racist/sexist/classist/etc. actions unless you show yourself doing such things on a daily basis. If you’re a good person who doesn’t do these things, then you are absolutely right that you aren’t guilty of them. However, if you are a member of a privileged group (white, male, cisgendered, straight, neurotypical and so on) then, as someone whose life has been made better by institutionalized systems of power based on oppression, you ARE responsible for trying to level the playing field. A good way to look at this is in the context of working at a retail job. You aren’t personally guilty as a lowly peon for any of the crappy policies your company may have towards its customers, but as an employee (and therefore a representative of your organization) who deals with the people affected, you are responsible for trying to mitigate the situation as best you can for all involved. The same logic applies to social justice situations when it comes to dynamics of privilege and oppression in society. So despite how inflammatory it may FEEL to be told you’re responsible for any form of discrimination, think back to this and remind yourself; you aren’t guilty of being a jerk, but as part of a group that has historically been made up of jerks, you have the opportunity to use your social power to make things better. You can be a super hero! And who doesn’t want that??

Be Patient With And Forgive Yourself (But Don’t Rest on Your Laurels Either):

This is probably the hardest one for anyone who prides themselves on being a progressive, accepting person. Let’s face it, if you’re anything like me, your first instinct when being called on an unintentional micro-aggression is “What? Me? I’d NEVER!” followed by copious amounts of self-shaming and beating yourself up when you realize that you did in fact break one of your cherished values and act in an unbecoming way. I get it, believe me I do, but it’s important to remember two things; you’re a flawed, imperfect human, and our society conditions in us the worst responses. It’s far easier to be ignorant of one’s own privilege than it is to battle it every day, and when you do engage in this fight with your own subconscious, it often isn’t a far slide into self-loathing once you realize how deeply engrained social programming truly is. It’s important to always forgive yourself for your unintentional micro-aggressions, and in so doing treat them as opportunities to educate yourself and do better. We will ALL make mistakes, because to err is human, but as the best teachers would say, a mistake is a teachable moment. Only the ignorant fool, when faced with the opportunity to learn and do better, embraces his mistake proudly. Likewise, the definition of insanity is knowing that something doesn’t work, but continuing to do it anyway hoping for a different result. Don’t be this person. Learn from your mistakes; they don’t define you, but they can help you be a better human and ally.

This is by no means an exhaustive list on how to be the best ally, nor is it (as I mentioned earlier) intended to be. Because I hope it’s become obvious by now; constantly resisting our own internal privilege and social conditioning isn’t easy, nor are we going to be perfect and never slip up. That doesn’t mean, however, that the struggle isn’t worth pursuing. Fighting for both our own rights and the rights of others as full human beings in this society is a moral obligation we all share, whether one does it softly or loudly. By following these five recommendations, we can all be both better allies, and better humans overall. And trust me, as a member of the neurodiversity community, I’m far more likely to respect someone who tries to be a good ally, follows these tenets and occasionally stumbles than I am to respect a proudly ignorant bigot any day. The same, I suspect, is true of members of many other oppressed and marginalized groups. We all make mistakes, but come to us humbly with the genuine desire to be a good human, and it will amaze you what we can accomplish together.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Big Bang Theory and Aspergers: Why Dr. Sheldon Cooper Does Not Represent Me

It was 2007. A simpler time. I had only started university a year before, nerd culture as we know it was only beginning to gain mainstream social acceptance, Windows Vista had pushed hordes of people into the open arms of Steve Jobs, and both Lost and Battlestar Galactica were the shows that had people talking week to week. It should therefore come as no surprise that, in the midst of that pop culture universe, the premiere of The Big Bang Theory made waves. After all, here was a show about nerds, for nerds, and oh, it also happened to have a neurotic, socially awkward lead with a supposed heart of gold who was an Aspie in all but name – Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Fans ate it up! It was a hit! And on some level, it made the concept of an Aspie nerdy intellectual both mainstream and normalized. It brought Neurodiversity to the masses.

Except it didn`t. Not really.

I could give a laundry list of reasons why BBT is a problematic show from a social justice standpoint, but such lists are a dime a dozen on the internet these days (trust me…in the lead up to writing this article, I checked). Instead, I`d like to focus solely on Sheldon, since he`s the one I`ve come to have the most issues with. I should also be clear; I haven`t watched the show in quite a few years – I started to find it boring, hackneyed and superficial. In light of that, it`s entirely possible that I`m off the mark and that Sheldon has received a great deal of character development since last I watched. I highly doubt it, but it`s possible. Sheldon has also never explicitly been identified on screen as an Aspie, but even despite that it’s a commonly accepted idea in the fan community that Sheldon Cooper has Aspergers. Even though the show has never made it ‘canon’, it’s basically the case, and it comes with a boatload of unfortunate implications because of it.

So why exactly is Sheldon a bad representative of the Aspie community? It all comes down to one word; stereotypes. Dr. Cooper’s behaviour is chock full of them. Don’t believe me? Think about what comes to mind when you ponder the words Aspergers and Autism. I’m willing to bet descriptors like ‘socially awkward’, ‘aloof’, ‘neurotic’, ‘emotionally distant’ and ‘lacking in social graces’ come to mind, don’t they? Now, consider how many of these apply to Sheldon. All of them you say? Gold star for you! Sheldon is a walking textbook example of the DSM definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this couldn’t be more harmful to the public perception of those of us who are on the spectrum. While the neurodiversity community has worked hard to encourage the idea that knowing one person on the spectrum literally means knowing only one, and that everyone is different whether on the spectrum or otherwise, Sheldon’s popularity in the mainstream has led people to consider him the defacto mascot for Aspergers. You can see why this is a problem.

Contrary to Sheldon’s portrayal of a man with Aspergers, we are not all aloof, nor are we all self-centered jerks. In fact, many of us feel our emotions far too deeply and truly, and while we may be neurotic, it is often a neurosis born of our deep-seated emotions coupled with our misinterpretations of the social world. Granted, we can at times be arrogant with our own knowledge, and we can talk far too much about the things that interest us, but for the vast majority these aren’t harmful to our lives or our friends. The way Sheldon treats people, coupled with the way viewers just assume he’s Autistic based on a stereotypical definition of the term, presents a view that it is okay to treat people badly simply because one has Aspergers. As Glee taught us when they lampshaded this with Sugar, this is not okay.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not against the media trying to represent neurodiversity (and indeed any marginalized group) fairly and decently on TV or in any other format. We NEED representation, as it’s the only way that differences get normalized and accepted by greater society. The problem is, it’s not often done very well. All too often (as is the case in Big Bang Theory), writers fall on tired old tropes to help them write such characters instead of developing fully three dimensional human beings with their own complexities. Even well-meaning shows such as Scorpion face this problem (centering a show on hyper-intelligent, almost autistic stereotypes with names who need a ‘normie’ to help them function is so problematic on so many levels). I can literally count the amount of well-developed, well-written autistic characters I’ve seen in the media recently on two fingers; Pidge Gunderson of Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Billie Cranston from the new Power Rangers movie. I know there are more out there, but the fact that we have a visibility problem in the media remains.

What can we do about it? Well, besides boycotting shows that embrace these kinds of characters, we can speak out. Engage in meaningful discourse and think critically about the things we watch and the types of people they portray. Media is, after all, a business…and businesses will embrace any progressive social value as long as there is money in it and a demand for it. I mean hell, it took a while, but even the fact that we’ve received this level of representation is an improvement over where we were even a decade ago when BBT began. Talking about things and demanding them from our service providers works, and it’s a tactic we need more of.

Because I may be an Aspie, but I am not Dr. Sheldon Cooper. I refuse to be stereotyped that way. And so should all of you.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Monday, March 27, 2017

Go Go Power Rangers! How Saban Knocked It Out Of The Park With Autistic Representation

I was a big fan of the Power Rangers when I was young, as I think most kids who grew up in the 90s were. Despite that, however, the series has not aged well at all, and when I went back to watch it for nostalgia’s sake, my rose-coloured goggles shattered rather painfully (oh god! The glass! My eyes!). In light of this, I really didn’t expect much from the newly released reboot movie. After all, if the original series was that bad in retrospect, it really had nowhere to go but up, right?  With that in mind, a friend of mine and I went to the movies to watch Saban’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers remake, and I have to say that while the movie was more or less exactly what I expected, one thing threw me for a happy loop; it had one of the best, fairest and most positive representations of Autism I’ve ever seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Billy Cranston, AKA the Blue Ranger, has always been a geek. That was part of his charm in the original series; he was the loveable nerd that you couldn’t help but see yourself in (if you were anything like me in the 90s). In his new iteration, however, he takes this to a new level. When you first meet him, he’s obsessively ordering pencils in a certain way on his desk in detention, has a fixation with technology and explosives, rambles on tangents that touch on every topic under the sun in a train of thought that most assuredly only makes sense to him, and for the life of him doesn’t seem to understand social mores, despite knowing details about everyone in school and who they associate with. In short, Billie is Autistic, and even admits it at one point in the movie (he very bluntly tells Jason that the reason he’s a little odd is because he’s on the spectrum), and while at first I cringed, bracing myself for the inevitable autistic stereotyping which usually follows, in this case I have to say that – much like the whole movie itself – I was pleasantly surprised.

Through Billy, we as moviegoers get to see all the positive traits of being on the spectrum, and even some of the endearing neurosis. He uses his formidable intelligence to figure things out before anyone else on the team, and is the only one super interested in learning everything he can about Zordon, Alpha-5 and the advanced technology they brought with them to Earth. He’s also the most human; when all the other rangers jumped off a cliff at one point in the movie, Billy was the only one pacing back and forth nervously, weighing the pros and cons of how safe it would be for him with his new powers, coupled with what would happen to his family if he did die. As someone with Anxiety and Aspergers, I knew all too well what he was going through. The best part of it all though, is that Billy is never shown as anything but a fully capable and contributing member of the Ranger team, and the others rely on him and his friendship as much as he relies on theirs. As an Aspie, I saw so much of myself in Billy, and his character arc in the movie was one of the best-yet-unexpected parts of this movie for me.

Coming out of the theatre, I was impressed by how good Power Rangers actually was. Sure, the movie itself won’t win any awards for originality, but the writers clearly knew their source material, had a good sense of humour, and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Most importantly, however, the creative team at Saban gave us the new version of Billy Cranston – who in my opinion is right up there with Pidge Gunderson of Team Voltron in the “positive representations of Autism in media” category. For this reason alone, this movie will have a special place in my heart as a Neurodiversity activist. Simply put, the world needs more positive portrayals of Neurodiversity in general and more characters like Billy and Pidge in particular. We’re fortunate to live in a time where writers seem to be waking up to this idea, since normalizing it is so very important. Even still, however, more needs to be done.

Despite that though, I’m happy to report that, no matter which team of pilots who operate mechanical beasts that combine into a massive robot you prefer, those of us on the Autism Spectrum will always have a place on it.

Not saying I want Emperor Zarkon, Lord Zed or Rita Repulsa invading this planet anytime soon mind you, but still….

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"You Don't Own Me": Reflecting On Workplace Abuse One Year Later

Long time readers of this blog will recall how, around this time last year, things were not going well for me at work. I was being bullied by my manager, as I had been for years up to that point, and I’d reached a breaking point. Things came to a head, and my time with that company reached an end rather unceremoniously. At the time, I was both glad to be gone and terrified for what the future held in store for me. What if I wasn’t being bullied? I mused to myself. What if I actually did suck at my job? Who would want to hire someone as clearly incompetent as me? How long would it take for my new employer to realize the kind of person they’d hired? These were all thoughts that swirled through my mind as I faced the uncertainty that came with a significant chapter of my life ending.

It’s almost been one year since all of that happened, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

During the past year, I’ve found success at work, and experienced the appreciation and praise of my managers. I’ve made new friends, and even been promoted to a higher-level sales position complete with office, desk and 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule. By all accounts, leaving my old job was the best decision I made in a long time, and it frankly amazes me how far I’ve come in the time its taken Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun. There is one thing, however, which still gives me pause; why has everything that happened back then still stuck with me? And why did I put up with it for as long as I did?

My therapist has told me that, when faced with any abuse situation, the human mind focuses solely on surviving and doesn’t let us realize how truly bad a situation is. It’s only in retrospect, once the fog clears, that we come to see the truth. I can safely say that this was exactly what I’ve experienced over the past year. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m annoyed that I put up with my old boss’ abuse for as long as I did. Logically, I know that the years I spent there helped me gain the experience I needed to achieve my current success, but somehow that feels like cold comfort.

I think, more than ever, I now understand what abuse victims go through, because in so many ways I was one. My boss controlled my livelihood and finances, along with my prospects for career advancement, and never hesitated to use those to dominate me. He was a narcissist and an asshole, and the scariest part of it all is that I actually started to internalize the things he said. I genuinely began to believe that I was incompetent and pathetic, which is part of the reason I stayed in that job as long as I did. If this company had so many problems with me, I thought, how could I honestly expect to go anywhere else? It’s only now, after having moved on as much as I have, that I see this for the insidious bullying tactic that it was.

I may never fully get over what was done to me. When I look back on it, it’s clear to me that I would have experienced a breakdown had I stayed. At the same time, the scary thing about abusive situations like these is that, when faced with the prospect of leaving, I was both scared and not even sure I had it that bad to begin with. Even now, I keep expecting the other foot to drop; for my new boss to come into my office, screaming and berating me for making a mistake with a client. Despite the fact that I know he would never do such a thing, it’s taken my brain a while to re-order its expectations of managerial behaviour. My old boss’ actions were so normalized in my mind that I still find myself having to re-learn what it means to be part of a healthy team. On some level, I know this sounds ridiculous, but that’s what it feels like to have survived workplace abuse. The anxiety he gave me still haunts me, though I do my best to not let it rule me.

At the end of the day, I not only survived, but thrived, and I like to think of every new success as a stab against the man who, for so long, kept me down.

You don’t own me Steve. You never did, and you never will.

As always yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Friday, February 10, 2017

Subjective Meanings of Aspergers: The Power of Self-Identification

I had a really interesting conversation with a friend recently about personality types, where throughout the course of it, I brought up how some of my character traits were significantly impacted by Aspergers. My friend, bless her soul, told me that Aspergers had nothing to do with it; that somehow, even without it, my core personality would still be intact. Aspergers, to my friend and countless others, was something separate from a person; a condition in need of dealing with rather than an integral part of who someone is. Long time readers will know where I stand on this particular question, but the whole thing did get me thinking; what exactly does the word Aspergers mean? Not in the sense of the clinical definition, but in a more subjective way. What does it, as a label, mean to those who have it, those who know of it, and those who study it?

First off, I should start with the elephant in the room - to those who study it, 'Aspergers' no longer exists. Starting with the release of the DSM-V in 2013, Aspergers was dropped as a diagnostic label, instead replaced with the wide-reaching category of 'Autism Spectrum Disorder.' While this represents a good move overall - recognizing Autism as a spectrum that impacts everyone differently is nothing but beneficial to all those living with the condition - it does bring up an interesting question; what about those of us who've lived with and identified as Aspergians since time immemorial? Are our experiences now illegitimate? The DSM would say no; in fact it goes to great lengths to tell us that anyone who previously had a diagnosis of Aspergers - whether historically or currently - should automatically be considered to have Autism Spectrum Disorder without significant language or cognitive delays. Even still, that feels like cold comfort for the fact that a personally significant label has had its legitimacy removed. It's not that I have anything against being referred to as Autistic, it just doesn't feel as comfortable for me to wear as a label as Aspergers does. Others are certainly free to disagree; its no different than preferring queer over gay, Indigenous over Aboriginal, and so on. People should be free to self identify with preferred terms, and I prefer Aspergers.

Aspergers also takes on a different meaning to members of mainstream society. For such people, it is often - as illustrated by the comments of both my friend and many others - considered to be something separate from a person. It's something to be grappled with, dueled with, and reckoned with daily. This isn't a surprising stand to take; after all, our model of medical science is inherently cure-based. We identify maladies, find solutions and eliminate the problem. This has worked wonders in the realm of physical health, but it falls short in certain areas of mental health. Aspergers (and by extension all Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD and some others) is after all a pervasive developmental condition, and this means it impacts every bit of who a person is. What I like, how I think, how I interact - all are affected by it and molded by it. When Aspergers is referred to as something separate from who a person is, it does an inherent disservice to the person themselves. It implies that we can cure Aspergers and find a complete person underneath, when in fact the reality would be more akin to gutting a person and rebuilding a more socially acceptable one.

If there's one thing I hope this blog post makes clear, it's how the term Aspergers can mean many things to many different people. For me, it represents a core characteristic; no more or less a part of me than my Italian heritage, brown hair, sexual orientation or anything else. It's not separate from my deep personal self but rather an integral part of it, with its tendrils in every aspect of who I am as a human. As much as we may all wish it wasn't so, labels are a key part of how we form our own identities, and this is why it is important to move away from our traditional view of mental health as a cure-based exercise. Diagnostic labels in psychology go far beyond being mere medical terms; they actually tend to become internalized as part of who a person is because they deal with such intimate and deep-seated aspects of a person's character. Therefore I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, while Aspergers may mean many things to many people, the most important opinions in this regard are those of Aspies themselves. We're the ones living with it and seeing the world through its lenses, so how we choose to self-identify should be the most important thing to consider. In light of this, I'm declaring that - DSM be damned - I will ALWAYS be an Aspie. I do not 'suffer' from it, I embrace it as part of me instead of something separate, and most importantly, I'm comfortable with it. Everyone's self-identifications should be accepted and respected equally as part of their journey - no exceptions.

I am an Aspie, and proud of it!

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Aspie Adventures of Commander Shepard: Neurodiversity, Moral Dilemmas and the Power of Gaming Narratives

So I’m actually going to do something different with this post. While everyone else seems to be focused (rightly so) on the Trump presidency and the potential disasters that it may bring for civil rights in both America and the world, I’d like to use this entry to talk about something else. I recently got into, played through, and finished the Mass Effect series, and had some interesting insight dawn on me after a particularly deep conversation with a friend. For those of you reading this who are not gamers, the Mass Effect games are a trilogy put out by Canadian-based development company BioWare and are unique in that almost every aspect of the story is shaped by the moral and situational choices made by the player throughout the adventure. Stereotypically ‘good’ choices are highlighted in blue during in-game dialog, and ‘bad’ are red...but these are only available if you’ve put the time and effort into going down either path almost exclusively. The other, non-highlighted options are the messier and arguably truer to life ones. It all got me thinking; would being on the Autism spectrum have impacted the choices I made throughout the 40 hours I sunk into the series? The answer I discovered, upon reflection, is fascinating but not clear-cut.

The cliched, almost stereotypical way to look at this would be that, as someone on the spectrum, this kind of game should be easy. I should almost always choose the logical choice, emotions be damned (because apparently we spectrum-dwellers have low Emotional Quotient), and let the game play out according to some grand design based on optimal character specs or some other similarly arcane factor. The reality was, at least for me, the complete opposite. After all, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog before, the problem with Aspergers isn’t a lack of emotion (at least not in my case), but rather an over-abundance of feeling approaching sensory overload. This, combined with a mind that does not always grasp the nuances of social situations can make for an interesting approach to games like Mass Effect, which are built on moral and ethical dilemmas. There is one story arc in particular in which I feel that the choices I made were impacted by my Aspie brain. The way I dealt with it screams Aspergers because it was a case of my trying to do the right thing for a character and horribly mangling it socially.

Warning: Spoilers for Mass Effect 2 ahead. I know it’s been out for years, but if you haven’t played it yet, you probably shouldn’t have even read this far in this post. Seriously dude...I appreciate the support for Neurodiversity but drop this RIGHT NOW and go play through this epic series. You won’t be sorry!

With that disclaimer out of the way, I feel safer explaining the story in question. One of the overarching themes of this franchise has been our relationship with technology in general and, specifically, the relationship between synthetic and organic life. One race, the Quarians, long ago created robotic servants called the Geth who, in the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood robots everywhere, rebelled against their organic masters, pushed them off their homeworld and forced them to wander the cosmos for centuries. Naturally, Geth and Quarians were not fans of each other, so when Tali, the resident Quarian on your team (and all around lovable character) finds out her people are putting her on trial for helping the Geth, I of course made the choice to take her back to the Migrant Fleet and help her reclaim her honour. Things got complicated during the mission to gather the evidence necessary to exonerate Tali, however, when it was discovered that her father – a high ranking Quarian admiral – was the one experimenting on live Geth behind everyone’s backs. Enter the moral quandary; Tali begged me to let her take the fall for her father, despite his begging in a recording we recovered that I not let his daughter suffer for his mistakes. If I did what she asked, her father would be known as the good man he was rather than for the one grave error he made, but Tali herself would be exiled and never allowed to return home. For a race as family-centered as hers, that was almost a fate worse than death. In my mind, the course of action was clear and it required me to betray her trust, tell the court about her father and clear her name. I figured that, even if she immediately hated me, she’d be able to return home after the mission we were on, and it would play out well in the end.

Except it didn’t.

Tali hated me for the rest of the game, and my choices then got her killed during the game’s climax, so ultimately my actions – seeming so right in the moment – backfired on me and no amount of apologizing could make it better. Despite it being a video game, this really tugged hard at my heart strings and it brought me face to face with the fact that, to those of us on the Spectrum, the path that seems most logical may not always be the correct one in terms of society and interpersonal relationships. I’ve often had it happen in real life where I acted similarly; making a decision that I thought was the right one to make only to realize later how explosively disastrous it was because I failed to take into account other factors. This is, of course, due to the Executive Functioning difficulties those of us on the Spectrum face, and while we’re the most sympathetic and apologetic people under the sun when our transgressions are explained to us, it is so very easy for us to not even realize we’ve done something wrong at first.

I’m sure I can think of far more examples of how the decisions I made in this amazing series of video games were affected by my being an Aspie, but Tali’s mission hit me hardest and stuck with me for the rest of my play time for this exact reason. While I grant that not all video games are art, one of the key attributes of an artistic medium is that it forces us to examine ourselves, become introspective and find a personal connection with the work in question. For an Aspie who feels too deeply, this is easy enough to accomplish in a game like Mass Effect which is built around its characters. When those relationships force me to then realize truths about myself, my own thought processes and decision-making behaviour however? That, to me, is when this series transcended mere entertainment and became something more - art.

So thank you BioWare. I’m a little late to the party with this one, but you taught me a lot about myself and took me on one hell of an adventure in the process!

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Today We Stand United

Today is a day I honestly never thought we'd see in our lifetimes. It's the day that hatred, bigotry, sexism, ableism, and homophobia have won a major victory in the western political landscape. Indeed, today is the day that Donald J Trump has won the Presidency of the United States of America...and I think I speak for all of those who are not straight, white, neurotypical males when I say that the world weeps.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a post entirely about neurodiversity, nor is Donald Trump my president since I'm a Canadian citizen. Nevertheless, this has the potential to affect us all. During his campaign, Donald Trump ridiculed women, gays, people of colour, the poor, and those who are disabled, either mentally or physically. He has shown no respect for anyone different from himself and his supporters. He employed the rhetoric of one of the most hateful, violent and dangerous ideologies ever conceived by a human mind (fascism) and...perhaps most terrifyingly of all, he won. Whether you're American, Canadian or from any other nation on this planet, this should terrify us all. A dark chapter in human history is about to unfold.

And yet I urge all of you to stay strong! Band together! Those of us who are part of marginalized groups are no strangers to struggle; indeed we've been defined by it in the past! Molded by it! Members of our communities have endured concentration camps, apartheid, eugenics, mental hospitals, police brutality and even run of the mill ableism, and yet through it all, we've always emerged stronger, more united than ever. Today marks another one of those days where we need to take such a stand.

The beauty of humanity has always rested in our diversity as a species. We've always been at our best when we've celebrated those differences (be they physical, mental, cultural, sexual, or spiritual) and used such celebration to unite us in our common humanity rather than divide us. Today, Donald Trump stands poised to tear down everything we've worked so hard to achieve in the western world. We can't let this happen. Let this be a rallying cry; today, Neurodiversity activists must stand tall, not just for our own needs and self-representation, but alongside our brothers and sisters in the feminist, LGBTQ, racial equality and other movements. Today, our resolve must not falter, nor must our hope waver.

If Donald Trump is going to attack the liberties of every American directly, and every human indirectly, then we need to make him and others like him pay for each bigoted step backwards they take.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael