Asperger’s Syndrome

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.” Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these people have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the others’ presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking any reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
     I wrote about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it.  My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: this condition is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
     As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 30s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves.  World War II soon followed.
     Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time, “The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”  But he is incapable of that.
     I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us are causal factors. In addition, the countless number of technical devices that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I was recently at a restaurant, for example, and noted the table next to me where three of the five people were texting while they waited to be served — presumably to people elsewhere. But note how all of these technical devices turn the individual’s attention inward (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
     In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic. And we may be more like them than we want to admit.

Expertise

Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country in 1831 and stayed for only nine months. At the end of that time he wrote his Democracy in America which has become a classic. Even today we marvel at the man’s astute and penetrating observations of the customs and behavior of the Americans he watched so carefully. One of the things he was struck by was our love of “equality.” As de Tocqueville says, “I think democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.”

What this means, I take it, is that we don’t want anyone else to be thought any better than we are ourselves. If anyone dares to presume to be superior to us in any way, we are quick to bring them back down to earth. The notion of moral equality, which is a powerful idea and central to our entire judicial system, has expanded to involve a general leveling down, a sameness of persons that refuses to admit that anyone can be regarded as in any sense whatever superior to any one else. This, of course, is absurd. It is called “egalitarianism,” and it has swept this country and Europe as well. Ortega y Gasset talks about it at some length in his Revolt of the Masses.

One of the notions that has been dismissed in our insistence that no one is any better than anyone else is the notion of expertise. I have touched on this notion in previous blogs, but it deserves a more thorough discussion. An expert is one who is supposed to know something the rest of us don’t know. When, in the spirit of egalitarianism, we insist that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, that my opinion is just as deserving of serious attention as yours — no matter who you are — we may have taken things a step too far. I recall some years ago one of my students balking at something Socrates said in a dialogue we were reading. I wanted him to expand on his notion that Socrates was somehow wrong in what he said, but the student couldn’t get past the notion that “it was just Socrates’ opinion.” The student also had his opinion which he was certain was just as weighty as that of a man who had thought about the matter for more than sixty years. Yet he could give no reasons. He thought none were necessary!

I mentioned in a previous blog the expertise of the physician, which we seldom question — though as our age becomes more and more litigious this profession may be brought down to our level as well. But at this time it remains a cut above the rest of us. Also, the automobile mechanic, though here again, skepticism has led us to question the trustworthiness of our local mechanic, whether or not he is being completely honest with us. But, for the most part, we acknowledge expertise in a few  areas. Very few. I would argue that we must allow it in a great many more.

When Scot Hamilton tells me that the triple toe loop I just witnessed was not up to par, I should listen. He knows whereof he speaks. He sees more than I do (or can, even in slow motion). Troy Aikman tells me something every Sunday during football season I didn’t know, pointing out things going on the field I never saw until he pointed to them. After only nine months, de Tocqueville became an expert on the American political system and the customs of the people of this country. The list goes on. There are people who have much greater experience, more extensive knowledge, and heightened sensitivity and deeper insight that enlarges their world. One of the reasons de Tocqueville’s book is regarded as a classic is because he saw so much so clearly. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but he was right more often than not. To refuse to listen to these people on the grounds that they are “no better” than I am (which is confusing and almost certainly irrelevant) is to close off part of my world and shrink it down to a fraction of what it might be.

Our love of equality, our determination to bring the lofty down to our level, is understandable and certainly warranted in courts of law or moral discourse. But it is misplaced in the real world where there are people more intelligent, more experienced, more sensitive, than ourselves. We really should listen to what they have to say. We might learn something.