Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: I stared into the abyss for too long

Amazing architecture, but by the end of the long walk up
the history of humans being shitty to each other you might
be tempted to step off one of the many ledges; I was.
I just spent a long morning walking up the architecturally astonishing Canadian Museum of Human Rights.  By the end of it I was reminded of a comment one of my profs made after he visited the Holocaust Museum: "You don't end up thinking worse about Hitler and the Nazis, you end up thinking worse about everyone else."

By the time I got high up in the museum I was feeling pretty done with being human.  The Museum tries to introduce a sense of hope, but I had trouble accessing it, especially when the subtext of the whole thing and how it presents itself highlights the horror of human social nature.

What all the apartheids (the travelling exhibit on the first floor was called Mandela), holocausts, genocides and the general disharmony of human history had in common was our urge to establish ourselves as a dominant culture and then destroy anyone weaker or non-compliant.  This self serving, centralizing behavior is a foundation of human group think.  In the senior year of my philosophy degree I suggested that human beings are, by their nature, violently tribal and selfishly motivated when in groups.  They'll use any means at their disposal, from ability, race and gender to religion, culture and politics to isolate and attack each other for the benefit of their own tribe.  We'll invent a reason to segregate and attack each other if there isn't an immediately physically obvious one.  The prof adamantly and immediately shut down my line of thinking, saying that it had been proven in some kind of scientific sense that this wasn't true, but there is a museum in Winnipeg that shines a bright light on this central aspect of human nature.

We're not falling far from the family tree.  Just like chimpanzees, baboons and most other apes, humans feel the urge to attack and victimize strangers, not usually at an individual level but at a group/social level.  We have an in-built urge to aggrandize our own culture at the expense of others because it offers us a chance to be selfish while dressing it in virtue.  Murder becomes patriotism, genocide becomes an act of faith.  Human society is founded on this urge and the ones that survive embrace it wholeheartedly, the ones who didn't have already been eaten.  Our complexity has allowed us to glorify and express this viciousness in ways that are unique on our planet; our cruelty is truly boundless in regards to the natural world, but especially with each other.

You're supposed to reach the Israel Asper Tower of Hope at the top of the museum and feel hope, but I wasn't.   The Museum suggests an evolution of human rights towards something greater, but the world today seems to be awash in technology that is at best confusing any sense of advancement even while we're staggering under the weight of global issues we're all too selfish to address.

In 2018 we're using emerging technology to destroy human rights in new and interesting ways.  We've got Russia cyber-attacking and annexing whole sections of the Ukraine.  After learning about the Holodomor today, this is business as usual for Russia's relationship with the Ukraine.  What did anyone do about it?  Well, we awarded Russia with the World Cup and installed a US president who evidently works for them.  We've got social media platforms making millions even as they erode democracy and create a mis-information revolution.  The United States' democracy is in tatters and Ontario just followed them down the populist rabbit hole.  In both cases driven by white, right wing religious types who would love nothing more that to see all the advances made in human rights dissolved away.

The Museum seems to have stopped recording human rights abuses at about 2012.  Considering the delicate political dance being done this isn't a surprise.  Pointing out the human rights failures of current governments and corporations while they're funding you wouldn't keep the lights on for long.

The museum describes social media as a great democratization of media and a powerful means of giving everyone a voice, but nowadays we have a differing view on that.  Western democracies were soaring under black US presidents, politically strong European Unions and an expansive sense of hope when they stopped recording this selective history.  Sure, we were staggering under the weight of a banking collapse of international proportions that was designed to drive wealth from ninety-nine percent of us to the one percent, but that's not mentioned anywhere either unless you look to the sponsors list.  

The human rights march we're all supposed to be on towards an ideal the museum tries to present feels like it has faltered now that we're in our unscripted future; maybe it was never there to begin with.  It would have been wonderful to have seen new pieces on fake news, modern economic terrorism (banking), modern propaganda (social media), and how populism in Western democracies has put pressure on many human rights.  White supremacy in the Twenty First Century?  Human rights problems didn't end five years ago, we're not at the top of a mountain of human rights achievements we built, we're on a rickety house of cards that seems doomed to collapse, but the museum is strangely silent on this.

There also seem to be some gaps in the museum's historical analysis.  No mention of Palestinians, or Syria, or dropping nuclear bombs on untouched civilian populations to get accurate statistics, though the Japanese comfort women system was mentioned.  You can't help but feel there are some Western political undercurrents going on here, which of course leads me back to what kicked this whole thing off: we'll use any means necessary to gain and keep a social advantage, even if it means weaponizing human rights themselves as a political tool.

Insights from the general public at the end of six plus floors of human rights atrocities.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Neurodiversity is Useful But Not Worth Nurturing

A colleague shared this display on autism from the Canadian Museum of Nature. In it they take a positive neuro-diverse view of autism and its differing strengths.  Most people would describe autism as a form of mental retardation, such is the prejudice and demand for people all thinking in lockstep like the majority does.

I showed it to my son and asked him what he saw.  He started to say, "Hi", but then stopped himself and said "Es and Ns."  I suspect his indecision and then incorrect answer (answers are always based on neurotypical expectations, not on what's actually there) would have gotten him a failing mark if this was a test question.  If it was on the literacy test, my hyperlexic son would have been considered illiterate even though he's the furthest thing from it.  When I saw it I saw Es and Ns but knew the expected answer was 'HI', so that's what I said - I've learned how to (mostly) tell people what they want to hear rather than what I see (and what's actually there).

Neurodiversity, as presented by the Canadian Museum of Nature, emphasizes the benefits that the human race enjoys as a result of it.  Having people who are able to comprehend data from a variety of different perspectives has obvious advantages, but in most cases neurotypical people will go out of their way to isolate and alienate those who they find mentally different, whether it ultimately benefits them or not.  Compliance and conformity will always trump complexity and difference.

Neurotypical prejudice especially hammers ASD influenced thinkers for their lack of social nuance, but then NTs are happy to benefit from Newton and Einstein's ASD driven detailed analysis of physics, or Alan Turing's ASD detailed focus on computing, or Nicola Tesla's ASD focused electrical engineering (there are many other examples).  In those cases where ASD produces exceptional results, NTs are happy to benefit from it even as they isolate and punish the people doing the work.  This approach often results in neurotypical people taking social and financial advantage of this genius for their own benefit.  NTs are happy to make use of ASD driven breakthroughs, but this often has more to do with how they can harness it and profit from it than it does having any kind of compassion for the people themselves.

When I was putting myself through university I worked as an automotive technician.  As people gained experience, many would move toward the sales desk, hoping to get out of the dirty technical work and into the cleaner sales end of things where management lived, but I was the opposite.  I went out of my way to take the technical roles and tried to avoid the sales side of things whenever I could.  I excelled at the technical work, quickly becoming the service manager, but had no interest in the slippery psychological side of the business.  Most business is of that slippery, psychological nature, as is a tragic amount of education.  For the people who work better at developing relationships and working their way up (which is to say most people), this is great, but for a guy with ASD it just feels dishonest.  We're not there to develop relationships that benefit our career, we're there to do the job at hand.  If I were better at the slippery psych I'd be up in management somewhere, but technical expertise isn't what gets you ahead even when that's the job at hand.

Education is a great example of human relationship building getting in the way of an important technical skill (learning).  Being willing to say what a teacher wants to hear rather than the truth as I see it is difficult for me.  I managed to earn degrees and diplomas in spite of my lack of tact and every grade I've ever been given was done so grudgingly rather than with encouragement.  What a teacher wants to hear usually isn't what's there and it's usually something designed to retain that status quo power structure built around relationship building.  If you can ingratiate yourself to the system/teacher/administrator you can count on it to help you socially climb it.  I have a great deal of trouble interacting with many managers for this reason.  They seem less interested in teaching and learning and more focused on personal advantage through networking.  It takes a special kind of manager to recognize my focus and support me in it rather than attacking me for it.

If we spent less time trying to align things socially for our own benefit and spent more time on tackling the issues themselves, I'd be over the moon, but it'll never happen, it isn't human nature.  I'm tempted to tell my son to see all the Es and Ns he possibly can and screw the rest of it, but that won't help him find a place in our Teflon coated social apparatus.  But spending lots of time and energy on something that doesn't come naturally to him (the nonsense of human relationship maintenance) means he's not developing his special understanding of the world to the best of his unique abilities.

Can you imagine if we had a school system that encouraged neurodiversity and enhanced it rather than trying to find ways to accommodate it by mitigating it into the same socially driven expectations box everyone else is content to be thinking in?  Can you then imagine a world where those enhanced, neurodiverse kids could go out into the world empowered by their differences instead of being socially embarrassed, belittled and beleaguered by them?

Previous Posts on ASD:

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Happy Ship

One of the more ASDish qualities I have is finding awards ceremonies difficult to fathom, especially graduations.  Being packed into a room with a big crowd of people is tricky enough.  Doing it under the constant threat of public acknowledgement is agonizing.  I get the sense that North Americans play this up more than in other places, so perhaps there are some cultural influences going on here too, but my savage disregard for awards seems to run deeper than just cultural dissonance.

I am in the process of weathering two days of back clapping by people who thrive on back clapping.  Their love of self aggrandizement (and don't kid yourself, graduation ceremonies are all about acknowledging and empowering the system) makes my hatred of it confusing to them.  I never feel more alienated from neurotypical people than I do when graduation rolls around.

The first was my son's grade eight graduation put on earnestly by his elementary school.  As in every other graduation I've had to weather, this one involved repeatedly congratulating the same students over and over again for being advantaged and conforming to norms in a manner so efficient that they produced outstanding results in a system designed for them.

And why shouldn't all those advantaged, neurotypical kids be awarded for these things?  They thrived in the artificial learning environment that is the classroom.  They arrived well fed and clothed and culturally aligned with the process that was about to assess them.  These students all had a clear understanding of how to manipulate that system to their own advantage.  It was amazing to see how many of the awards focused on that socializing aspect, recognizing compliance in maintaining social norms as the highest virtue.  Awards for helping to run the school appeared thick and fast with happy teachers handing them out while not having to hide their favouritism any more.

I showed up to school in Canada as an immigrant from a lower socio-economic bracket.  I don't think like other people and have trouble remembering who is who let alone how to create tight social bonds with teachers that would result in any kind of award.  My son gets to skip the immigrant thing and I've gone to great lengths to ensure that socio-economics aren't weighing him down like they did me, but I've also given him an even healthier dose of ASD than I have.  He got to sit through two hours of hearing about how all these wealthy, socially engaged and advantaged, neurotypical kids deserve to be honoured by a school system designed for them.  How do you think that made him feel?  He has struggled to finish his elementary career this week on a positive note.  And yes, this makes me angry.  Not only is the ceremony actively exclusive, but the social pressure involved in attending is absolute.

I just finished reading Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania: paddling the Pacific, so I've got nautical themes floating around in my head as I write this.  Paul is an odd duck himself.  He takes great pleasure in doing things differently and being alone doesn't freak him out in the way it does most people; I imagine he'd find graduation ceremonies as alienating as I do.

As I fidgeted in the humidity of that packed room, the idea of a cruise ship came to me.  On that happy ship are all those students predisposed to success in school.  They thrive in noisy rooms full of people, they are socially tuned to make best advantage of the entire school system, and that system is eager to reward their compliance.  Their communications skills allow them to create positive, supportive relationships with their peers, but most importantly, their teachers.  These uber-kids are like professional athletes.  They excel in an artificial environment and then get rewarded for it handsomely by the people intent on maintaining that system.

As if every day at school stepping into a shoe designed for them wasn't enough, they then get graduation where everyone gets to hear about this very abstract and specific version of excellence, for the same people, over and over again.  These are the students that I meet in high school who don't really care what Hamlet's motivations are and don't think there is anything to actually learn about human nature in literature, but they do want to know how to get the A+.  Education isn't self improvement for these people, it's a flag they wave around for social advantage.

From an outsider's perspective it feels at best patronizing and at worst like you're getting your face rubbed in it.  If you see any awards that aren't based on 'academic excellence' (whatever that means), they tend to be tertiary awards given as charity without any other criteria.  The best you can hope for is someone saying how hard you tried, but don't be patronized by that pat on the head.  For the neuro-atypical thinkers who don't work best in a classroom, but are learning all the same, there are no awards for all the books you read  (or wrote) that aren't on the curriculum.  There are no awards for all the art you made that didn't happen in class.  There are no awards for all the sports you participated in that didn't happen under the hammer of a phys.ed. teacher's critical eye.

My son's grades look remarkably like mine.  When you get grades like that they tempt you to say fuck it to school, which I'm sure makes the neuro-typical people who deliver them feel very powerful.  Assessment for compliance.  Assessment for conformity.  Assessment for learning?  Rarely.  Sitting through graduation ceremonies only exacerbates that feeling (I didn't attend any of mine).  I had a chat with my boy afterwards and reminded him that what teachers are willing to see in the very limited classroom environment is not in any way an accurate reflection of what he is capable of.  When you have the kind of intelligence that is very difficult to observe let alone quantify, part of your genius has to be nurturing it yourself.

We're all crossing the learning ocean, but some of us know
what the waves sound like because we're out in it on our own.
All those neurotypical kids on their big cruise ship crossing the learning ocean have the benefit of a system designed for them, but many of them also forget that they're actually on the learning ocean; the cruise ship becomes their whole world.  When they have to disembark in that glittering graduation ceremony of privilege rewarded, they are lost.  They didn't learn anything for its own sake, they learned things for grades and accolades.  They struggle to find their way in a world that doesn't always reward their privilege with success, though they'll never forget that feeling of privilege and will seek it again and again for the rest of their lives.

I ended our chat with this:  embrace your difference, don't surrender to their assessment.  And if you don't want to go and watch them clap each other on the back for being privileged, then don't.  It's the dropouts and outliers who tend to invent new things - no artist ever learned their art in a classroom.  The fighting spirit you develop in yourself getting beaten up by the school system will be what makes you strong when you don't have to suffocate in it anymore.  Whatever happens, never forget that learning isn't school.  Always be learning, never let them rob you of your creativity.