Uh, whoops. On Breaking Normal [Trenchant Edges]
One last fuckup, for old time's sake. :-D Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 58 seconds. Contains 1994 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter about trying to make sense of weird thinking.
Editor’s note: I wrote this a 4am yesterday and assumed I’d scheduled it and didn’t check my email. So, uh, my bad.
It’s our last newsletter in our, “I’mma just write every day and see what happens” format. I’m Stephen Fisher, host and research guy, and like many things since we started this phase of the journey back on May 1st, today’s newsletter is really about me not planning well.
I went to bed really early last night (at 10 pm), and so naturally, I’ve woken up at 4 am and I’m completely unhappy with the plan I had for this issue discussing the rebrand.
Basically, it’s not done. We might end up keeping this name another week or two into the new format (Fridays for subscribers, Sundays for everyone) because I’d rather it actually be fully baked than otherwise.
Plus, my anchor client who’s been paying my bills for the last two years and I are, uh, renegotiating our relationship. This is a polite way to say I got fired on Friday and kind of rehired yesterday, but for a narrower set of tasks.
So change is in the air and I need another newsletter for today. And since I’ve got a low of billable gruntwork that needs doing at saner times, I figured I’d use my early morning energy for something useful.
I first came upon this charmingly obscure latin phrase, as I do all of my wisdom, in an X-men comic book.
It’s actually a legal term:
It’s a kind of legal shorthand for, “We’re keeping everything in this contract the same, except we’re changing the names to reflect the new person involved in the contract.”
But I like the way the X-men frame it better.
It’s a constant.
Both the legal version and the X-version are about adapting to new specifics, which is usually a stressful and necessary process.
And that’s the context I want to bring in to frame our discussion today.
Or to put it another way:
If you’re reading this, I kinda assume you already relate to this image.
And we kinda need to know what purpose weird and hard to relate to ideas have to the people who carry and spread them.
After all, we’re among those people.
Sure, there are some obvious petty motivations: The desire to be special, whatever grift your local con artist is up to, and feeding one’s ego.
But I don’t think it’s so simple.
The kind of loneliness we’re dancing around comes from a felt-sense of separation from community and perhaps from meaning. It reminds me of the full quote of Marx on religion:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
I’m using this to point to a different thing but the original context is interesting on its own and worth your time.
Neurodivergance and Isolation
American culture is toxic for a great many reasons.
The empire, generations of unhandled trauma, a media funded by making all of this worse.
But an underrated problem is that our reference points for being human come from the simultaneous peak of high modernist idealizations of progress and the perfectability of man with broadcast mass communication.
Perhaps at some point, we’ll get into my favorite decade hot take, that the 1950s were the actually revolutionary decade and the 1960s were just following its consequences out to the counter-revolution, but for now, let us just say that imagining the postwar era’s grim and stagnant prosperity in the US as a standard is highly ahistoric and outright foolish.
This can be dissected in many ways, but we’re going to focus on normal here.
The clash and bombast of the 1960s released repressed energy from a system that took a certain kind of white man as a human universal, the Company Man, and rejected that standard.
Even the counter-revolution of the Nixon era couldn’t replace that ideal and “normal” fragmented further.
While reactionary moralists mourn this fracturing, I celebrate it.
It was a bad ideal in the first place and almost the instant it was upheld as a fact, the very people who most embodied it began to wonder if it was a horrible mistake. ‘Cause it was.
What I like about the 1950s is how much hardline social criticism about its own stereotypes there is. William H. Whyte’s The Organizational Man and William Kornhauser’s The Politics of Mass Society are not optimistic, laudatory books about how then-modern technology had perfected society, but about how the contradictions of those conditions would undermine and destroy their accomplishments.
The state of being connected through shared media experiences while estranged from deep personal relationships is a toxic combination. It hasn’t improved with time.
The point of all this is American culture still tends to want to harken back to that idea of the Hyper-rational Individualist swaggering scientist-warriors of the early cold war when everything was simple and all the moral complexity and responsibility for harm was just ignored.
And, uh, even in the day how much of the US population even approximated that image?
5%? 10%? Maybe 25% on an especially bad day.
Everyone else diverges from that template. And is punished for this through the interlocking systems of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on.
We’re taking this tour of a collapse of an ideal as an introduction to Neurodivergence rather than the more common path of discussing people with mental illnesses trying to reclaim their agency and autonomy from a system that considers deviation a problem because I feel like the context for why the mental health system has taken that delusional idea as a baseline assumption in the first place often gets left out.
The really simple answer is everyone in charge at the time was really high off America’s world war conquests and the righteousness that came with handing territory back and imposing more subtle controls.
And when combined with the backlash against the unscientific subjectivism of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, the cure was believed to be a more rigorous objective study.
And how do you make objective studies?
You find stuff you can measure and you start keeping records.
After a while, you can start to measure statistical norms. Mean, median, and mode.
Standard deviations. Behaviorism.
And if you’re naive enough to not recognize your own projection and vanity, you can start to picture yourself as the ideal and miss the value of other ways of living. It’s easy to see them as failed you, as sick. As subhuman. All it takes is a little sanctioned dismissal.
Is your skin crawling yet?
All this is the condition which we, as a civilization, must recover from. Part of that includes learning that the 1950s delusions of grandeur were horrific even while they were at their best.
A bunch of fascist nerds imposing their kinks on a world that didn’t need that bullshit.
So what about Neurodivergence?
I take a broad view of the concept, as I think it’s most useful as a reminder to recognize and appreciate the many different ways people can approach particular situations and ways of living. A reminder that their needs and desires are valid and worth accommodating.
More properly, though, it’s a movement of people normally considered mentally ill fighting for recognition of their humanity, validity, agency, and well-being.
It’s a constellation of interrelated groups of people learning and developing new language to describe how they can live well, even if that might feel inconvenient to neurotypicals.
Point is, it’s a big and important topic and one neurotypicals should support because it means breaking down the toxic culture Americans have around mental illness.
At this point, you may be wondering if I’m neurodivergent. And, uh, kind of? If my awful memory serves I’ve only ever been diagnosed with depression. But if you reject the medical model, it’s probably worth noting that I relate to quite a few qualities of autistic and ADHD people.
And, uh, Pathological Demand Avoidance describes so many of my bad habits it’s not even funny.
Have you been reading an autistic man’s thoughts on his special interest of the moment this whole time? Maybe so. Maybe not.
At some point, I’ll get professionally tested for this stuff, but diagnosis of my mental health is less important to me at this moment than either 1. The Work or 2. surviving capitalism another week.
While there may be overlap, there’s also lots of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. But, that seems normal. I may well just be a traumatized person who’d developed similar coping strategies.
All that said, I’ve got many friends who are neurodivergent and I’ve gotten a lot of time to observe them relate to esoteric subjects.
And I’ve come to suspect that some amount of spirituality and religion is geared specifically towards helping facilitate people whose brains are wired a bit differently than usual to figure out how to process the world in a more healthy way.
Or in a less healthy way. Heh, it turns out prescriptivism can go bad pretty easily.
But this, if anything, makes neurodivergent people more vulnerable to the various grafts in the alt religions, news, or medicine space not less.
So, we’ve got a bunch of mid-20th-century assholes who demanded everyone be like them and often institutionalized or jailed people who weren’t.
And a bunch of people trying to live in the world they created, lost, and keep trying to recreate who don’t measure the same way.
Conspiracies, Spirituality, Cults, and Multilevel Marketing
When a person is really feeling alienated, one of the things they most crave is an explanation.
This is the bait on an absurd number of CULTral hooks.
You feel different because you are different. You’re a star child, an indigo child, you’re one of the chosen people, the elect, or one of the only people aliens want to talk to. Or you’re a proud member of the white race denied the success you deserve by scheming overlords out to destroy you.
It’s not hard to see this kind of thing going badly. We all know the story of Charles Manson’s cult and most of us remember the Heaven’s Gate suicide. And, uh, the entire history of right-wing terrorism.
I don’t think these things appeal exclusively to neurodivergent people, though some of them certainly appeal more. But it seems clear that there are many kinds of weird ideas that are actively predatory.
They look for victims even more than believers.
And almost all of them are evangelical in the desire for more victims.
This is why I don’t make a big deal of people dismissing spirituality or conspiracy beliefs. There’s enough poisoned water in this well that it’s hard to find the truth in the best moments and if you’re particularly vulnerable it’s almost impossible.
Because sussing out fact from fiction is work and it’s almost never the glass of water in the desert people are craving.
I know and even still love the rush of a new insight, but I’ve been around enough to see every single Big Idea I’ve ever fallen in love with wilt and rot as I’ve completed my understanding of it and had to mostly discard what was there.
The discipline to Kill Your Darlings is necessary and even satisfying long term, but it’s a quiet satisfaction.
But it’s hard to know how bad for you a cult will be if you’ve never been burned by one or seen it first hand and the world shows no sign of reducing alienation.
So I guess we’re stuck with triaging survivors and showing what compassion we can to people still hooked, at least within the limits of trying to protect people they threaten.
Alright, that’s all I got right now. sleep good. writey later.
I will see some of y’all on Friday and the rest of you on Sunday.
How can we build communities that aren’t predatory?
Have you ever been hooked by bullshit?