Material vs Post-Material Visions of Community

Being online has a weird effect on people.

When I read my timelines,  I hear much about one community or another being spoken of in very broad terms, without so much as a whimper about what these communities mean. If I play a game, am I a gamer? If I once was a librarian, will I always be a part of the library community? If I have an autistic son does that make me part of the autism community or do I also have to be aneurotypical to belong? If I liked Anthrax at some time in my life, am I a metal head?

Sometimes we seek ‘communities’ out and other times ‘communities’ are pushed on us. But what do they mean? Well, I think you need to distinguish between what are material communities and what are post-material or symbolic communities. Although that is the sort of separation that will be harder to define in some cases than in others.

But perhaps we can start with the idea of community as being versus community as doing. Community as being is mostly a symbolic thing. I am French in the sense that my parents were (mostly) French. I am not French in the sense that I speak the language fluently. Being French is mostly a symbolic notion of the French community. It means I can pretend to have a lot in common with some of my favourite French people like Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard and Bruno Latour. The irony of all this is that while I have an affinity for these philosophers, I lack the actual ability to communicate with them! This distinction is what I mean by material versus post-material visions of community. In symbolic (post-material) terms I have access to the French community because of my last name. In material terms, I offer them nothing nor they me – there’s no real relationship that defines us as being in the same group.

But these symbolic ideas about identity do make a difference. Bourdieu’s Distinction offers a pretty convincing catalogue about what determines people’s tastes (usually class identity). If you are French, you get pay-offs for looking the part, even if you don’t do French. That’s why I typically brag about wanting to be an old man with a flask of Calvados, espouse the value of free speech (likely to a greater extent than others) and have tourtiere for Christmas Eve. It’s also why Nova Scotia has a tartan, when the actual social make-up of the province is almost anything but Scottish.

On the other hand, there is something in the post-material idea of community that lets us off the hook. In a discussion about the anti-vaccine movement I heard someone talk about an affinity for “the autistic community” as if that had salience beyond the words used. The autistic community I know includes a range of people including social workers, parents, sisters, brothers, babysitters, health professionals, psychiatrists and, of course, people with ASD. For my son, autism is something that is thrust upon him, he’ll have none of it. He belongs to an “autistic community” for two main reasons: 1) He is not accepted in the mainstream at school and 2) he benefits from treatments that are offered to him by health and social services. Otherwise his “community” consists of a few loyal friends, frequently of people older than he and his family. There are people around him that do “autism” and he variously loves and hates them for it. But the key point here is that in the “doing” community, he has people who both support him and hold him accountable when he doesn’t meet the expectations of the group. To me, that’s the “real” (material) autism community. It stands in contrast to the more idealist “autistic” community consisting of Sheldon Cooper, the silicon valley and any number of ubercool geeks. It’s possible that I am being unfair to my anti-vaccine person (by the way, vaccines do not cause autism and yes, you should vaccinate your kids. Also, if you don’t vaccinate your kids, I do think its okay for the government to force you to to protect others), but I did not see any evidence of “doing” autism in her/his tweets.

On the other hand, my son has material needs as well. And frankly, there are very rare and and special people who are willing to provide these to him. Things like friendship and support and understanding. People do not learn these things by receiving information, hearing recitals of theory or watching memes. Instead, they discover how to give these things through conversation, not only the in the occasional generosity of silence (“please listen”), but also the generosity of authentic feelings about the world.

I thought about this after reading this article by a male feminist writing about people in the MRA. Behind every marxist, capitalist, feminist, mra, gamergater, libertarian, hippy, yuppy hipster is a real story of how they got to where they are. It is a real gift when you can get that story, no matter how privileged or oppressed the person is. To me, critical theory (or rather their practitioners) forget this at times. And that power is more fluid than personal or group identities. The only thing worse than having power and privilege is not bothering to use it to make the world a better place.

Socrates says that getting to that point of clarity and learning requires nothing short of intellectual midwifery.  Whoever you are, it’s inside you and getting it out is going to be painful, arduous and messy. We need more people with the kind of empathy and understanding that bring new things to this world.


How to Talk to an “Aspi” – Asperger’s, Autism, Labels, Stereotypes and Strategies

Update: After writing this, I read this great article by someone name Astrid who has Aspergers and think it’s a great counterpoint to what I said here.   I now can’t imagine this post being ‘out there’ without a link to that post.   I have no real response to Astrid except to acknowledge the tension between the perception of Aspies as ‘elite’ (in a way) and the often unfair expectations that those perceptions have on people with Asperger’s.


My son is a genius in so many ways you cannot imagine.   He is now six years old.    He has been talking since he was barely 12 months old.    His vocabulary could make Rex Murphy feel like he needs to go back to grade school.

He can tell you the some interesting properties of many chemical elements you’ve never heard of.   He once wrote Martyn Poliakoff of the Periodic Table of Videos to ask him:

  • What do people use Beryllium for (just watch this video)?
  • What is the most dangerous element?  (there are various reasons for danger.   Plutonium is very toxic.   Fluorine and Cesium are the most reactive.)   What is the least dangerous element?  (probably Helium)
  • How do you suppose ununoctium is very small when it has the most protons?   (It’s not small, but only a very small amount has ever been made – and the experiment that claimed to have made ununoctium has its critics for sure).
  • If bananas contain potassium why do they not explode when you put them in water?   (it’s not elemental potassium that bananas contain, but potassium ions, which do not explode in water).

There’s more.   He’s gotten as far as level 8 in Globetrotter XL (a game where you are asked to pinpoint the geographic location of world cities).    He can probably describe most of the world flags and definitely all of the U.S. state flags.    He can name all the state capitals and nicknames.   (Also, he is Canadian, so he has no real education on this topic.)    When he was 3, I could rely on him to give me accurate instructions on how to drive to someone’s house after only a single visit.

When he got to school, however, we learned that he was having difficulty socially.    We are also realizing that there are some issues with some areas of his academic life too.   That’s when we discovered that he’s an ‘aspi’ – a child with Aspergers.    Whether that’s a diagnosis, a personality type or just a way for so-called ‘normal’ people to marginalize him, I’m not quite sure.   I do know that paying attention to the nuances of his learning style has been really helpful to let him deal with everyday life things.

So he must be socially awkward right?    Must be like Rainman, right?    Spock?    Temperance Brennan from Bones?    Keeps to himself, right?   He must shy away from social situations and show little emotion to others, right?    Total lack of empathy in favor of logic and detail.   It’s all obvious!

Well, no.   My child is  extremely engaging, interesting and (in a way) interested in people.    The differences are more subtle and hard to pin-point.   You’d know there’s a problem somewhere with the way he interacts with others, but you would find it hard to pinpoint what.    But, if you meet a kid that:

  • Is very welcoming and friendly.   Almost assuming right off that you are a friend.
  • Is very polite on the phone.
  • Assumes that you are interested in what he is talking about.
  • Assumes you want to participate in the things he wants to do, and maybe gets angry if you don’t.
  • Interrupts your conversations with others.
  • Gets upset over basic requests or instructions.
  • Asks surprising questions and offers amazing insight on a wide range of topics.
  • Will do a speech as if he were defending a thesis, but then fail at answering basic open-ended questions about the same topic.
  • Is surprisingly slow at getting ready for going outside etc.
  • Will repeat certain behaviors and actions over and over again.

That might be my kid.

If you happen upon a kid you might think is an aspi, here are some things you could consider:

No Surprises

Little surprises will make Mr. 6 anxious.    Simple requests like ‘go brush your teeth’ can turn into total battles if they appear (to him) to come from left field.    A better approach is to give him a list of the things that need to happen, preferably with time-limits to go with them.

Be Patient

Mr. 6 will ramble.    It’ll take him a few shots of ‘umm…  uh…  I have a question for you…’ etc. before he comes out with what he needs to say.

Turn Open-ended Questions into Multiple Choice

No matter how many times I ask Mr. 6 ‘what does he want for dinner’ he will always reply ‘i don’t know, what is there?’    And he’s a picky eater – he only has a few things that he enjoys eating!    On the other hand, if I hand Mr. 6 a menu, he will be able to give me ideas even if nothing on the menu is appealing to him.    So if you want to ask Mr. 6 why he is angry, you should say ‘I think you might be angry because:

a) you are disappointed about not getting candy

b) you are a mean grouch

c) someone called you a mean name

d) someone ate your lunch’

Even if all of these ideas are absolutely wrong, Mr. 6 will be able to take one of options and give you some insight into how he is feeling.

Act Like a Librarian

There may be no actual evidence to support this assertion, but sometimes it’s like Mr. 6 has a Library of Congress in his head with no retrieval system to find the right information at the right time.    If you are able to help him out with a little subject classification, he may be able to find the right book in his head and recite its contents in detail with amazing analytical capability.

Get Ready to Have your Mind Explode

When I explained my little ‘act like a librarian’ technique to a doctor, Mr. 6 corrected me and said ‘it’s like I have to build a tall building and I don’t know what materials to start with.’    That doctor is probably still cleaning up the grey matter from her office after that insight.

Model Behaviors

Mr. 6 will always be better at imitating the positive behaviors he sees in other than understanding how he is annoying you.    If he can come up with a rule about what to do at the right time, he will do it.    He understands that people get annoyed at him, but he doesn’t always understand why.   Show him an example of how he could behave when certain things happen and he’ll be happy to oblige.

Is Something Else Bothering Him?

Mr. 6 hates loud sounds.    It might not be you, but where you are standing that is bothering him.    If an environment is complicated or noisy, it might be causing problems for Mr. 6.

It’s About Learning Difficulty, Not Emotional Problems or Intelligence

If you are the sort of person who just likes to label and ignore people with learning trouble, just listen to Temple Grandin for a few minutes.    People on the Autism spectrum have the potential not only to be productive members of society, but to transform society for the better.   Like the way a wide range of overachievers just so happen to be dyslexic, there’s a comparable list for people with Aspergers (grain of salt needed for both lists, however).

So there’s my contribution on the challenges that go along with the gift of having an ‘Aspi’ in your life.     Mr. 6 makes me smarter.    He also breaks a wide range of assumptions I have about people learn, teach, ought to behave, and so on.