Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Can you relate?

I've mentioned before that one of the advantages of the Internet is its diversity, which has the salutary effect of correcting misconceptions and prejudiced statements almost as soon as they occur. When someone posts biased or incorrect information about a group of people, it's highly likely that one or more readers will set the record straight.

But sometimes such comments can get rather incongruous. In response to my last two posts, a few people seemed to think (1) that I might be prejudiced against poor whites, Southern whites, and/or hillbillies because I used dialect in describing small-town ignorant attitudes, and (2) regarding my discussion of the Ghost Dance of 1890, that I shouldn't make historical analogies that suggest it is possible for the average person to relate to anybody except whites.


I don't disagree with the general observation that a person cannot fully relate to the lives of those who belong to a different nationality, race, time period, and so forth. However, it's also not possible to fully relate to the perspective of the guy who lives down the block. The range of human experience is vast. I believe that it is not only appropriate, but essential, to try to broaden our understanding of how our lives relate to those of others, even though such efforts will always fall short. When we identify ourselves primarily with one group (whether it is defined in terms of race or anything else) and assume that we cannot relate to anyone outside the group, our lives become much the poorer for it.

I'll give you an illustration of where such assumptions can lead. This is a true story, unfortunately. I have an older relative who lives in a part of the city that is no longer safe. There are frequent drug deals and people getting shot at the corner gas station. He won't even consider leaving the area, however, because he only feels comfortable in an all-black neighborhood. If he moved somewhere else, he might have white neighbors; and he is firmly convinced that he can't relate to white people and that it is dangerous to even try. He has on occasion lectured younger family members that they must never socialize with white co-workers after hours because it might just be a ploy to lure them to some isolated area and lynch them. The Internet is never going to change his views because he is highly unlikely to visit any websites that might challenge his prejudices.

When I blog (and in other areas of life too), I try to keep in mind that whatever assumptions I make about other people are likely to be wrong. Of course, any interaction with or discussion of others must necessarily involve making assumptions of one sort or another, given the fact that there's no way to know everything that might be part of another person's thoughts and experiences. As we go through life, we constantly adjust and recalculate our assumptions; but they never disappear entirely, no matter how well we may think we know another person.

To be clear, the previous sentence refers to people in general, not just to autistics. I don't believe that the need to adjust one's assumptions is unique to autistics or that there is some sort of magical social superpower enabling non-autistics to read minds. People may be more accurate in making assumptions about those who have neurological traits similar to their own; but that also can be said about people of the same gender, nationality, or any other subset of human experience.

The extent to which it is possible to relate to others always depends on a great variety of circumstances, some of them changing from one moment to the next. And it is by necessity an imperfect process, full of misunderstandings. As we begin a new decade, however, I am hopeful that the personal connections created by blogging and the Internet will lead to more awareness of social assumptions and more vigilance in correcting them, while recognizing that there will always be more to learn.



  • ABFH,

    Just to be clear when I made a comment on Good Ole Boys post,I wasn't meaning that I thought you were prejudiced against anyone. I know better. I'm sorry if what I said was insulting.

    What I was meaning to do was make a point but I didn't mean it personally about you.

    What you're saying here makes sense. I don't think anyone's history is without influence from everyone elses or without influencing other people's so no one has strict rights to it. It should be discussed.I think main stream media teaches people to see one standard culture and often to fear or not discuss what's considered atypical.... or only in a way that we are studying like a researcher treats their subject.

    What I find most frustrating is how one group who is treated with bigotry treats another group with the same type of bigotry. The way that people are encouraged to fight amongst themselves by employers and anyone that thinks the distrust it creates can benefit them really bothers me.

    It usually bothers me that people are described as ignorant in a general way that includes the idea that they aren't intelligent or aren't formally educated enough. I haven't seen having those things as breaking down prejudices the way they are often described as doing.

    you said: "When we identify ourselves primarily with one group (whether it is defined in terms of race or anything else) and assume that we cannot relate to anyone outside the group, our lives become much the poorer for it."

    That's a good point. I don't think people genuinely wanting to understand and respect each other really requires a lot of knowledge or the ability to make smart decisions about how to treat the other person.When people recognize genuine interest they aren't as likely need to feel guarded.

    By Blogger Ed, at 1:28 PM  

  • Ed: Thanks, and I didn't feel insulted by your comments on the other post. I understand and agree with your point that it's not fair to mock people for being less educated. Ordinarily I wouldn't make fun of the way people talk when they are going about their everyday business.

    When I used regional dialect in my Good Ol' Boys post, I did it to highlight the irony of people assuming that autistic kids are less intelligent because of a speech disability, even though some of the people making that assumption don't have speech that fits mainstream society's expectations for intelligence either. As you say, both groups have to face the same kind of bigotry, and they ought to be working together to fight against society's unfair expectations, but they're not.

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:49 PM  

  • This is funny, as a window into my mind. I'm a white guy, and tend to (not knowing many people, and those few being white) assume that other folks I meet on the internet are white. I read what you wrote here and then looked over at your picture of yourself, and for the first time noticed your "really excellent suntan." I have been glancing at that pic for years and never noticed that before.

    People do seem to tend to think that other people think like themselves. I'm weird enough to have had that notion knocked out of me when I was young.

    I also believe that folks who think that other people think like themselves, also believe that other people look like themselves.

    By Blogger Justthisguy, at 6:59 PM  

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