Being strange

by Derek Morrison

They label me strange and not much fun
But as a problem-solver I’m number one
Their obsessive sociability I can’t understand
With no attention to detail, they never expand
They are so easily distracted,  they make no gain
And their lack of routine I just can’t explain –
Yet they label me strange, and so cause much pain.

Born with a brain-filter tuned really high
Excluding irrelevancies, so precision can fly
While my inner world is not a bad place
But others have needs that I share this space
So they come knocking, must join the crack
Must play their games, be one of the pack –
Yet my brain is wired for a different track.

My need to focus and perceived lack of tact
Obsession with routines, details, and fact
And nuance and irony simply pass me by
So ‘aloof’, or ‘arrogant’ becomes the common cry
Lack of sociability can make me appear rude
And absence of guile makes me sans shrewd –
Plenty of scope then to miss what is good.

They label me strange, yet now seek to be me
Eyes glued to shiny screens –  it’s all that they see
Headphones in ears and gaze fixed down
Thresh in Twitter-waters, trying not to drown
No crying baby, no outer-space must distract
Social skills degrading as sliding fingers act –
Training for autism, embracing Devil’s Pact.

Seeking re-tweets or to collect lots of ‘friends’
Feeding the stormy churn of latest trends
More comforting than the world outside
Status proclaimed, boasting gadget pride
But in connected isolation they are not like me
Constantly distracted, they are far from free –
Strangeness indeed in humanities’ new sea.

Background & Commentary

‘Being Strange’ first invites the reader to view the world from a different perspective and then reflect on how we may be being conditioned (by our use/abuse of technologies) into patterns of behaviour that have, until now, been construed as associated with a form of disability. So consider the following.

A recent magazine article about Chris Packham, a well known natural science broadcaster in the UK, made for an interesting read (Being Chris Packham, Times Magazine, 30 April 2016). The interview occurred slightly in advance of his memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, Ebury, 5 May 2016).

Packham has Asperger Syndrome a form of autism which is:

“… a lifelong disability that affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people … Asperger syndrome is mostly a ‘hidden disability’. This means that you can’t tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance. People with the condition have difficulties in three main areas. They are: social communication; social interaction; social imagination. They are often referred to as ‘the triad of impairments’. While there are similarities with autism, people with Asperger syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are often of average, or above average, intelligence.” (source: National Autistic Society, UK).

Unfortunately, while The Times article by Robert Crampton is hidden behind a pay-wall. It definitely merits a wider audience because it cogently highlights the life experience of one high-functioning individual with Asperger Syndrome and so, perhaps, offers valuable insights for us all. A few extracts from the interview, however, will help set the context for my poem Being Strange.

The very first paragraph of the interview sets the tone:

“There’s no denying it, Chris Packham is, as his many fans and fewer, yet more vocal, enemies have long suspected, a weird guy …”

The second paragraph mitigates the ‘weird’ somewhat.

“Unusual may be a more accurate word. Peculiar. Singular. None, even so, tends to bode well. In this case, however, they carry largely positive connotations.”

As the interview progresses Packham’s approach to life and way of thinking offer valuable insights.

“[Packham) I have people I work with. But I don’t see people socially. If I’m ever invited to a party, I will try to get out of it … [Crampton] If Corney (his partner) asks if he likes her new dress, and he doesn’t, he’ll always say so. [Packham] I never lie … I’ve learnt how to, but, er, I don’t’… People say if you have Asperger’s you lack empathy, but that’s not the case, I do have empathy. [Crampton] When I arrive, Packham offers me a choice of three types of expensive ground coffee … [Packham] I don’t drink coffee, but I looked you up and read somewhere that you liked it. [Crampton] When I leave, he insists I take the coffee with me … His old singles, needless to say, are stored alphabetically, cover art preserved beneath individual plastic sleeves. His extensive DVD collection is organised by genre, as are his books. The coffee-table tomes have precisely the same spacing between each volume. When I point this out to, Packham shrugs.  [Packham] To me they just look well ordered … [Crampton] He has known Megan since she was 18 months old. When she says her goodbyes after lunch, however, he goes to shake hands. [Megan] Oh, come on, let’s have a hug …  [Crampton] And so they do, Packham manifestly uncomfortable with the embrace … it’s clear that he isn’t at all happy with physical contact. That discomfort counts double for people he doesn’t know. [Packham] A woman touched me the other day … I didn’t know she was there and she grabbed me by the shoulder as I was walking across the station car park. She didn’t mean any offence [the lady was a fan simply wanting to say hello], but I leapt out of my skin. I had to explain I really don’t like being touched by strangers. She took affront and I said “I’m sorry, but you surprised me and it upset me. It’s just a personality thing.”

Packham’s description of adolescence is particularly poignant:

“[Packham] I was angry. I didn’t understand that I was different.  I didn’t understand why I was being rejected. I didn’t get invited to parties. I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t fit in. I couldn’t look at them. I couldn’t converse with them. I couldn’t deal with the developing sexual side of things. I had no confidence. [Crampton] A lot of 14 year old boys, I suggest, are like that. [Packham] Yeah, but it was extreme. Sometimes I’d really piss them off and I didn’t understand why. They’d say ‘Chris, you’re so straight-talking’. I thought I was just telling the truth as I saw it, but people don’t like that, do they?”

But Packham’s different internal wiring also had its benefits:

“[Crampton] Packham’s reaction to his exclusion was, initially, to ignore it and concentrate harder on his zeal for natural science … Having pursued his passion to university and beyond, Packham took stock of himself, his ambitions, and what modifications he needed to make to his unusual personality in order to achieve what he wanted. His prodigious memory, attention to detail and ability to systemise information into a pattern, were, he knew then, and acknowledges now, huge assets. [Packham] The downside, however, was the social aspect. In my mid-twenties I recognised I need to look at people rather than talk to my feet because that wasn’t working. And I realised I needed to think before I spoke  – monitor the mood, not be oblivious to it. I was determined my difference wouldn’t hold me back. “

The first drafts of  Being Strange were actually written in 2015, long before the Packham interview above was published. It is intended to be a reflection on what is, after all, a human construct, i.e being ‘normal’ or, alternatively, being ‘the other’. The genesis of the poem actually arose from Steve Silberman’s assertion that:

“By autistic standards, the ‘normal’ brain is easily distractible, is obsessively social, and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine.” (Steve Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, Allen & Unwin, 2015).

Silberman’s history, analysis, and polemic argues that far from always viewing autism as a disorder we should adopt a ‘neurodiversity’ perspective, i.e. recognize and accept that human operating systems can vary. Silberman acknowledges the importance of Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger whose observations of children in the turbulent 1930s challenged the conventional view of  ‘autismus’ as a form of rare psychosis. Asperger came to believe that is was, instead, a relatively common trait on a continuum of ‘normality’ perhaps lying at what was then considered the more extreme end of male intelligence. We should not, however, forget that Asperger was disseminating his findings in the context of a then burgeoning Nazi ideology; his emphasis on the positives rather than the negatives of autismus could literally be, at the time, life -saving.

Being Strange also posits that, ironically, our obsessive use of portable and powerful ‘communication’ devices and ostensibly free online services (the Devil’s Pact) actually reduces communication and the quality of human interaction. With our ability to communicate from anywhere and at anytime we are actually communicating less effectively and in ways detrimental to human welfare. The consequence is the development and normalization of behaviours that could be construed as having some of the characteristics of autism, i.e inducing autism via smart device.  Discomforting. But surely not?

But now consider Sherry Turkle’s assertion that there is a “flight from conversation”. Real face-to-face conversation is disappearing to a point where, young people in particular, begin to adopt/develop almost autistic behaviours, with a decline in empathy for others, and having a preference for texting even when in the same room. Conversation becomes perceived as boring, difficult and boring to a point where a phone is no longer used as phone but is instead a preferred texting terminal. (sources: Sherry Turkle (2015), Reclaiming Conversation – the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press; and Bryan Appleyard’s review of this book, Sunday Times Culture, 25 October 2015;  and How Your Cellphone is Silently Disrupting Your Social Life, PBS Newshour, 27 November 2015).

The final verse of Being Strange suggests that, perhaps, while obsessive or inappropriate uses of technology appear to be inducing some of the characteristics of autism they are not the same thing. Indeed the first person voice in these lines may well be asserting benefits over those inducing their own ‘connected isolation’:

But in connected isolation they are not like me
Constantly distracted, they are far from free –

Writing Being Strange was discomforting, so I can only assume (and hope) that readers will find it equally so. But I retained a couple more reflective arrows in my mental quiver for obsessive users/abusers of social media. At the start of this commentary I focused on the Chris Packham interview; in it he described how he came to recognise that he needed to adapt some of his natural inclinations in order to navigate a world playing by more tacit rules, e.g.

“And I realised I needed to think before I spoke  – monitor the mood, not be oblivious to it.” (Chris Packham)

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that someone with Packham’s disability now demonstrates more insight than those who fail to apply the mental brakes before employing their personal social media armoury. Detached from direct sight of their target(s), influenced by a few loud ‘voices’, or groupthink, or motivated, perhaps, by their constant need for attention, they casually press the fire button and release their meme missiles into cyberspace; sometimes with devastating consequences, for them, and others. Jon Ronson’s book offers some horror stories in this regard (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson, Picador, 2015). Yet if these individuals were to behave in such a way in face-to-face interaction it could be construed as evidence of  a social disability. The alternative hypothesis is that the quality of human interaction and communication can so easily be degraded by devices and services we are all still learning to use appropriately and well.  Sally Bayley encapsulates this admirably:

“Tweeting “… a sort of premature mental ejaculation” (The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets, Sally Bayley, Unbound, 2016)

Finally, the basic thrust of Being Strange was to try and present the world from the perspective of someone with a disability. But what if those who construe themselves as ‘normal’ and ‘non-weird’ are actually inhabiting Plato’s Cave (YouTube video – circa 6 minutes)?

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