The Big Plus of the Outsider Society: truth challenges lies!

Truth-seeking is an autistic trait of modern society

Posted Jun 11, 2010

In an earlier post, I pointed out the autistic quality of much modern social life and noted the benefits in terms of mechanistic cognition. But there are mentalistic benefits too.

A feature of Asperger's syndrome that can be advantageous to society is a concern with social justice and discrimination against minority groups. This can sometimes be strikingly developed in Asperger's cases, often because of their characteristic impatience with conventional hypocrisy and publicly-accepted double standards (not to mention the fact that they sometimes feel the victims of discrimination themselves). Modern societies have canonized such concerns in law and public attitudes, and a number of famous campaigners for equal rights and social justice have been posthumously proposed as Asperger's cases. Among these are John Howard (c.1726-1790), the social reformer and founder of the Howard League for Penal Reform; and Simone Weil (1901-43), who has been described as having "an almost pathological receptiveness to the sufferings of others." Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third President of the USA, 1801-9, and author of A Summary View of the Rights of America (1774) is another case.

Combined with symptomatic autistic blindness to distinctions of rank, sex, or ethnic origin, this propensity of Asperger's cases has undoubtedly benefited modern societies and contributed powerfully to their aspirations to become fairer, more open, and more humane to all.

The problem though is that these laudable aspirations tend to be hi-jacked by canny individuals and pressure groups who are quick to point out the hypocrisy in others, but are very good at hiding it in themselves. Here it is important to realize that deception—and especially the self-deception that so greatly facilitates it—is a mentalistic skill which to their credit most autistics lack. And thanks again to their mentalistic deficits, autistics tend to be loners, who are poor at participating in group activities of the kind that exploit social justice and anti-discrimination sentiment for self-serving political and social advantage.

At the very time that Asperger and Kanner were first independently describing autism during the early 1940s, Albert Camus published his most famous novel, The Outsider (L' Étranger). Although Camus knew nothing of autism, the book is a striking depiction of a high-functioning autistic. As Camus points out, the hero, Meursault,

is condemned because he doesn't play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary, and sensual. ... But to get a more accurate picture of his character ... you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn't play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not only saying what isn't true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true and, in the case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But, contrary to appearances, Meursault doesn't want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened.

Camus concludes that, "Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for the absolute and for truth."

Modern authorities on autism have described autistics as "truth-tellers" and, thanks to their bottom-up, devil-in-the-detail style of cognition, are often the first to see that the emperor has no clothes or that the great idol has feet of clay. Furthermore, thanks to their deficits where mentalism is concerned, they are also likely to be the ones to blurt out the truth, and draw attention to the inconvenient fact, irrespective of what others may think.

Here too, modern societies bear a striking comparison with such Asperger's cases because it is with the Enlightenment and age of science that a new objectivity and detachment emerged among intellectuals, politicians, and writers that encouraged public criticism, whistle-blowing, and open debate of issues that previously would either have been totally taboo (like the existence of the deity) or actively suppressed (like criticism of the ruling elite or questioning of social conventions). With modern industrial societies, however, such "autistic" honesty and objective criticism have become institutionalized in two-party, adversarial political and legal systems, in journalism and the media, and in philosophy and the social sciences. The result is that whistle-blowers, truth-tellers, and critics of all kinds are routinely applauded and rewarded as often as they are castigated and punished—and sometimes experience both fates simultaneously!

Of course, I am not implying that all controversialists, critics, and whistle-blowers are autistics (although some certainly are Asperger's cases). However, I do believe that autistic antagonism to lies and deception of all kinds is not only the most redeeming feature of the so-called disorder, but one which autism shares increasingly with modern societies—and very much to their benefit.