Collective autism

(Note: I wrote this back in June of 2022, but abandoned it. It was never properly finished, and it falls apart toward the end. I’m publishing it now, in February 2023, in unfinished rough form because I need to link to it from a post I am writing today.)

The first time I saw Brené Brown’s video on empathy versus sympathy I was surprised by her definitions. She defines empathy as “feeling with people” which “fuels connection” and characterizes sympathy as something which “drives disconnection” — a sort of distancing sentimentality.

When I checked her definition against current popular thought, I found that this redefinition appears to be an emerging consensus.

The definitions of empathy and sympathy I’d learned were quite different. Merriam-Webster more closely reflects my understanding of the distinction:

Sympathy (which comes from the Greek sym, meaning “together,” and pathos, referring to feelings or emotion) is used when one person shares the feelings of another; an example is when one experiences sadness when someone close is experiencing grief or loss. Empathy is also related to pathos. It differs from sympathy in carrying an implication of greater emotional distance. With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel, without necessarily having those feelings yourself.

They encapsulate the difference as: “Sympathy is sharing”, “Empathy is understanding”.

My favorite description of empathy as I understand it comes from anthropologist Clifford Geertz. This is probably the tenth time I’ve quoted it on this blog:

…Accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego effacement and fellow feeling. Normal capacities in these respects are, of course, essential, as is their cultivation, if we expect people to tolerate our intrusions into their lives at all and accept us as persons worth talking to. I am certainly not arguing for insensitivity here, and hope I have not demonstrated it. But whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from the experience of that acceptance as such, which is part of one’s own biography, not of theirs. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems, which such an acceptance allows one to work toward developing. Understanding the form and pressure of, to use the dangerous word one more time, natives’ inner lives is more like grasping a proverb, catching an allusion, seeing a joke — or, as I have suggested, reading a poem — than it is like achieving communion.

Geertz’s construal of a mode of expression or symbol system is the kind of empathy I practice as a design researcher.

When my design team develops an empathic understanding of a person that allows us to grasp a proverb, catch an allusion, see a joke — get why they aspire to this ideal or that, why some issue arouses delight or disgust or indifference, and so on — we acquire a better ability to innovate and design for them.

While I’m repeating myself, I’ll add another idea I’ve said a half-million times before: these empathic understandings of others do two very important things. First, they attune us to the other person’s way of experiencing the world, so that we are better able to judge what they will view as useful, usable and desirable. Second, they teach us new ways to conceive truth, which affords us surprising new capacities to ideate. These novel conceptive capacities manifest as epiphanies. We exclaim “That gives me an idea!” — and because the conception of that idea was enabled by learning the other person’s way of understanding, it is far more likely to be on the mark. I call the generation of insights that produce these on-the-mark epiphanies “precision inspiration”.


Returning to these two incompatible definitions of empathy and sympathy, a question comes to mind: What accounts for such a drastic redefinition of established terms?

Why would sympathy be demoted from fellow-feeling to vapid gestures of pity, and why would empathy go from an understanding of another’s feelings to an intentional act of fellow-feeling?

I have a somewhat pessimistic theory: I believe this is a symptom of a general loss of pluralistic capacity.

Pluralism is the capacity to assume multiple first-person modes of understanding and to temporarily think about the world from that standpoint. It is having access to multiple interpretations and thought processes that give insight into other people’s feelings, opinions and practical responses.

Everyone has some degree of pluralistic capacity. The question is one of accommodation. How many understandings can a person accommodate? How prepared is a person to accommodate yet another understanding — one that is as-yet inconceivable?

One one end of the spectrum is autism — a monism so profound that it makes one mind-blind. The autistic person’s understanding is the only possible one, and it is so narrow that it cannot expand to accommodate even slight variations. Anything outside that narrow range is inconceivable and triggers the intense apprehension induced by all encounters with inconceivability.


My theory holds that our popular culture has devolved to a sort of collective autism, but, weirdly, one that is occupied with the ideals of pluralism — which includes the ideal of empathy as well as diversity. In this, it is similar to fundamentalisms that adhere very strictly to the rules, symbols and doctrine of a faith while failing to understand or respond to any of it by way of the faith that originally engendered it.

The ideals become objects of worship, not expressions of something deeper that moves us.

Our fundamentalist notion of diversity is able only to accommodate a single theory of diversity, and any deviation from that theory causes extreme autistic anxiety reactions and misbehavior that are confused with PTSD, but are symptoms of stunted maturity and maladaption.

To stave off both the anxiety and the triggering reactions of others, the collectivity (as a society) engages in social skills training to help it identify types of people (“identities”), to learn phases and gestures to recite or perform when interacting with them, and to learn the difference between appropriate and inappropriate words and behaviors.

DEI (Diversity/Equity/Inclusion) is an autistic approximation of pluralism.


In the place of pluralism, our collectively autistic public thought is dominated by a single ideology. Thought beyond this ideology is literally inconceivable.

This ideological monism however, presents itself as embracing the full diversity of humankind — and as far as it can tell it does.

But what it does not and cannot embrace is diverse thinking about diversity. It thinks about diversity in only one way, and finds every other way of understanding diversity inconceivable and unconscionable. It is a monism that thinks about pluralism a lot but is unable to think pluralistically.

A monistic ideology of pluralism and diversity cannot do pluralism.

And doing pluralism is what empathy essentially is.

When it comes to thinking about alterity — otherness — it only understands one way, by the only logic it knows how to use. Let’s call this monistic ideology of diversity “monological diversity”.  This renders the former meaning of the word empathy unintelligible. In place of pluralism, we have established a monistic concept of “diversity” — a way of thinking about segments of people that every person is expected to affirm, or face ostracism.


What is pluralism, and why is it not a synonym for diversity?

From a monistic understanding there is no difference. Pluralism and diversity are both the principled inclusion of all kinds of people.

But from a pluralistic understanding, the difference is of utmost significance. Pluralism embraces multiple understandings — even multiple understandings of diversity, itself.

A monistic understanding privileges a single understanding as valid — not because it has considered multiple perspectives, weighed their relative merits and tradeoffs, and chosen the one that seems most true, most moral or most fitting to the circumstance — but rather, because this one understanding is only one it knows. Everything else, just “dorsn’t make sense.” It says “I don’t see how they can even think that.” But monistic understanding does not have the intellectual space for asking whether this is not one’s own failure of understanding.

To monistic understanding, something not making sense — especially moral sense — is a positive perception that the thing is nonsensical or immoral.

Monistic understandings terminate in a naive realism.

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