Clueless creepiness vs skillful creepiness

There are two kinds of problems that get conflated a lot but aren’t actually that similar:

  • People who do creepy things because they have trouble understanding boundaries
  • People who do creepy things because they understand boundaries well and have highly developed skills at violating them with impunity

People who are good at violating boundaries and getting away with being creepy sometimes seem socially awkward, and sometimes don’t. Sometimes they get away with it by getting people to think things like “Oh, that’s Bill. He’s just awkward like that. He doesn’t mean anything by it,” and sometimes it’s more like, “I can’t believe James would do that! He’s like the nicest guy ever, and he does so much for this community. Don’t you remember the awesome party last month?”, and sometimes it’s more like, “Steve is really sensitive right now. Did you really have to turn him down like that? Couldn’t you have given him a chance? Don’t you understand how much courage it takes to approach a girl? What harm could giving him your number have done?”. 

People who are inadvertently creepy *care* when they’ve violated boundaries, and try to fix it. Saying, “oh, they’re just awkward” isn’t doing them any favors, because people who are inadvertently creepy don’t *want* to trample all over other people’s boundaries. They want to know, so that they can stop doing it. This doesn’t mean it’s the job of victims of their creepy actions to explain it to them – it isn’t, particularly since most creepy people are doing it on purpose, and calling skillfully creepy people on things tends to go badly. I am mentioning this because skillfully creepy people often convince others that being “just awkward” means that everyone else is obligated to refrain from objecting to their creepy actions.

Skillfully creepy people who boundaries boundaries on purpose come up with excuses about why it was ok, and try to make you feel horrible for objecting. (Eg: “I was just being friendly! Learn to take a compliment!”, or “I know that if you were in your right mind, you wouldn’t have said that you didn’t want to spend time with me. I forgive you. We can still spend time together.”, or “Wow. Harsh. I guess girls really don’t go for nice guys. Have fun dating assholes.” or just getting a lot of people to laugh at you, or any number of other things.)

As a culture, we shouldn’t tolerate creepy behavior from anyone. Part of not tolerating it means assessing when people are being cluelessly creepy, and when people are being skillfully creepy. 

If you are a supervisor/teacher/community leader, or otherwise someone responsible for intervening and keeping things safe, it’s important to respond appropriately. Communities need to help cluelessly creepy people understand how to act, and to expel skillfully creepy people so that they can’t keep preventing the people they hurt from being part of the community. 

Stop using mental illness as an insult

So, there’s this pattern. People hear about someone doing a horrible thing, or being systemically abusive to another person, or being bigoted, or being generally hateful, violent, or evil, and then express their disapproval by saying things like:

  • She *needs help*
  • He needs serious therapy
  • I hope he gets the help she needs

And, that’s a horrible thing to say. Because mental illness is not the same as being an abuser. Having a mental illness is not a moral failing, and treating others horribly is not a mental illness. Conflating those categories hurts people badly.

Some people do need therapy, medication, or other forms of treatment. Some people who need mental health treatment are also terrible people, but that is not because of their mental illness. It’s because of their choices and values. And many abusers and other dangerous people are not mentally ill at all.

Many, many good people struggle with serious mental illness and depend on medical treatment. Similarly, many good people struggle with mental illness and have no access to treatment for various reasons (eg: lack of insurance, lack of safe providers, fear of losing their jobs due to stigma). These people deserve better than to have their struggles thrown up as a way to insult abusers.

Mental illness is real, serious, and horribly stigmatized. It is not the same as being an abuser, and it’s really important to stop equating the two.

On “feeling unsafe”

Sometimes, people in power use “feeling safe” in a manipulative way. They shift the conversation away from whether or not you actually are safe, and into a conversation about your feelings. Sometimes people in power who do this have a kind affect and seem to really care about helping you to feel better. This can make it hard to know in your own mind what the problem actually is, and hard to keep hold of your understanding that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

It helps to keep in mind that these things are different:

  • Feeling unsafe in reaction to something even though you actually are safe
  • Seeing something as evidence that you are actually unsafe
  • People in power will often try to confuse you about which thing you are experiencing, but it’s important to stay mindful of the difference.

It’s also possible to have a feeling that you are unsafe, and not be sure whether it’s reasonable or not:

  • It’s important to take that feeling seriously
  • And to think through what it means, and whether there might be a real danger
  • Sometimes when you feel unsafe it will be an irrational reaction, but don’t be quick to dismiss it as one
  • If you think it’s an irrational reaction, make sure you have a concrete reason for thinking that it’s irrational and that things are actually ok

People can feel unsafe around someone for all kinds of reasons other than being unsafe:

  • Being bigoted against another group (eg: racist fear of black people)
  • Being triggered by something (eg: feeling afraid because seeing men wear hats is triggering)
  • Forgetting to take medication and having strange reactions to things as a result 
  • Taking a new medication with unexpected side effects that complicate your ability to perceive things accurately  
  • Misunderstanding something someone did or said (eg: taking something literally that was not intended literally)
  • Hallucinations
  • Being exhausted
  • When it’s this kind of thing, sometimes the external situation still needs to be addressed, but often it can be dealt with by processing things yourself 

But sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*, and sometimes this is in ways that it’s hard for other people to see, eg:

  • If you are being pressured to share private information with people who can’t be trusted to keep things confidential
  • If you are being pressured to use a ramp that is too steep to be safe, or allow people to carry you into an inaccessible building
  • If people around you are bigoted against you in subtle, but constantly corrosive ways
  • If people are intentionally triggering you in order to confuse and disorient you into doing what they want
  • If you’re being triggered in a way that makes it impossible for you to understand what is going on well enough to keep yourself safe, even if no one is doing it on purpose
  • If there is no food available that you can safely eat for an extended period
  • If you are experiencing executive functioning problems in ways that make it hard or impossible for you to do things that are necessary for survival, and no one is willing to help you
  • If you’re spending a lot of time in a environment is physically overloading in painful ways
  • If you have medical problems and doctors refuse to communicate in a way you can understand, or if you only have access to them in an environment that prevents you from communicating
  • and any number of other things

All of these things are the kind of thing that apparently well-meaning people will often try to address by trying to get you to process your feelings so that you will feel safe. That’s a dangerous reaction, and it’s important to notice when people are doing it, and to learn how to insist that they address the actual safety issue.

Sometimes the feeling is the problem.

Sometimes the problem is that you’re *actually not safe*.

If someone’s trying to manage your feelings rather than the actual threat to your safety, it’s important to remember that they’re doing a bad thing. And that it’s ok to want to actually *be* safe, even if all they want to do is make you *feel* safe. 

Cooperation with feelings derails is one of the hardest anti-skills to unlearn. But it’s also really, really important.

It takes more than etymology to make a slur

Do you think words with etymologies based on oppression (like “idiot” or “hysterical”) but are no longer used that way now should be considered slurs? Do you think most people consider them slurs? I’ve heard some compelling arguments for why they should be treated like slurs, but I’ve also heard some good reasons for why they shouldn’t be, and it’s all very confusing.
realsocialskills answered:
I don’t think etymology is important. I think what’s important is how a word is used.
If something is used as a slur, then it’s a slur even if it has a neutral etymology. (People try to argue that the r-word isn’t a slur because it literally just means slow. Those people are wrong.)
If something is not used as a slur, then it’s not one even if it has an etymology based on oppression or hate. (For instance: “autism” has an etymology based on dehumanizing autistic people, but it’s not a slur.)
This gets complicated because sometimes people will claim that something “isn’t a slur anymore” even when it clearly is. If people the word is used against think it’s still a slur, then it’s a slur even if some people think they “don’t mean it that way”. (The g-word is a good example of this.)
I think that there are also words that are somewhat tainted by oppressive etymologies or connotations. It can be worthwhile to personally try to avoid using those words. (I avoid some, but not all, tainted words for that reason). But it’s dangerous to treat these words as actually being the same as slurs. One reason it’s important not to do this is that it causes serious problems for people with language disabilities. This is a good example of the importance of understanding the difference between personal piety and basic morality.

Rhetorical might doesn’t make right

Not knowing how to articulate something doesn’t mean you are wrong.

Being elequoent doesn’t mean you are right.

Making someone look stupid doesn’t mean you are right.

Words are tools. They aren’t everything. They aren’t all of knowledge either.

So if someone tells you something that sounds plausible, and they’ve articulated it well, you still might know they are wrong even if you have no words for it.

They might try to intimidate you into agreeing by insisting that if you can’t give a clear explicit answer, then you must just be too irrational to accept a valid argument. But, it doesn’t work that way. Knowing something is not the same as knowing how to use words to describe that thing.

Words are very useful tools for communication. But being good at words just means being good at words. Don’t conflate it with being right, being insightful, or being exceptionally rational. Those are separate issues.

Being dependent on vs being limited by

This isn’t quite the right concept but… these things are different:

  • being dependent on something
  • being unpleasantly or destructively limited by something

Being dependent on something can be really good. It can make things possible that weren’t before it. We’re all dependent on technology in one way or another (for instance, heating and air conditioning. Shoes. Large-scale agriculture.).

Sometimes people object to dependence because they think it will impose an unpleasant limitation. Even when it would actually make more things possible. 

Like, someone thinks they (or someone in their care) shouldn’t use a wheelchair because then they’ll only be able to go where a wheelchair can go. They won’t be able to use stairs and such anymore. And sometimes this is true.

But often, this can mean that someone can only go as far as they can walk, and can only stay out for as long as they can stand. So they have trouble leaving the house, or going places for long periods of time. And are much more limited than they otherwise would be. Dependence isn’t bad, if it makes you able to do more things. 

AAC can be like this, too. Verbal speech is more flexible, in principle, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal, even for people who have some verbal speech. The important thing is for someone to have as much communication as possible. For people who get more communication from relying on things other than speech, dependence isn’t a bad thing. It’s good. It makes life better.

Getting more ability to do stuff you care about should be the goal. Not a particular way of doing it. Not judged against a theoretical ideal. Judged against what actually works best for you (or your child).

Autistics, cluelessly awkward people, and jerks

Some people are socially awkward because they don’t know the rules. Those people can learn the rules and not be awkward anymore. That is a different problem than autism.

Being autistic means that, no matter how much you understand, you will not be able to follow all of the rules. There will be some rules you won’t ever be physically capable of following. And some rules you will be capable of following, but with a heavy cost not faced by nonautistic people. And sometimes your abilities will fluctuate. That is a different problem than being awkward out of ignorance.

It’s also a different problem than being a jerk. Some people are jerks who don’t much care about being good to others. This is a different problem than not knowing the rules, and it’s a different problem than being physically incapable of following the rules.

Some people are kind of unintentional jerks because they don’t understand much about *how* to be good to others. This is a different problem from not caring about others. It’s also a different problem from not understanding the rules, or being unable to follow the rules. Treating people well is a learned set of skills. It’s not the same as social conformity or appearing normal.

Autistic people can be considerate of others. Autistic people can treat others well. This does not depend on following all of the rules all of the time. Following the rules is one tool people can use to be considerate of others. It is not the only tool.

Being autistic means that being considerate of other people will look different for you than most other people. It doesn’t mean that your neurology dooms you to be a jerk. It just means that you have to learn to treat others well in a way that works with rather than against who you are.

One thing though

There are different kinds of no:

There’s a kind of no that’s asserting a boundary, and there’s a kind of no that’s pushing people around.

For instance, this are things that are personal boundaries:

  • Declining a job offer
  • Saying no to a date
  • Not sharing your computer with someone who wants to use it to check their email or look something up
  • Not letting someone hug you

These things are usually pushing someone around:

  • Telling someone they’re not allowed to talk to their friends
  • Telling someone they can’t read particular books or blogs, or watch certain movies
  • Telling someone they have to sit still and look normal and not wave their hands

Communication problems vs boundary indifference

These things are different:

  • Difficulty reading social cues
  • Indifference to other people’s boundaries

These get conflated all over the place, in part because they both lead to breaking certain social expectations. But they’re actually fundamentally different (although it’s possible for someone to have both problems)

Both of these things get called social awkwardness. This causes a lot of problems, in particular:

  • People are pressured to accept boundary-violating behavior as innocuous awkwardness
  • People who are more innocently awkward are read as threats because people can’t tell the difference

People who don’t care about other people’s boundaries often actually have exceptionally *good* abilities to read social cues, for instance:

  • Creepy guys in geek space tend to know exactly how much they can harass women without being expelled from the space
  • And they’re really good at staying just shy of that line
  • And these dudes often get referred to as just awkward, and women get pressured to accommodate their boundary violations

So, if you want to create spaces that are safe for good people who have trouble reading social cues:

  • Stop tolerating boundary violations
  • Start making your spaces more accessible
  • Use interaction badges as a way to help people understand who welcomes interaction and who doesn’t
  • Wait a few extra seconds in conversations to give people who process language slowly a chance to speak
  • Don’t insist that people make eye contact
  • When you’re organizing loud events, create quiet space people can retreat to
  • Create multiple ways of contacting event or space organizers (phone, email, etc.) Some forms of communication are very difficult for some people, and spaces are more inclusive if there are more options

Expertise and credentials aren’t the same thing

Generally speaking:

  • It’s possible to have credentials without being an expert.
  • It’s possible to be an expert without having credentials.

Some specific examples

  • Someone with Special Autism Training isn’t necessarily an expert in communicating with autistic people
  • It’s actually likely that they’ve been thoroughly taught to be incapable of doing so
  • People with rare medical conditions often know things most doctors they encounter don’t
  • Someone with a college degree might not know as much as someone who studied the same subject privately

This doesn’t mean credentials are irrelevant – but they only tell you so much. Don’t confuse them with expertise.