Monday, May 23, 2011

Autistic Woman Writes Terrible Column; Speculation About Her Capacity for Empathy Ensues

There's this woman, Penelope Trunk, who writes about climbing the corporate ladder on her blog, and in her book Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success. She's founded several startup companies, has worked in marketing and is now a full-time writer, focusing on career advice for young people.

She also has Asperger syndrome.

A few days ago, she wrote a column about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund who is accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. In her column, Trunk advances the bizarre hypothesis that women who occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, who work low-paying, menial jobs with no possibility of advancement, have greater freedom than higher-paid, professional women do to report sexual abuse by bosses, co-workers or clients.

Her notion is that someone working a low-paying job will not have the same incentive to hold onto that job that someone with a better job would have:

It has been clear for at least a decade that women who want to have a high-flying career should not report sexual harassment. I have written about this a zillion times, and before you argue with me, read the quotes from all the labor lawyers (representing plaintiffs) who agree.

The bottom line is that just about every woman who has entered the workplace has experienced sexual harassment, but the women who report it face retribution. ... [W]omen who complain about harassment generally lose their jobs in some convoluted but ultimately predictable way.
But, what about women who don't care if they get fired? Those women hold a lot of power in this equation.

It used to be that women with low-level jobs did not have the socioeconomic backing to stand up for themselves in the face of harassment. Today, women feel more empowered - even women in a low pay grade. And women across the economic spectrum can identify what crosses the line.

These women have nothing to lose when they report men who cross the line sexually. So the maid reported. And then, it turns out, all sorts of women in higher-up positions spoke up against Strauss-Kahn. The women wouldn't report the harassment on their own. They don't want to suffer retribution. But now there will be no retribution, so it's safe to come forward.

This is why men are going to focus harassment at the higher ranks of the corporate ladder. These are the women who have to keep their mouths shut if they want to keep climbing the ladder.

But God help the guy who harasses a woman with nothing to lose.

It's a great moment in history. Poor women are empowered to fight against lecherous men, and rich women can finally come out of the sexual-harassment closet because of it.

Matt Yglesias at Think Progress and Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon have both covered why this is astonishingly, massively wrong --- not just off, but actually the opposite of what's really true, which is that poorer women working menial jobs are more, not less, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse at work, and have fewer options for escaping or combating it. In believing otherwise, Trunk seems to have forgotten that, for some people, losing a job means not being able to pay rent, not having enough money to buy enough food, having to put off needed medical treatments or go without needed medications because they can't pay for them.

She also assumes that, if one quits a menial job, one can quickly and easily find another. This is just not true in an economy where almost one-tenth of all people in the U.S. are officially unemployed, and many more are working fewer hours than they'd like to. These low-wage service jobs are actually really competitive right now, since there are relatively few of them (since companies have mostly been weathering the Great Recession by laying off all the employees they could conceivably do without) and lots of people needing work.

There's a lot of other important stuff she leaves out, but I think the most important failing in her article is her assumption that women working low-paying jobs don't need those jobs. As a commenter on Pandagon noted, it's as if she's assuming that everyone has well-off relatives who can support them for a time, or has a trust fund or significant savings to fall back on. She doesn't seem to understand what poverty is.

Anyway, enough about Trunk. She's ignorant, naive and starry-eyed, and her good fortune and financial security have given her the (mistaken) impression that life is as easy for everyone as it has been for her.

Now, I want to talk about her critics.

It shouldn't surprise anyone reading this blog that commenters on both Pandagon and Yglesias's site have brought up her autism as a possible explanation for her failure to grasp basic economic and social realities.

From Pandagon:

Penelope Trunk's deal is that she has Asperger's and spends a great deal of time and energy figuring out the "rules" for social interaction. (Note: she is open about this and has written a great deal about it.) I got reading her because her perspective can bring some real insight into human interactions. But she can also get things dead, dead wrong.

If Ms. Trunk actually suffers from an illness which damages her ability to feel empathy, that both absolves her (partially) and leads to the next question --- why is she indistinguishable from the average conservative/libertarian?

My understanding is that while the inability to read nonverbal cues is quite acute, the practical effect of Asperger's also includes a lesser capacity for empathy, especially in relatively swift interactions.

From Yglesias's:

Trunk is wrong, obviously. But Asperger's Syndrome makes what she's trying to do here --- put herself in both DSK's and the maid's position and see who's right --- incredibly difficult. This isn't Tom Friedman telling us we gotta say "suck on that" to Iraq b/c he's a dick, this is someone with a legitimate medical condition exercising poor judgment by choosing to comment on something it's very hard for her to understand given that condition.

These comments are actually not representative of the threads in which they appear; these four comments are the only comments on both websites to blame Trunk's classism on her Asperger's diagnosis, and both threads also include other comments telling the quoted commenters that they are wrong to do so.

But it still depresses me that her diagnosis comes up at all in a discussion of why her article is wrong. One of the reasons it depresses me is because --- as the last comment I quote indicates --- it effectively bars all autistic people from participating* in discussions about workplace harassment. "Oh, you're autistic, you don't understand how normal people act." Because our "condition" prevents us from understanding other people, nothing we say about anything other people do --- even things they do to us --- has to be taken seriously. This is especially troubling when it's workplace (or school) harassment we're talking about, since autistic people are especially likely to be targeted for such harassment. (Indeed, we are often blamed for being bullied --- it's our own fault for being so weird, we're told as children.)

It also depresses me somewhat to see Trunk's excessive optimism about most people's ability to quit jobs at will, and find new jobs quickly and easily, attributed to her Asperger's rather than to her having a lot of resources at her disposal that she takes for granted, when most people with autism, when they can work, have terrible trouble finding jobs, and then holding on to those jobs for longer than a few weeks. If anything, we probably have a keener grasp than most people do of the risks inherent in quitting a job, because those risks are heightened for us.

I'd also like to point out, in two of those comments --- both written by the same person --- the use of autism as a metaphor for a self-serving political philosophy.

I've seen this once before, in an article on

The language used in this passage --- citing "self-centered" behavior as the characteristic feature of autism, for example, or saying autistic people lack "linguistic, social, cultural or logical constraints to manage [our] lives" --- draws strong, if implicit, parallels between autism (a neurological condition) and selfishness (a moral quality).

These comments do a similar thing, with the "lack of empathy" that is so often cited as the core deficit of Asperger's syndrome. In the psychological literature on autism, the "empathy" being spoken of is usually cognitive --- we are unable to understand non-autistic people's behavior, feelings or states of mind, even though we are perfectly capable of caring about them. Yet, in the comment quoted above, the implication is that this lack of understanding also entails a lack of feeling for these incomprehensible others.

Autism is not a moral failing. Autistic people have moral failings, but they have them because they are people, not because they are autistic.

*Not in the literal sense of "You are not allowed to speak," but in the more nebulous sense of "You can speak, but if I know that you're autistic, I will attribute everything you say to your being autistic, and if any of it conflicts with what I think is true, or right, I will disregard whatever you say because your mind is diseased and mine is not."


Eric said...

I suppose this is only tangentially related, but I remember the other day Emily wrote here on Tumblr about the ad hominem fallacy being used against autistic people.

Leah Jane said...

This whole idea that one autistic has repulsive opinions, therefore we must all have repulsive opinions, makes me thank my stars that none of the regular posters at Wrongplanet are successful enough to warrant the close media scrutiny she got for this atrocity. We'd be forever labeled as monsters if anyone from Thinkprogress ever saw what pours out of (some of the posters, not all, mind you) their keyboards.

Gavin Bollard said...

I've followed Penelope Trunk for years and sometimes what she says makes logical sense (in a convoluted kind of way).

Whether she's right or wrong she raises interesting concerns and theories. In the case you've cited, I'd venture to suggest that sometimes the reporting of harassment might work that way - though I'm sure that most of the time it doesn't.

You're right about the comments though.

The most important word to use in conjunction with Autism is INDIVIDUAL.

We're not robots, we have free choice and we can choose to TRY to understand (or we can choose to put less effort in). It makes a difference to the final result.

It's not just a matter of choice though, there are other factors too, upbringing, history, family politics and experience.

Penelope's ability to "understand" isn't necessarily faulty here. It's just that other aspects of her background and history are affecting her interpretation. She's interpreting it as "how she would feel in that situation" - and based on her previous writings, she's correct about how SHE would feel.

Other people could be different.

Socrates said...

the "empathy" being spoken of is usually cognitive

This is a point that is lost on most people including large numbers of the medical profession.

As ever, the Stupid Rools teh Intawebs (and often IRL).

The Goldfish said...

The thing that immediately struck me about her viewpoint is the suspicion that she herself may have experienced harassment or worse (she says that just about every woman has), she's not been able to speak out for just the same reasons as many women feel unable to, but she's trying to frame that in terms of her own particular status. Kind of, "How come this poor lass could speak out when I couldn't?"

Which would be human, not exclusively autistic.

Our former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was often accused of being autistic, as an ad hominem, variously because he was a maths whizz, lacked charisma and had difficulty smiling convincingly (which was at least partly physical - man had a glass eye and a broken jaw). But it was only argued on these grounds as if being on the spectrum disqualified a person from leading the country.

He was a rubbish leader, but even if he had been autistic, his condition would have had nothing to do with it.

Lindsay said...

@Eric - no, I think that post is totally on point.

And Emily is right that this whole thing is just a kind of ad hominem fallacy.

Lindsay said...

@Gavin - oh, I have no doubt whatsoever that women trying to advance their careers have face exactly the dilemmas she describes when it comes to reporting/not reporting sexual harassment.

I just think she downplays the extent to which women working menial jobs are also caught in a similar trap.

I also agree with you that she's drawing on her own experience --- just like everyone does.

Lindsay said...

@The Goldfish:
[S]he herself may have experienced harassment or worse (she says just about every woman has), she's not been able to speak out ... Kind of, "How come this poor lass could speak out when I couldn't?"

That's a good point, and I agree with you that that sort of rationalization --- if that is what she's doing --- is also something that just about everyone does at one point or another.

I do feel a little bit irked, as some other writers have also been, by her explanation's erasure of one of the biggest things that actually *DO* empower working women to fight exploitation and abuse on the job, which is a good, strong union. By making it seem like all low-wage workers are automatically free to quit whenever they run into bad working conditions, she makes it seem like there's no need for unions, which there is. (And that's been bothering me especially now that we're in such an anti-union political mood here in the U.S. We have been for decades, but it seems to be ramping up even more this year).

But, again, that's not a thing that has anything at all to do with Penelope Trunk having Asperger's.

Xanthe Wyse said...

I've linked you to my post about this very subject

My bullshit detector goes off with Penelope. She admits she lies eg about birth control fraud