Saturday, November 25, 2017

Being a Red Scarf

As someone close to my family and the turkey processing industry reminded me over Thanksgiving, it was Temple Grandin who revolutionized the way turkeys are slaughtered.

Before Temple Grandin, the whole process, from the arrival of the bird at the plant to the moment of its demise, was so stressful for the bird that it altered its body chemistry and adversely impacted the flavor of its meat.

For that reason, and maybe also because it was more humane, processing plants implemented Temple Grandin's humane and low-stress design.  [I would encourage you to see the HBO movie, "Temple Grandin," or read one of Grandin's books, such as Animals in Translation, which I found fascinating.]

In addition to having a Ph.D., Temple Grandin has autism. It was the autism that gave Grandin her unique insight about how to make various meat-processing plants infinitely kinder and less stressful for the animals.  There is a whole spectrum of autism, of course, but having a sharp awareness of details and any changes in the environment is part of autistic perception.

Animals also have a sharp awareness of subtle changes in their environment.  It stems from their  instinct to be constantly alert to the appearance of danger.  For example, a horse would notice and probably be frightened by a red scarf that hadn't been on the fence earlier.

People who don't have autism have a tendency to lump everything in their environment into categories.  For example, a lot of people becomes a crowd--instead of many individuals in a confined area behaving differently in subtle ways according to what makes them each unique.

While it is useful to organize our environment through symbols, grids, maps, put things neatly into boxes...everything in its proper place...Being able to put stuff into categories is just one skill set and one type of perception.  It has its utility; it is a particularly human perspective; but
there's nothing to suggest that we benefit from putting everything into categories, or that anything that does not fit neatly into our Dewey Decimal System should be rejected.

At first, the red scarf frightens the horse because it hadn't been there earlier.  But, after a while, when the scarf doesn't move, the horse approaches.  When the scarf still does not move, the horse moves closer.  The horse is curious.  Eventually, every horse in the area will sniff and taste that scarf.  They will pull it off the fence. The scarf will be thoroughly investigated until the horses understand it for what it is, which is NOT a lion.

People should be more like horses in this way. Not everything has to fit neatly into boxes.  Fear is okay as a first response, but after that we should be more curious.  We should be more like the horse that does not condemn the scarf for being different, but investigates it with caution and an open mind.

But we aren't like horses that way.  We have two bathrooms, Men's and Women's.  It's a big deal if someone uses the wrong one.

The whole gender identity thing is about people not allowing themselves to be trapped in a box that they makes them uncomfortable for the rest of their lives.

What music did you listen to in high school?  Did the answer to that question determine who you were and where you could eat your lunch?

JFK's "Camelot" occurred when society was super hung up on the idea that there was a right way to be.   The Kennedy family had good looks, the best of health, education, athleticism, decorated military service....At least that's how they appeared to folks on the outside.

But it was also true that JFK was a compulsive philanderer and in miserable health.  Those parts were hidden from public view. JFK's affairs and back pain were concealed.  A Kennedy sister who was intellectually compromised was hidden from view.

At the same time, women were taking speed in the form of diet pills to maintain their 23-inch waist.  Brilliant, creative, ambitious women--Anne Sexton, Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath--were committing suicide.

Homosexuals and anyone with "gender confusion" were "deviants."

"Deviant." The word seems to hint at the criminal underworld.

Deviant means "departing from usual or accepted standards."

I'm not suggesting that society shouldn't have standards.  Not everything is relative. I think something is wrong if it measurably damages someone--but not if it simply offends another person's moral construct (i.e., the boxes themselves).

The non-autistic human tendency is to cleave to our boxes. I think it's universal and transcends party lines. I seem to encounter it everywhere.

For example, from an on-line application to join a website that encourages creativity, and which publishes forward-thinking articles on a wide range of subjects:

What type of writing do you do?

Drop-down menu options:

  • journalism
  • self-exploration
  • humorist
  • fiction
  • science fiction
I would have been willing to admit that I wrote think pieces (that sounds pompous) if that was an option, but I was not willing to admit to "self-exploration" (that's just gross).  I couldn't pretend to be a journalist.  

Was there another option?  Could I write it in?  

No. And I was required to choose one from the list. 

I picked "humorist," but I didn't feel good about it.

The next box--literally, it was a text box--asked me to write a brief and "random" description of myself. In the box. It had to be "random." (Because they wanted me to think outside the box?!)

First, I have to tell you that they wanted to know my age.  

They had a drop-down menu, but it only went up to 50.  After 49 was "50+".  

Clearly they didn't give a crap about people over 50. Fifty or eighty, it was all the same to them.  

I was a 50 to 100-year old humorist from Wisconsin.  

I knew exactly how that went over with people from the East Coast who, despite being enlightened  champions of creativity, felt the need to squeeze people into a ridiculous little box.  

I wrote:  "I am not the lady you think of when you think of a 50-80 year-old woman from Wisconsin. I cannot describe myself in a few random words. I am complicated."

So far, they have not accepted my application.  

Which reminds me of another experience with a progressive on-line organization that I joined.  They had moderators who selectively chose which comments were polite and benign enough to post on their site.  

I can only assume that they did not appreciate the tone of my comment.  I'm not talking about trolling, I'm talking about 2-4 lines of text that would not possibly have damaged anyone. 

Apparently, I offended their sense of what was appropriate for their Comments box.  

Part of me wants to rebel against any organization that censors me, or at least point out to them the contradiction in saying that they support writers while at the same time they censor them.  

But, given the political moral authority of that website, I felt humbled and ashamed.  My esteemed peers had taken my measure and found me lacking.  

A different example:  Where I used to go to church, we had our photographs taken for a new directory. The photographer photoshopped the ragged neck of my t-shirt into something more formal in black. He ennobled my image and promoted me to a saintly image of a minister or abbess. He liked it so much that he framed and hung that photo in the lobby.  

I was mortified. Even though it was the opposite of air-brushing my clothes off, which I also would not have wanted, I felt that he had taken liberties with my identity (but with the best of intentions--I'm sure he meant to do me honor). 

I do not see myself as a formal, saintly, 50-plus-lady from-Wisconsin or minister or abbess at all.  

There is no virtue to organizing everyone into boxes. There is greater virtue in how a horse deals with a scarf.  The horse doesn't judge the scarf just because he fears it.  The horse keeps an eye on that scarf, and then cautiously approaches.  It investigates.  But non-autistic humans, we maintain our distance and declare the scarf a deviant. We walk away and leave it there without ever returning to investigate the true nature of a scarf.

I'm a scarf, dammit. A red scarf!


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