It seems to happen in cycles. And I suspect those cycles correlate with times when people have been stretched beyond their comfort levels for weeks, even months. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s a little traumatized from the holidays — the social failures and (worse) the successful moments that took so much out of us. We’re all feeling foggy, depressed, dulled. And all hell breaks loose on Autistic Twitter.
The annual gauntlet of holiday-ing is just barely behind us, and now tweetstorms are flaring between autistic people, resulting in chaos, conflict, meltdowns, wholesale departures from Twitter, bickering, heartbreak, and outrage from the community.
Plus, the Guardian ran a piece just a few days ago about how Twitter is unusable for anyone but trolls, bots, and dictators. It resonated with a lot of people, and I agreed with a number of points. I haven’t experienced that level of attack that Lindy West described, but I have had some run-ins with a few trolls… and I have gotten caught up in arguments and tweetstorms that I really regretted later — not only because they made me feel terrible, when all was said and done, but also because I lost precious hours of my life that I’ll never get back. And for what? An inconclusive exchange that never changed anybody’s mind, just pissed us all off.
I have to say, I’ve had a pretty halcyon experience with Twitter. I’ve met tons of people I never would have met before. I find links to research and papers and writing that I’d never otherwise find. I consider Twitter to be indispensable for my thinking mind, because it gives me advanced access to the kinds of research and writing that I (in my un-degree-holding and full-time-job-working life) otherwise never have the privilege and the time to access.
Without Twitter, my attempts to uncover the latest thinking on philosophies of perception are just blind flailing around, here and there. Without Twitter, I don’t see the amazing medieval manuscripts that are on display in a place far, far from my home (and anywhere I could possibly get to, without life-crippling expenditures of time, money, and energy). It’s opened up so much for me, in just the past few years that I’ve been on it, that the idea of leaving it all behind starts a panic attack.
Twitter, in many ways, is my lifeline. But of course, it’s not perfect. It’s an open system. I’ve read people saying (tweeting, actually) that if their doctor had neo-nazis holding rallies in their waiting room, they’d find another doctor. Bad analogy. Twitter isn’t like your doctor or their office. Twitter is like life. It’s open. It’s messy. It’s human. And like the rest of life, it also has its share of trolls, aggressors, misogynists, racists, classists/elitists, ableists, every variant of -ists, assholes, asshats, sexist buffoons, self-important nitwits, pedants, etc. I’ve had to figure out how to deal with those sorts of people in offline life, and I’ve done an imperfect job of it. But that’s the deal, in the world I inhabit. You’re on earth. There are people around. Gird your loins.
The thing I love about Twitter, is that I literally don’t need to be bothered by all the trolls, the asshats, -ists of every ilk, jackholes, misogynists, flaming egotists… or really anyone I don’t need to deal with. I don’t even have to deal with the autistic people who are offsetting their post-holiday fog with mind-clearing outrage. I can mute them. Block them. Also, I can mute particular words I never, ever want to hear about. Ever.
And I do. My list of muted words uses up nearly the whole page of my browser window. And life is good.
My list of muted/blocked individuals expands and contracts, sometimes including people I would probably like a lot in person, but who have gotten waaaay out of control with their crusading for whatever cause they’re tapped into. When I say “crusading”, I mean just that — I have a very clear vision of them astride a charger, enclosed in the red-hot-glowing armor of their indignation and outrage, riding at top speed at THE ENEMY, sword drawn, ready to draw blood.
And as the exchange “evolves”, that image rapidly turns into a scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where the defiant knight has lost every available limb, but is still insisting he can win.
If it weren’t so irritating, I’d have to laugh. No, wait, let me let out a short laugh, then get back to my point.
The unfortunate thing is, for those of us on the autism spectrum, impassioned tweetstorms can be a trap.
It feels like we’re engaged in something honorable and noble, like we’re coming to the defense of the defenseless and victimized (usually ourselves). It feels like we’re standing up for ourselves in the face of ignorance and cruelty. But the flood of fight-flight biochemicals cuts us off at the proverbial knees. Stress hormones are specially designed to suppress higher-order thinking and keep us from noticing the grey areas of life. They blind us to the intricacies of complex considerations and keep us focused us on a very narrow set of concerns. They heighten specific senses that can keep us safe and alive, and they also shut down other senses that our bodies don’t need to outrun a charging rhino or escape a burning building.
And that really cripples autistic folks in the most insidious of ways. I totally understand how it feels great to be charged up about a passionate cause — I’ve done it, myself, for years and years. It feels wonderful. It clears the cobwebs. It focuses our attention. It gives us a sense of mission and purpose. And it definitely offsets the depressing dullness that comes from being too tired or numbed from medication.
When I’m foggy and dull and fatigued, one of the first things I tend to do (unless I consciously choose otherwise), is get pissed off about something. It wakes me up. It makes me feel like myself again. And that’s great for me. But not for anyone else. Seriously, I can be a real pain in the ass, when I’ve donned my armor and hopped on my own charger. Trust me, I’ve done it a lot in my life. And I’ve ended up “chopped off at the knees” more times than I can count… still swearing I’m up for yet another round of sparring with edged weapons.
So, knowing myself and knowing the human tendency to delight in drama for its own sake, I mute and block certain folks without hesitation. Even if I like them. Even if I want to keep in touch. Until they calm down (assuming they will – and they don’t always do that), I keep my distance. I protect myself. I focus my attention on the good stuff, the research, the thoughtful writing, the real reasons I came to Twitter, to begin with.
If I’m having a terrible time here, that’s on me. I’m under no obligation to stay in tweetstorms — or even watch them unfold. I’m under no obligation to stay on Twitter, period.
But I choose to stay. Because I know my Twitter experience is my own responsibility. And everyone else is free to do as they please.