Behaviorism, Compliance, and the Subversiveness of Autistic Pride

It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

This conversation between Steve Silberman and Maxfield Sparrow on Hans Asperger, Nazis, and autism connects past with present through the ever present themes of compliance and behaviorism.

Seeing non-compliance pathologized by Nazi doctors makes me proud to belong to a people who resist oppression. And realizing that so much of what passes for therapy and accommodation today would be wholeheartedly embraced by Nazi doctors reminds me that the monsters who killed Autistic children 80 years ago were also human beings with families and friends and loving relationships. It reminds me that otherwise good people today could also be monsters.

To be openly and proudly autistic is to be regarded as a threat to the social order.

If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.

A threat processed on a near instinctual level:

I don’t get to talk about the lived experience of autism from this angle as often because I’m nervous about appearing too radical. I’m usually talking about how challenging life is for us, how often we are social outcasts, how the thin slice studies showed that people prejudge us harshly in just micro-seconds of seeing or hearing us (though we fare better than neurotypical subjects when people only see our written words), how many of us are homeless or unemployed. All of that is the flip side of this same subversive coin, though.

The revelations about Hans Asperger serve to remind us that “eugenics reassert themselves in every historical era” and that compliance and behaviorism are the social order acting against our neurotypes, our freedom, and our health—as they have done for a long time.

The hardest part for me was coming to realize how much the entire identification and naming of people with my neurotype was part of a tireless search to purge the Reich of all the non-compliant people. Asperger’s full name for our neurology was “autistic psychopathy” because our lower-than-neurotypical interest in social compliance was viewed as dangerous to the state. Sheffer says those identified as psychopaths were people “such as ‘asocials,’ delinquents, and vagrants” who “threatened social order.” We Autistics are still fighting lifelong battles against those who go to great lengths—sometimes abusive and deadly lengths—to force us to comply with their wish for us to not be Autistic. We still threaten social order. I opened this book thinking “history,” and closed it thinking “origins of an ongoing human crisis.”

One of the best things that could come out of this is a wake-up call, because concepts like eugenics reassert themselves in every historical era—whether it’s Nazis talking about “life unworthy of life,” geneticists in Iceland talking about “eradicating” Down syndrome through selective abortion, a presidential candidate mocking a disabled reporter from the podium while bragging about his “good genes,” or autism charities framing autism as an economic burden on society. Resisting institutionalized violence requires perpetual vigilance.

Reframe our tendency to rebel as part of our gift to the health of society,  as a perpetual vigilance that humanizes our spaces and our systems.

…at the same time, Asperger insisted that the non-compliance of his patients, and their tendency to rebel against authority, was at the heart of what he called “autistic intelligence,” and part of the gift they had to offer society.

Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up. Sheffer writes that Dr. Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable. She notes him describing Autistic children as having a “lack of respect for authority, the altogether lack of disciplinary understanding, and unfeeling malice.” That appears to be the majority opinion of us today as well. If we were not threatening to the social order in some way, there would not be therapies designed to control how we move our bodies and communicate.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-therapy. I embrace therapies that help me with some of my Autistic co-occurring conditions like circadian rhythm disruption and digestive malfunction. I welcome treatments for epilepsy-a co-occurring condition found in 25% – 30% of Autistics-because I’ve seen how much suffering epilepsy brings. My late fiancé died from SUDEP, a fatal complication of epilepsy, and before his death I watched seizures shred his attempts at living a full life. What I am against are therapies to make us stop flapping our hands or spinning in circles. I am against forbidding children to use sign language or AAC devices to communicate when speech is difficult. I am against any therapy designed to make us look “normal” or “indistinguishable from our peers.” My peers are Autistic and I am just fine with looking and sounding like them.

But seeing more clearly that we have always faced the barriers we face today has stirred some pride in being part of a people who survive against the odds. Seeing non-compliance pathologized by Nazi doctors makes me proud to belong to a people who resist oppression.

It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Max, for instance, based on your reading of Sheffer’s book, you said earlier, “Asperger called this non-compliant trait malicious, mean, and uncontrollable.” That’s partly true, but that’s also a result of Sheffer’s relentless cherry-picking, because at the same time, Asperger insisted that the non-compliance of his patients, and their tendency to rebel against authority, was at the heart of what he called “autistic intelligence,” and part of the gift they had to offer society.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Asperger’s thesis is when he asks an autistic boy in his clinic if he believes in God. “I don’t like to say I’m not religious,” the boy replies, “I just don’t have any proof of God.” That anecdote shows an appreciation of autistic non-compliance, which Asperger and his colleagues felt was as much a part of their patients’ autism as the challenges they faced. Asperger even anticipated in the 1970s that autistic adults who “valued their freedom” would object to behaviorist training, and that has turned out to be true.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

Sex Ed: Toxic Masculinity, Emotional Expression, Online Privacy, Identity Management, Dress Codes, Bodily Autonomy, and Purity Culture

Sex ed is a topic of discussion in our community right now as the school district takes input on updating the curriculum. The talk is, predictably, preoccupied with online predators and sexting. These are certainly valid concerns, but the conversations don’t get very structural.

#MeToo, #ChurchToo, #ShulToo, and #EmptyThePews have revealed pervasive abuse, harassment, and misconduct through the depth and breadth of our society. Companies, churches, shuls, schools, and all of our institutions have utterly failed girls and women. We need to teach inclusion and codes of conduct in K-12 and from the pulpit. We must stop raising MRAs, PUAs, and GamerGaters who reject inclusion and pluralism. These distillations of toxicity have turned social media into misogynist sties that harass and repel women.


Toxic Masculinity

Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is.


When getting structural, start by taking a look at our media. The most popular TV show, Big Bang Theory, is driven by toxic masculinity and ironic lampshading for misogyny.  The Pop Culture Detective has a great series of videos on toxic masculinity and emotional expression. Here are the episodes on Big Bang Theory.

And this is where ironic lampshading comes in, which is when media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant or overly clichéd aspect of their own production. Rather than writing different punchlines the writers attempt to duck any criticism by pointing out the sexism inherent in their own jokes themselves.

The technique of making something super obvious to viewers meant to let us know that the writers are self-aware and to make us feel like we’re all in on the joke. Most comedy writers know that retrograde style bigotry is no longer acceptable on primetime television, but they still want to use sexist, racist and homophobic jokes as an easy way to get cheap laughs. Ironic lampshading provides a clever way for them to keep getting away with it.

The problem with this comedic device is that, by itself, it doesn’t critique or challenge sexism homophobia or racism. It’s simply acknowledges it in a humorous way. Acknowledging bigotry is not the same as critiquing bigotry, especially when the punchlines end up making light of serious social issues like sexual harassment.

Source: The Adorkable Misogyny of The Big Bang Theory

But it’s just TV, you say? Well, the President of the United States is a sitcom misogynist performing his act for rallies full of people. They applaud his toxic worldview like laugh tracks to a sitcom.

Setup, punchline, applause. What we’re applauding are the pathologies we see in our schools. Treating women as pieces of meat who primarily exist for male pleasure is a message that comes at us from every level of society, including the bully pulpit (giving a new connotation to the phrase). When misogynists like Trump watch TV, they see people laughing along with characters doing what they do in real life. Marginalizing and harassing women is mass entertainment played for yucks, and we see the effects. This is our national pedagogy.

Normalization: The cultural process by which a particular attitude, ideology, or behavior becomes established and entrenched in social life. It’s the cultural process through which we come to expect and accept something as natural and normal.

Source: Donald Trump: The Sitcom Misogynist

“Toxic masculinity,” on the other hand, is a loose term that’s used to refer to a subset of those behaviors which are harmful or destructive. It’s often used as a sort of shorthand to describe behaviors linked to domination, humiliation, and control.

It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness.

It’s also connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors.

It’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation and violence.

Source: What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Emotional Expression and Detachment

The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.

Anger often hides depression and profound sorrow. Depression often masks the inability to grieve. Males are not given the emotional space to grieve. … Males are still being taught to keep it in and, worse, to deny that they feel like crying.

Unable to cope with the loss of emotional connection, boys internalize the pain and mask it with indifference or rage.

Source: The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks | Goodreads

The open expression of vulnerability is extremely gendered in Western media culture. Being emotional, especially crying, is seen as stereotypically feminine, as “girl stuff.” We’re all familiar with the stereotype that women are “over-emotional” or “irrational” or “too sensitive.” Now of course, that stereotype is complete nonsense. Everyone has these emotions and everyone has these feelings.

We’re taught that young men should bottle up most of their feelings. That anger or aggression may sometimes be permissible for some men in certain situations, but that vulnerability is strictly off limits because it’s been culturally associated with weakness. But on Steven Universe vulnerability is not equated with weakness, instead it’s simply equated with being a human being.

The lesson here is that men and boys don’t need to protect their loved ones from things that might scare them. Men don’t have to weather the storm alone. Instead we can work through life’s struggles together with our friends, our lovers, and our families.

It’s going to take a long time for us to collectively unlearn these harmful notions about detached manhood. But Steven’s open and emotionally expressive version of masculinity, that’s an inspirational example for us all.

Source: Emotional Expression on Steven Universe

Long before he donned the mask of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker is instructed to wear another mask: a mask of emotional invulnerability.

I want to underscore the message being presented here. Anakin’s feelings of pain and loss are understandable and completely normal. But instead of getting the emotional support he so desperately needs, this child is instead publicly shamed for expressing his feelings of grief and sadness. And that’s because emotional detachment is valued above all else in the Jedi Order. Young Jedi are instructed to sever all close emotional connections to the people they care about. They must learn to hide their feelings from others, to deny their emotional selves, and to always present a stoic exterior to the world.

Jedi philosophy gets it entirely backwards. Emotional detachment doesn’t prevent men from turning to the Dark Side. Emotional detachment is the cause of men turning to the Dark Side. In the end it’s the Jedi and their philosophy of emotional detachment that’s ultimately responsible for the creation of Darth Vader.

Listening to the teachings of Yoda and Obi-Wan is a guaranteed recipe for creating lonely, angry, broken people.

Source: The Case Against The Jedi

Online Privacy

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Online Privacy by @violetblue is a great resource for staying safe on the internet written with the problems girls face online in mind. Here’s a selection from chapter 4, “Female Trouble”.

When a woman gets hacked, she’s got a lot more to lose, and if Mat Honan were a woman, you can be almost certain that his experience of getting severely hacked would have been different. Not only would a girl go through everything Honan experienced, but on top of all that, she would also be subjected to gender targeting and all the ugly stuff that goes along with it. Think about your intimate photos of yourself, ranging from swimsuit shots and selfies with cleavage to the photos and videos that are meant only for the eyes of a person you trust. Such photos, in the hands of someone who doesn’t care about you or your safety (or worse, someone who gets off on hurting women), are disastrous, no matter how proud you are of your body, how sex-positive you may be, or how comfortable you feel with being sexy and strong at the same time. In this chapter, I’ll show you how to take charge of a situation in which your private content has been posted online maliciously or an attacker has otherwise attempted to compromise your reputation. This happens to people of all genders, but not as much as it happens to girls. Our gender makes us targets. Being “online while female” isn’t fair, but it’s a fact. Here’s how you can fight back.

Source: Blue, Violet. The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy: Practical Tips for Staying Safe Online (pp. 49-50). No Starch Press. Kindle Edition.

Find out:

  • Why appearing on “People Finder” websites isn’t as harmless as it seems.
  • What do do when a compromising photo of you ends up on the internet.
  • How to keep your address and phone number private from exes, stalkers and that creepy guy who just hit on you at the bar.
  • Why online privacy is just as important – if not more important – than your physical privacy.
  • What websites you can trust – and those you can’t.
  • The privacy holes that hurt working women most.
  • Common personal information you didn’t realize was on the internet.
  • How social media makes all those privacy questions on your bank/amazon/email recovery system moot.
  • How to find out if someone has been on your computer or in your email.

This book is especially for:

  • Women with online dating profiles.
  • Anyone on a job search.
  • Women looking to keep their personal life from leaking to their work.
  • Independent business people.
  • Parents – help show your kids what information they’re leaking.
  • Anyone concerned about family, social sharing and privacy.
  • Students facing social choices that might affect their future.
  • Anyone who’s ever sent a photo to someone they wish they hadn’t.

Source: THE BOOK | The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy

There are a variety of ways to purchase the book. I recommend it highly. Buy it not just for your daughters, but for your sons.

Password and Identity Management

“Password reuse is what really kills you,” says Diana Smetters, a software engineer at Google who works on authentication systems. “There is a very efficient economy for exchanging that information.”

Source: Kill the Password: A String of Characters Won’t Protect You | WIRED

According to security experts, today the industry is dealing with a password reuse crisis. In the past few weeks, account breaches have been reported by LinkedIn, Tumblr,, Fling and MySpace – bringing the total number of compromised accounts to more than 642 million.

“We know that attackers will go for the weakest link and that is any user who reuses their passwords. It’s a major problem,”

Source: No Simple Fix for Password Reuse

Social media sites are littered with seemingly innocuous little quizzes, games and surveys urging people to reminisce about specific topics, such as “What was your first job,” or “What was your first car?” The problem with participating in these informal surveys is that in doing so you may be inadvertently giving away the answers to “secret questions” that can be used to unlock access to a host of your online identities and accounts.

Source: Don’t Give Away Historic Details About Yourself — Krebs on Security

At most schools, student identities are protected by weak passwords trivially derived from usernames and reused everywhere. Once someone gets ahold of your email password, they can reset your passwords elsewhere and pwn your life. When you reuse passwords, a data leak on a forgotten site can be escalated into a takeover of your email and your identity.

We’re teaching kids bad habits from the get-go. The adults in their life are not modeling good practices. My piece “Privacy and Passwords” has some suggestions. It cribs from Chapter 10, “I Hate Passwords”, of the Smart Girl’s Guide. The TLDR version is: Don’t give away historic details about yourself, use a password manager, turn on two-factor authentication (especially for email), and never reuse passwords.

Dress Codes

Does your school reinforce harassment and rape culture with its dress codes? Yes, it does.

“I am not a distraction.”

It’s the statement that’s become a rallying cry across the burgeoning movement against inequitable school dress codes, a movement propelled largely by the young girls who are so often targeted by policies that label the parts of their bodies ― whether covered by yoga pants, spaghetti straps, gym shorts, leggings or tank tops ― as “distractions.”

But recently, Evanston Township High School in Illinois gained accolades for releasing an updated dress code that explicitly forbids body shaming and aims to diminish marginalization of students based on their “race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, cultural observance, household income or body type/size.”

Source: Sexist School Dress Codes Are A Problem, And Oregon May Have The Answer

  • No student should be affected by dress code enforcement because of racial identity, sex assigned at birth, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious identity, household income, body size/type, or body maturity.
  • School staff shall not enforce the school’s dress code more strictly against transgender and gender nonconforming students than other students.
  • Students should not be shamed or required to display their body in front of others (students, parents, or staff) in school. “Shaming” includes, but is not limited to:
    • kneeling or bending over to check attire fit;
    • measuring straps or skirt length;
    • asking students to account for their attire in the classroom or in hallways in front of others;
    • calling out students in spaces, in hallways, or in classrooms about perceived dress code violations in front of others; in particular, directing students to correct sagged pants that do not expose the entire undergarment, or confronting students about visible bra straps, since visible waistbands and straps on undergarments are permitted; and,
    • accusing students of “distracting” other students with their clothing.

Source: Back-to-School Information / Student Dress Code

We sexualize and racialize bodies through dress codes that target specific people while simultaneously maintaining that these one-dimensional standards are universal. All the while, do we ever consider exactly how a dress code benefits student success and the greater good of education? I was once suspended for wearing my hat in the hallway. I missed two days of school and the only learning I soaked in was that the school and the real world were two distinct places in which one of them pissed me off exponentially more than the other.

We should be thinking about ways to engage all learners in education. We should teach that there is a time and place for particular aesthetics, but I question whether or not that should be done through a dress code policy. Perhaps explicit teaching practice that fosters student awareness on the complexities of cultural appropriateness, spatial or social awareness, and for lack of a better term, “playing the game of school” (which translates into the “game” of life, at least, arguably, from a cultural standpoint) is a better route to take. If you think a dress code is appropriate, bring every stakeholder to the table and have an honest discussion. Do not rely on the so-called gaze of the powerful and privileged to dictate what is and is not acceptable. If we allow this, it is clear how and who such a policy affects.

Source: Decoding School Dress Codes – March For Public Education – Medium

Bodily Autonomy

Anything that erodes bodily autonomy reinforces rape culture. Bodily autonomy is a human rights and social justice framework that can unite movements.

Because I wrote a book about women’s sexuality, a journalist recently asked me,”What do women need, for really great sex?”

I said, “Basic bodily autonomy.”

But I want to amend that answer.

First, what do I mean by basic bodily autonomy?

It’s not just control over the decision of whether and when to have any kind of sex - though it is that; the conservative, low estimate is that one in four women will experience sex and relationship violence, compared to one in six men.

For great sex, women need basic bodily autonomy - not being punished (raped or mudered) or judged or shamed, either when we say yes or when we say no. And that will only happen fully when men stop measuring their own worth in terms of their access to women’s sexual bodies. So we need that, too.

Source: Me too – Emily Nagoski – Medium

Now, many sex ed programs venture beyond basic anatomy and biology (and condoms on bananas), to help young people understand healthy sexuality, from gender identity to bodily autonomy.

Backed by the momentum of #MeToo – which exposed the prevalence of sexual violence – many sex educators say programs should begin earlier and cover more emotional, intellectual and social elements of sexual health.

Source: Sex ed: Not what your parents remember. And #metoo may change it again

“Bodily autonomy,” as an abstract philosophical principle, dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosophers. Over the centuries, legal scholars and political philosophershave thought hard about the relationship between rights and laws, the individual and the group, and the sovereign state and the autonomous individual. In American activist circles, bodily autonomy is most often invoked around the fight for reproductive rights. But what I haven’t seen is an effort to harness this principle in a way that binds our seemingly separate movements together.

Let’s start with the disability piece. I’m the father of a boy with Down syndrome. My concerns for him and for the extended disabled community include opposition to institutionalization, forced sterilization and other eugenic practices, involuntary surgery, mandatory drug regimes, denial of rights for disabled parents, protection for disabled children from violent caregivers and teachers, and lack of accommodations for non-typical bodies. In each case, these issues require a government that refrains from coercing disabled bodies and protects disabled bodies from private coercion. Bodily autonomy extends over these seemingly quite disparate issues.

Source: My Body, My Choice: Why the Principle of Bodily Autonomy Can Unite the Left | The Nation

Purity Culture

And, finally, the big nasty: purity culture. “Purity culture is rape culture in its Sunday best.” I will let ex-evangelicals speak to this.

Any appropriate response to #ChurchToo and the problem of sexual assault and abuse in religious communities necessitates the total dismantling and rejecting of purity culture. Lest my words not be taken as radically as I mean them in my heart, what I mean is that we absolutely must stop believing in and teaching that:

A. Total sexual abstinence is morally mandated and required by God until marriage

B. Being heterosexual and cisgendered is “God’s best” and LGBTQ identities are a symptom of “broken” sexuality

C. Women have the responsibility to dress modestly to avoid causing others to stumble

D. Men are to be the leaders in the church and the family, and women are to follow their lead

The heartbreak, the dysfunction, the mental illnesses, the broken families, the lost lives of queer kids, the shame and self-loathing that sticks with you for life no matter how far away you get. Purity culture has blood on its hands – which is why calls to “reach across the theological aisle” are as offensive as they are ludicrous. You can’t “work for change” alongside those who don’t believe you’re fully human or that you’re fundamentally broken because you’re not like them – especially when they are so unwilling to admit that that is what they actually believe that they would rather call their hatred “love” than admit that their theology mandates behavior that is the farthest thing in the world from loving. We can’t agree on basic terms and definitions with Christians entrenched in purity culture – we are not even using the same words to mean the same basic and essential things. Concepts like “love” “God” “Jesus” “knowledge” “right” and “wrong” lose all meaningfulness in the rubric of purity culture that sorts the morality of actions based on whether they align with one’s narrow and limited interpretation of a holy text, not based on whether they contribute to greater human love and flourishing. And ultimately, if we don’t have that, then all we have is the empty promise of being rescued from a made-up hell in exchange for 70 years of being miserable and making others miserable here on earth. And that’s not good enough for me.

Source: What’s Purity Culture Got To Do With It? — Emily Joy Poetry

This purity culture has deep, oppressing consequences. When women fight for access to birth control by citing non-contraceptive uses-polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, amenorrhea-as if a prescription for its use to simply enjoy sex without getting pregnant is a moral failing-we see the reach of this problem, of how we think about women’s sexuality. Women who’ve suffered female genital mutilation are victims of this virginity fetish, too.

Rape culture and purity culture are two sides of the same coin, where women lose no matter the outcome of the toss. And God forbid a woman find herself in a situation where there is no escape, where the safest option of the moment is submission: she’ll be whispered about and judged by both sides, and when she’s not dismissed as a liar, she’s considered a whore. There is no room for context or understanding-only guilt, shame, and blame. When the choice is between being physically or morally devalued, silence can seem the wisest, least threatening choice.

Source: It’s time we addressed our society’s toxic ‘purity culture’ –

But the purity movement isn’t all witty underpants and daughters dancing on their fathers’ shoes. The same tenets that underpin purity culture-namely, rigid beliefs about gender and sexuality-are also the features that sustain rape culture. And the negative outcomes are as multifaceted as my purity ring: sexual shame, self-loathing, fear-based morality, and marked ignorance about sexual concepts.

One researcher describes the cost of purity culture as deep sexual shame and self-loathing so intense that she compares it to survivors of childhood sexual assault. An alumnus of a radicalized Christian college reports that the majority of women who graduate from the school cannot label their own anatomies or explain the basics of sex. For young adults kept woefully ignorant by abstinence initiatives, more advanced topics like consent and coercion are even more obscured.

In assessing the efficacy of purity vows, the findings are also grim. Researchers using those tallied pledge cards report no differences between virginity pledgers and control adolescents in terms of sexual behaviors. It turns out true love doesn’t wait-and it also doesn’t use condoms. Adolescents who sign virginity pledges are much less likely to use birth control or condoms and are at increased risk for both pregnancy and STIs.

One team of researchers, tasked with evaluating the arc of abstinence-only initiatives, decries abstinence programs as a threat to adolescents’ fundamental rights. They also note that the programs “reinforce gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness,” highlighting a distinct similarity between purity culture and rape culture.

Source: Evangelical Christian Campuses Are Kissing Consent Goodbye | Bitch Media

Evangelical Purity Culture is an exercise in controlling female sexual desire.

Source: How Evangelical Purity Culture Sacrifices Female Pleasure — Fundamentally Free

Billy Graham gave misogynistic evangelical purity culture his considerably authoritative imprimatur, contributing to the psychological scars left on many ex-evangelicals who are now speaking out against the community we were raised in.

Source: In Billy We Trust? How “America’s Pastor” Birthed Our New Theocratic Wave | Playboy

I haven’t read this book yet, but I see it recommended in #exvangelical circles: A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality

Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

I try to write and accept feedback with an open posture of “strong opinions, weakly held”, advocating for what I believe but ready to change and refine with new information. Letting go of or altering our pet notions is difficult. Confirmation bias is a cozy blanket. Practice at being wrong in public helps develop the necessary critical distance.

There is so much to know and so many perspectives and angles. None of us are experts, not really. We’re all amateurs on learning curves approaching infinity. We can distill in our writing only the merest fraction of what we know, and what we know is the merest fraction of what there is to know. Write strongly while knowing our ignorance and knowing the curve goes on forever.

A couple years ago, I was talking to the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Source: Strong Opinions, Weakly Held – Bob Sutton

Everything in software is so new and so frequently being reinvented that almost nobody really knows what they are doing. It is amateurs who make all the progress.

When it comes to software development, if you profess expertise, if you pitch yourself as an authority, you’re either lying to us, or lying to yourself. In our heart of hearts, we know: the real progress is made by the amateurs. They’re so busy living software they don’t usually have time to pontificate at length about the breadth of their legendary expertise. If I’ve learned anything in my career, it is that approaching software development as an expert, as someone who has already discovered everything there is to know about a given topic, is the one surest way to fail.

Experts are, if anything, more suspect than the amateurs, because they’re less honest.

I’ll never be one of the best. But what I lack in talent, I make up in intensity.

To me, writing without a strong voice, writing filled with second guessing and disclaimers, is tedious and difficult to slog through. I go out of my way to write in a strong voice because it’s more effective. But whenever I post in a strong voice, it is also an implied invitation to a discussion, a discussion where I often change my opinion and invariably learn a great deal about the topic at hand. I believe in the principle of strong opinions, weakly held.

So when you read one of my posts, please consider it a strong opinion weakly held, a mock fight between fellow amateurs of equal stature, held in an Octagon where everyone retains their sense of humor, has an open mind, and enjoys a spirited debate where we all learn something.

Source: Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

As leaders we should always question new ideas and ensure they’re supported by fact. However, when there is mounting evidence and experience that shows our ideas and beliefs are wrong, we should not resist change. This is why wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.

When dealing with the complex practices of strategy, leadership and innovation in an uncertain and changing environment wise leaders keep their strong opinions, weakly held.

Strong opinions are not fundamental truths. Rather opinions are a working hypothesis used to guide your thinking, decisions and actions.

Wise leaders emphasise experimentation over theory. They understand that experimentation is a requirement for agility.

The fastest way of moving into the future is through defining and validating a series of hypotheses. Formulate an hypothesis based on the best available information – adopt a strong opinion. Then act, seeking feedback, adjusting as you go – weakly held.

Source: Wise Leaders Keep Strong Opinions, Weakly Held • George Ambler

The point of forecasting is not to attempt illusory certainty, but to identify the full range of possible outcomes. Try as one might, when one looks into the future, there is no such thing as “complete” information, much less a “complete” forecast. As a consequence, I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information. Iterate the process a few times, and it is surprising how quickly one can get to a useful forecast.

Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect – this is the “strong opinion” part. Then -and this is the “weakly held” part- prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that point in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.

Source: Strong Opinions weakly held : Paul Saffo