Conquering Gaze from Nowhere: Meritocracy Myths, Marked Bodies, and Spoiled Identities

The interpretation of objectivity as neutral does not allow for participation or stances. This uninvolved, uninvested approach implies “a conquering gaze from nowhere” (Haraway 1988). In many ways, claims of objectivity allow one to “represent while escaping representation” (Haraway 1988) and mimics the construction of Whiteness2 in the racialization of marginalized peoples (Battey and Leyva 2016; Guess 2006). Indeed, there is extensive evidence suggesting that STEM cultural norms are traditionally White, masculine, heteronormative and able-bodied (Atchison and Libarkin 2016; Chambers 2017; Eisenhart and Finkel 1998; Johnson 2001; Nespor 1994; Seymour and Hewitt 1997; Traweek 1988). Thus, while purporting to be a neutral application of a generic protocol, science-and STEM more broadly-has a distinct set of cultures that governs legitimate membership and acceptable behaviors. The concept of a meritocracy is often used to justify who succeeds in STEM cultures. However, far from “leveling the playing field”, meritocracies exist in cultural systems that prioritize people who have, or to a lesser extent closely emulate, these traits. Success in science, then, tends to privilege cultural traits associated with the above identities and often marginalizes scientists who can not or will not perform these identities. This introduces structural inequities in the pursuit of science that align with social manifestations of racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and ableism (Cech and Pham 2017; Wilder 2014).

Source: Genealogy | Free Full-Text | Defining the Flow—Using an Intersectional Scientific Methodology to Construct a VanguardSTEM Hyperspace | HTML

I love that paragraph on objectivity and meritocracy. It resonates with my experiences of meritocracy myth objectivity in STEM, big tech, Silicon Valley, open source, and rationalist communities. I bought a copy of Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” to get “a conquering gaze from nowhere” and “represent while escaping representation” in context.

I would insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. This is the gaze that mythically inscribes all the marked bodies, that makes the un-marked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation.

Source: Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective on JSTOR

That requires some unpacking, but really gets to the heart of it. The “power to see and not be seen” comes up in journalism regarding any reporter reporting on their own community. It comes up in autism research regarding autistic autism researchers and in conversations between autistic parents and parents of autistics.

Haraway’s “marked bodies” reminds me of “spoiled identities” and the masking required to fit into “cultural systems that prioritize people who have, or to a lesser extent closely emulate, these traits.”

With a pathologized status comes the experience of stigma, dehumanization, and marginalization. Stigma refers to the possession of an attribute that marks persons as disgraced or ‘‘discreditable,’’ marking their identity as ‘‘spoiled.’’ Stigmatized persons may attempt to conceal these spoiled aspects of their identity from others, attempting to ‘‘pass’’ as normal. Investigation of ‘‘passing’’ and ‘‘concealment’’ has been explored in depth in other stigmatized populations; however, the application of stigma in autism research is a relatively new endeavor. Stigma impacts both on how an individual is viewed and treated by others and how that treatment is internalized and interacts with one’s identity.

Source: A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice

Those “who can not or will not perform these identities” are marginalized, and those who can are exhausted. Those who attempt to advocate for themselves are discredited by the conquering gaze.

Meritocracy is a myth.

Masking for a false meritocracy is exhausting.

The “objectivity as neutral” conceit of the “conquering gaze from nowhere” leads to discrediting marginalized people and, in turn, to some “bloody regressive politics”, as we saw with New Atheism.

From my perspective, though, the deepest of the rifts was the emerging anti-feminist wing and the active neglect of social justice issues.

I realized it’s destination was where it is now: a shambles of alt-right memes and dishonest hucksters mangling science to promote racism, sexism, and bloody regressive politics.

Source: The train wreck that was the New Atheism

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Previously:

Type Integrity: Falsification of Type, Prolonged Adaptation Stress Syndrome, Minority Stress, Masking, and Burnout

Prolonged Adaptation Stress Syndrome is what happens when someone pretends to be something they’re not on an everyday basis. It is exhausting and soul-eating. This greatly contributes to the high level of mental illness in the trans community or autistic burnout in the neurodiverse community.

Source: ysabetwordsmith | Poem: “Type Integrity”

Well said, and with interesting links I’ll quote from below.


For purposes of sharing her observations in a more formal manner, Taylor arrived at the acronym PASS, Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome, to describe the eight commonly observed symptoms that may be present in varying degrees in individuals who have spent years living an energy-exhausting lifestyle.

  1. Fatigue
  2. Hypervigilance
  3. Immune System Suppression
  4. Reduced Function of the Frontal Lobes
  5. Altered Neurochemistry
  6. Memory Problems
  7. Discouragement or Depression
  8. Self-Esteem Problems

Source: Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome (PASS) – Arlene R Taylor PhD, Realizations Inc

That wasn’t written specifically about autistic masking and burnout, but it sure does resonate.

Related:


we call “falsification of type” the development of some typological attitudes that allow the creation of an adaptive functional persona, through the repression of our “natural” gifts. This adaptive persona is developed for the sake of acceptance and adaptation to different environmental contexts.

Sometimes it is difficult to realize one’s natural gifts, due to an over-identification with an adaptive persona. And a person might be extremely good and skilled with “false gifts” since they were trained and developed over a long time.

The way to encountering the deeper Self and ones natural gifts is not necessarily thinking about what one is good at, but rather noticing what brings enjoyment, meaningfulness, abiding pleasure, ease and peace. Each of us knows, at a deep level, what brings those qualities, independent of how much space and time they have in our lives. They are qualities of being, not qualities born from living falsely.

Source: Falsification and the Un-lived Life – Giftcompass

Again, that wasn’t written specifically about autistic masking, but “over-identification with an adaptive persona” sounds like my life before learning about masking and burnout from other autistic people.


As we come to understand depression in the transgender community more accurately, it’s become clear that the major cause is what’s referred to as “minority stress;” that is, “stressors induced by a hostile, homophobic culture, which often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.” The good news, then, is that as social relations and culture change over time, negative attitudes toward transgender people may be reduced, which will then reduce the stressors which trigger anxiety and depression.

Source: When Worlds Collide – Mental Illness Within the Trans Community — Lionheart

Related:

Why are there greater mental health stresses on autistic people from gender-minority groups? To quote from the research paper,

“The increased rates of mental health problems in these minority populations are often a consequence of the stigma and marginalisation attached to living outside mainstream sociocultural norms (Meyer 2003). This stigma can lead to what Meyer (2003) refers to as ‘minority stress’. This stress could come from external adverse events, which among other forms of victimization could include verbal abuse, acts of violence, sexual assault by a known or unknown person, reduced opportunities for employment and medical care, and harassment from persons in positions of authority (Sandfort et al. 2007).”

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Transgender and Avoiding Tragedy


I’ve experienced several moments of burnout in my life and career. Being something that I neurologically am not is exhausting. Wearing the mask of neurotypicality drains my batteries and melts my spoons. For a long time, for decades, I didn’t fully understand what was going on with me. I didn’t understand the root causes of my cycles of burnout. Finding the Actually Autistic community online woke me to the concept of autistic burnout. When I found the community writing excerpted below, I finally understood an important part of myself. Looking back on my life, I recognized those periods when coping mechanisms had stopped working and crumbled. I recognized my phases and changes as continuous fluid adaptation.

Source: Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Masking and Passing – Ryan Boren

Oh, hey, that’s me. 🙂

This sparks a future blog post idea: “Continuous fluid adaptation” and “over-identification with an adaptive persona”


Let’s conclude with a snippet from the poem that started this post and gave it its title.

So many others were encouraged

to throw off a false role and free

themselves from expectations,

empowering themselves

to find their own path.

Source: ysabetwordsmith | Poem: “Type Integrity”

Throwing off the false roles of adaptive personas “developed for the sake of acceptance” sure does feel good. I work toward a future where everyone is safe to do so.

Social Compensation and the Costs of Masking and Passing

On social compensation and the costs of masking and passing:

Even for people with a diagnosis, a neurotypical appearance due to compensation might result in support needs being underestimated in educational and workplace settings. Additionally, compensation is thought to contribute to poor mental health in autism. Compensatory attempts are taxing, need to be sustained over time, and are often unsuccessful, resulting in a cost to wellbeing.

Despite potential negative consequences, compensation was still considered to be important for increasing life opportunities, and thereby having a role in society (subtheme). Compensation enabled individuals to perform daily tasks that involved communicating with others (eg, accessing services) and to seek employment. Some participants, however, stressed that although compensatory strategies facilitated gaining employment (eg, in interviews), they were not always sufficient to maintain employment and switching jobs was often necessary. Additionally, cognitive demands of using compensatory strategies throughout the working day were reported to affect participants’ ability to perform daily living tasks, so they incurred personal costs while pursuing a role in society.

Source: Compensatory strategies below the behavioral surface in autism: a qualitative study – The Lancet Psychiatry

The paper identifies 8 themes and 18 subthemes for why we engage in social compensation. I particularly relate to the “Costs vs benefits”, “Deep compensation”, “Cognitive tasking”, “Environmental demands”, “Behavioural masking”, “Interaction is two-way”, “Late diagnosis”, and “On ongoing challenge” subthemes. I’m curious if the folks in the “Things are better now” subtheme remain there later in life or if they finally experience burnout.

The paper uses the term “social compensation” instead of the autistic community colloquial term “masking”. It identifies “behavioral masking” as a theme of “social compensation”. Here’s the distinction:

Compensation was distinguishable from behavioural masking (theme). Whereas compensation generated new social behaviours, masking regulated existing behaviours, such as decreasing social behaviours thought by society to be undesirable (eg, talking too much) and increasing behaviours thought to be desirable (eg, smiling). Masking strategies were simple and often automatic, and allowed blending into the background, but were less effective in supporting social interaction. Masking was considered less autism-specific than compensation, given that neurotypical people show masking when required (eg, hiding controversial opinions).

To modulate compensatory efforts, many participants described compensating after logically assessing the costs versus benefits (subtheme). For example, compensation was considered worthwhile to make a positive impression towards a friendship, but not for interactions with inconsequential strangers. In superficial interactions, masking was preferred over compensatory strategies to conserve resources.

Thanks @HappeLab and team for doing this needed work.

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See also: Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Masking and Passing