Lately on Facebook I have seen babies, babies, babies, and more babies. As far as I'm concerned-- and at the risk of, perhaps, alienating half my audience-- newborn babies generally look the same and look ugly (And no, I was not exempt from this rule as an infant). Inevitably, when somebody posts a million pictures of his/her newborn on Facebook, a flurry of "He's so cute," or "She's perfect!" dominates the comments sections of these pictures. I seriously wonder how many people genuinely are honest when they post these comments. Maybe a few, maybe even most, but not all. In fact, it's largely a social grace, a lie-- and presumably the new parents know that they're merely hearing a social grace rather than an honest opinion-- and perhaps a form of reciprocal altruism that is prevalent in social species.
Don't let the title of the blog entry fool you-- I'm not going to write, "Your baby is ugly" when I see pictures of babies posted on Facebook. But I'm not going to tell a boldfaced lie and say that s/he's "perfect" or "cute." If I want to be supportive, I'll say things that I really mean, such as, "I know you'll be a good mom/dad."
Quite frankly, routine social graces feel phony to me, and I hate small talk. Dr. Jack Kevorkian once commented that he disliked small talk and also said that he hated how people routinely lie to each other in ways that I just described; these complaints are common among people with Asperger's syndrome which is one of many reasons why I think Dr. Kevorkian had AS. Call me cold, but when I go to work and bump into someone I barely know, I don't care how they are. No, that doesn't mean I wish them ill, but I am really ambivalent to how they're doing, and I think if people were more honest with themselves they would agree. If somebody I barely know asks me how I am, I say, "Hey, what's going on?" That more casual greeting feels less phony to me than, "How are you?" At a job interview, I do say, "How are you?" because, unfortunately, successful job interviews are laced with phoniness.
Is it cold for me to say that I am ambivalent that a casual acquaintance's mother is in the hospital? Here, I do conform to this social grace by saying, "Is she going to be okay?" because it is a profound situation, but I forget about it two seconds later. Does that sound insensitive?
It occurred to me recently that if I managed to do something to change the world for the better, ultimately my happiness about this would be in sheer pride more than, "I'm glad that other people are doing better," or "I'm glad that they are suffering less." Although I would be glad about these things, ultimately it would be a real boost for my ego. What about that? Does that sound selfish? I'm reminded of another Dr. Kevorkian moment. In 1998, when Dr. Kevorkian was on 60 Minutes after he injected one of his patients directly, he told the host, Mike Wallace, "I'm fighting for me, Mike. Me. This is a right I want. I'm 71... I'll be 71. You don't know what'll happen when you get older. I may end up terribly suffering. I want some colleague to be free to come help me [to die] when I say the time has come. That's why I'm fighting, for me. Now that sounds selfish. And if it helps everybody else, so be it." Mike Wallace, and many other interviewers, also said that when they talked to Kevorkian privately, they found him to be a very compassionate man. So why would he say something brazen like that if he didn't care about his patients? Obviously I can't get inside his mind, but I think in those four sentences he summed up what I'm saying here-- You may care about other people, but in the end you're the person you care about the most. He cared about his patients, but ultimately he wanted the right to die for himself. I think he was just more honest about his motives than most people in his situation would be.
Reciprocal altruism is, I think, why we pretend to be incredibly upset that the mother of somebody who we barely know is in the hospital or that we think somebody's ugly baby is cute. Yes, caring about the person, even to a minimal extent (depending on your relationship with them) may be part of it, but in the end it's about you. If you pretend to be more upset than you are about an acquaintance's mother being in the hospital, that person will like you better and be more likely to help you if you need it. Same thing if you pretend to think somebody's ugly baby is cute.
And how many of you who cry at funerals really do it because you feel badly for the person rather than that you simply miss them? I think if people were more honest they would admit that they cry at funerals for themselves, not for the deceased.
I think people with Asperger's are just more honest about their motives and how they really feel and are more aware of it because these social graces were not something that they acquired unconsciously but something that had to be taught to them.
There is no such thing as true altruism.