Human societies are characterised by abstract group identities, from local communities, to favourite sports teams, employers, professions, social class, languages, dialects, tribes, countries, online groups, brand loyalty, etc.
Every identifiable group identity is characterised by specific behavioural cultural norms, only some of which are explicitly stated and acknowledged. People who identify with a group are expected to conform with the explicit and implicit behavioural code.
What is only rarely talked about in mainstream society is the effort that it takes individuals to conform to a multitude of group identities, especially if the social norms associated with different identities are incompatible, and to some extent contradict each other.
Autistic people, who do not subconsciously pick up implicit social norms and the meaning of non verbal social signals are acutely aware of the mental effort needed to conform to social norms and of the inconsistencies and conflicts between various norms. As a result, autistic people are much less motivated to subscribe to any group identity, and experience any group demands for conformance with arbitrary rules that serve no obvious purpose (other than a confirmation of identity) as a significant mental burden.
The masking that goes hand in hand with attempts to comply with arbitrary and often implicit social norms is increasingly recognised by the autistic community as a key reason for autistic burn-out and suicide. However, trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community.
It is well established that growing levels of social inequality correlate with a rise in mental health issues, and the root cause may well relate to the formation of increasingly absurd group identities and associated signals of social status that make it acceptable to exclude the less fortunate. Research by anthropologist David Graeber confirms that masking also takes a significant toll on those who copy and comply with social norms without any conscious effort:
“Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers—as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie—as, indeed, it is.”
The last 100 years can be described as the age of advertising and marketing, which is fuelled by industrialised production of group identities – think brands, and by in-group competition – think financial capitalism. From evolutionary biology we know that in-group competition has negative survival value – it is the opposite of intelligent behaviour. It seems that this insight is finally filtering through to the social world of busyness as usual.
Especially at work, it is time to drop the mask
A couple of weeks ago, as part of Techweek NZ, I reflected on the insights gathered by the CIIC community over the last three years, and talked about the challenges that transcend the established silos of industry, government and academia. The discussions with audiences in Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, and Christchurch confirmed that it is time to shift from a culture of sick busyness to an appreciation of the value of life. You can watch the synopsis of a corresponding webinar below.
In New Zealand we can read about shocking mental health statistics every week, and we have significant problems with workplace bullying in the healthcare sector and in other industries.
Advanced automation gives us the choice between imagining, creating, and living in cruel worlds and imagining, creating, and living in compassionate worlds.
We have a choice!
The CIIC community is looking forward to your perspectives and insights on human, non-human, and ecosystem health.
Join us on 9 June and on 16 June 2018 in open space to explore the challenges and elements of potential solutions at AUT Colab in Auckland and at RMIT in Melbourne. At each workshop we discuss one or more wicked problems that have been submitted by participants.