Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings and Depression

I've been struggling with depression a bit recently. Not down there with the worst I've been through, and even my lowest moments don't really compare with what some people suffer, but after two years pretty much free of the thing its not a lot of fun.

In the process I've been reminded of some of the things people do, clearly with out meaning to that make these bouts worse. I'm not sure how unusual I am in this. I've never read anyone else talk about these sorts of interactions as particularly troublesome, but I figure that if they are common they're worth mentioning because it really shouldn't be hard for readers to avoid doing them.

Greetings are a particular problem for me. Being bothered by greetings and goodbye's is supposed to be one of the marks of Asperger's, and its something that has always made me self diagnose on that point. In particular I'm troubled by the vague questions that seem impossible to answer. A particular bugbear is "What's happening?" A perfectly reasonable query from someone arriving late at an event, but really frustrating when you run into someone and they fire it at you with no obvious context. I have absolutely no idea how one is supposed to answer. Should you talk about the current state of geopolitics, discuss the last five minutes of your life, of give them an update of what has happened to you since you last saw them.

This is actually quite stressful for me at any time, because if I'm supposed to do one of these I don't really want to get it wrong. Sometimes I can make a joke out of it, but that effort is usually beyond me when I'm depressed. It all feels like there is some secret handshake and if I don't know the correct response I'm being failed as a human being.

Even the standard "How are you?", fine normally, can be a problem when I'm depressed. If the person asking is someone I'm not close to I take it as a totally boilerplate greeting and answer "fine, and you?" It's not true of course, but I figure they don't really want to know, its just a piece of politeness. If the person is someone I'm really close to I might confess how I'm really feeling. Where it really hurts is if its someone I'm close enough to that I don't want to lie to them - as they might really care - but not close enough I feel I can burden them with my worries. I once had someone look on me with amazement when I literally writhed in pain after he asked this question. I just wasn't sure which way to go.

Nevertheless, as a rule I think the "How are you?" is polite without being demanding. What I really hate is some of the more intrusive inquiries. On one occasion a friend of friends asked me "So what brilliant things have you been doing lately?" No maybe he says this to everyone - its his own boilerplate. Or maybe based on our one and a half previous conversations he really does think I do brilliant things all the time. But the problem was that at the time I was deeply anxious about how little I had achieved in the last two months. If someone had offered me a noose and a handy hanging point right then, I reckon it might have been all over red rover. I've avoided the guy ever since, and I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm terribly rude.

The worst aspect of this is when I don't answer the question properly, and the inquisitor gives me a sort of stare, that is apparently meant to mean: You haven't answered my question, instead treating it as a routine greeting. I demand you give me a full explanation of your state of being forthwith, because I have the right to do this. Twenty-five years of non-violence behind me and I swear one day I am going to slap someone who does this.

The worst aspect of this is social situations where there are a mix of people, some of whom are genuine friends and some who are likely to do this sort of thing. Yesterday I was feeling pretty down and remembered a social event of exactly this nature. I knew that some of the people there would cheer me up, but attending meant desperately navigating around, trying to avoid those likely to greet me this way. I nearly didn't go, and the soothing presence of friends was almost entirely counter-balanced by the other factors.

I suppose a different personality would say "I find it really intrusive when you ask questions like that," but most of the time that's not me.

So for anyone who knows me in real life, consider this a head's up. And if you don't, you might want to think about how what you say affects those given to glumness and a certain literalness of interpretation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Misreading the By-elections

One of the odd things about the post-mortems written on the Higgins and Bradfield by-elections is the common assumption that the starting point for the Greens should be the combination of the Green and Labor votes in 2007.

In some cases this is just people who hate the Greens setting an ridiculously high bar so they can gloat about it not being reached, but the extraordinary thing is that some people actually seem to believe it, including some Greens who are downcast that it was not achieved.

It’s rather hard to imagine why anyone would expect such a thing. The ALP is many things, but amongst those it is the party of Martin Ferguson and Michael O’Connor, of Dick Adams and Gary Gray and Peter Walsh. It is the party which for 15 years sent Graeme Campbell to Canberra. On the issues the Greens ran on - climate change and refugees – all these people are well to the right of Malcolm Turnbull and some of them are more hardline than Tony Abbott. It’s unlikely any of them would vote Green ahead of a Liberal, particularly a moderate such as Kelly O’Dwyer. Why would one expect the voters they represent to do so?

The people who voted Labor in Higgins in 2007 had 12 options before them. To vote Green, or Liberal or for one of eight other candidate, or informalise their vote or to not turn up and risk a fine. By far the largest portion chose the Greens. We’ll have to wait for all the prepoll and postal votes to come in, but it appears that those who didn’t turn up are a very, very comfortable second. Those who chose the Liberals don’t seem much more numerous than those who chose the DLP or the Sex Party.

In Bradfield there were 24 options, and the Greens again streeted the field, although it seems the fine-riskers may have been closer to the rest of the pack.

The closest thing I can find to a justification for the expectation that the Greens will pick up almost all Labor voters is the theory that voters are tribal, and with generations of hating the Liberals in their blood Labor voters will always back the most obvious opponent. It’s an odd theory, when you consider that the Liberal vote has declined in Higgins over recent years. Some of this may be new people moving in, but mostly its former Liberal voters shifting their first preference. Not a lot of tribal loyalty there.

What’s more the conclusion is totally a-historical. Consider two elections in Liberal held seats in which neither the Greens nor Labor ran. In Menzies the Democrats took 22%, and two other candidates got 10.2%, of which a little over half flowed to the Democrats on preferences. The combined Labor and Democrat vote at the previous election had been 39.5%, so the Democrat primary was barely half this figure.

In Warringah in 1993 the ALP and Democrats combined for 38.1%. Two years later the Democrats got 15.9%. An extraordinary 13.5% voted informal. If so many Labor voters wouldn’t support the Democrats over a Liberal when the Democrats were in their hey-day, why would you expect them to all back the Greens now? Note that the Liberal candidates in those cases were Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott – possibly less attractive figures to Labor votes than O’Dwyer.