What’s the worst Godwin fail you’ve heard all year?
There’s a lot of it about, but I am quite sure you’ll all have no trouble agreeing that the story that’s about to follow is one of the worst you’ve heard in a long, long time.
A Tale of Two Cousins
The Autism Research Centre is directed (as things stand currently, for now) by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University. Amusing as it sounds, Professor Baron-Cohen is indeed a relation of Sacha Baron-Cohen. As many readers will be aware, Professor Baron-Cohen’s cousin is a flamboyantly controversial comedian, whose bizarre and whimsical alter-egos are known all over the world for their demented ravings, and their consistently side-splitting foot-in-mouth gaffes. Among other half-hilarious, half-tragic creations, we have the flippantly dismissive yardie hooligan Ali G, the tasteless, embittered shade-thrower Bruno and the unintentionally comic buffoon and sanctified idiot, Borat.
However, Simon Baron-Cohen is absolutely nothing like his namesake; for unlike his court jester kinsman, he is very much a pillar of the intellectual and scientific establishment, rather than some kind of Swiftian satirist or Voltairean troublemaker.
And it is precisely for this reason (to wit, that the publicly expressed views of Professor Baron-Cohen carry more weight than that of some perpetually outraged Twitter egg) that his recent autism comments are as morally unacceptable as anything I have ever read about my disability, bar none.
I am disgusted by the #EndAutismNow campaign. This is hate speech and eugenics. How is this different to the Nazi EndJewsNow (1939-45) & the KKK white supremacist EndBlacksNow campaigns (1860-2018)? Treat symptoms in autistic people that cause suffering, but don't prevent autism
— Simon Baron-Cohen (@sbaroncohen) August 11, 2018
Some context is required here.
Context #1: The Autism Wars.
I am disgusted by the #EndAutismNow campaign. This is hate speech and eugenics. How is this different to the Nazi EndJewsNow (1939-45) & the KKK white supremacist EndBlacksNow campaigns (1860-2018)? Treat symptoms in autistic people that cause suffering, but don’t prevent autism.
Some individuals with autism want a cure for autism, and I am among them; just as there are people with other medical conditions and disabilities who want a cure. There are also some anti-cure individuals. The latter often support the ideology of Neurodiversity, which is essentially the view that autism should not be ‘pathologised,’ i.e. treated as a disease, or a lack, or a disability. Instead, one ought to ‘celebrate diversity,’ and not set up a hierachy between the neurology deemed regular or standard (i.e. that of the ‘neurotypical’ person) versus all the other neurologies that diverge from it (i.e. the neurologies of ‘neurodivergent’ people).
In other words, people are not just deemed ‘divergent,’ as a fact; but also ‘diverse,’ as a value judgment.
Neurodivergent people include, among others, those with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, narcissism, sociopathy, psychopathy, post-traumatic stress disorder, dyspraxia. All these conditions, mental illnesses or disabilities are to be celebrated as natural human differences that make up a rich tapestry of neurological diversity, rather than to be criticised, stigmatised or cured.
Of course, to do this, one has to avoid being selective; i.e, one must not view neurotypicality as of positive value and neurodivergence as of negative value. It also means not being selective between different kinds of neurodivergence.
For example, one cannot say narcissism or psychopathy are ‘worse’ than bipolar disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome; e.g., by saying that narcissists have deeply rooted moral failings that people with some other forms of neurodivergence don’t. From the perspective of the neurodiversity paradigm (or ideology), there is no hierarchy here. Everyone’s brain anatomy, brain physiology and external expression of their innate biology is legitimate and valued.
This is one perspective found among some neurodivergent people, and among some autistic people also. Neurodiversity advocates commonly represents these views as being views held by ‘the autistic community.’
There are also some neurodivergent and autistic individuals who do not regard their neurodivergence as a blessing. One example is Jonathan Mitchell, or ‘Autism’s Gadfly.’ Another example is Tom Clements. This is not an exclusive list; but it is important to remember that there is no single ‘autism community’ with unified views and goals, as I have argued here.
Having set all this out, we must now consider the hashtag Professor Baron-Cohen is discussing.
Context #2: #EndAutismNow
At the time Professor Baron-Cohen made the inflammatory comments above, there was already a passionate debate on Twitter about the hashtag #EndAutismNow. I do not know who started the hastag; rumours were circulating that the hashtag was originated by the controversial vaccine critic Jenny McCarthy, but I do not know if this is so, or not.
(It is worth noting in passing that contrary to stereotypes, pro-cure autistics and pro-cure autism parents are not all vaccine critics; there are some who are, but any attempt to suggest that pro-cure individuals are somehow part of a’community’ that all think the same thing must be steadfastly resisted; just as for autistic people and autism parents more generally.).
But regardless of who started the hashtag, the important thing is that the tag was used by a number of pro-cure autistic people, who desperately want to be well, as I do; as well as many autism parents, who have suffered greatly.
(NB: I use the term ‘autism parents’ to refer to the parents of autistic people; whether said parents are themselves autistic or not. This is because the term ‘autistic parents,’ if anything, is even more confusing, as it is a highly ambiguous term.)
Those who are familiar with the Autism Wars will not be at all surprised to hear that the pro-cure individuals, whether autistic people or autism parents, were met with a huge onslaught of ad hominem accusations: including guilt by association with ‘Nazis,’ with ‘genocide’ and with ‘eugenics.’ But Professor Baron-Cohen’s tweet, as outlined above, added something new into the mix, with an admirably innovative nod to the Ku Klux Klan. Now I am sure you are all aware that the latter, unlike the various pro-cure autistic people and pro-cure autism parents using the #EndAutismNow hashtag, were a gang of violent extremists and domestic terrorists; they were all vicious thugs and hooligans who went around physically assaulting and murdering black people, and hanging them from trees.
It is unclear how much Professor Baron-Cohen knew about the broader context of the hashtag; i.e., whether he had examined the fiery debate in detail, or whether he had just taken a glance and decided to fire out a tweet at breakneck speed, without considering the matter in more detail.
But either way, and irrespective of whether this was his intention or not, likening the hashtag to some kind of (analogically and rhetorically fancied) Nazi and KKK hashtag is tantamount to endorsing the anti-cure side of this discussion. It is noteworthy that I have not seen Professor Baron-Cohen criticise the accusations and death threats hurled around by anti-cure advocates, either during the #EndAutismNow maelstrom, or at any other time.
Of course, if he has done so, I would appreciate some intelligence on this matter, as it is useful for me to take this into consideration. However, given that no public apology appears to have been forthcoming, for the actual tweet itself, it is perhaps a little too much to ask for him to distance himself from the behaviour of other anti-cure critics. If you see any, past, present, future, whatever!… Then please do let me know.
But I am quite sure I shan’t be holding my breath…
Zero Degrees of Apology
I did approach the Autism Research Centre, in order to make a formal complaint. After they conducted their investigations, they sent me a formal response. They confirmed that it was a private communication, which was not intended for public disclosure. So, I am not going to discuss the contents of it, nor quote from it, nor post any screengrab from it. What I can say, however, is that I was entirely dissatisfied with the contents, and thatI do not hold up much hope of Professor Baron-Cohen ever apologising to all the autistic people and autism parents he insulted and degraded with his unbelievably crass, vicious and irredeemably trivialising tweet.
But what is the deeper significance of all this?
Well, the lack of a public apology from Professor Baron-Cohen cannot but raise the question of whether he himself, or one or more other people at the ARC, might be more interested in damage limitation and PR, than in publicly owning the hurt caused to autistic individuals and their parents. Of course, it is always at least possible that this is not so; but then, such being the case, providing an authentically heartfelt, contrite and unqualifiedly repentant public apology would seem to be, not at all the best way, but rather the only way of reasonably avoiding such a damaging suspicion.
Unfortunately, no matter what the intentions of Professor Baron-Cohen and the ARC may have been in this affair, I am not a man that is easy to buy off. I am nothing like a Nazi or a KKK member, and nor are the other autistic people using the #EndAutismNow hashtag; nor are the autism parents. Regardless of Professor Baron-Cohen’s intentions in making this tweet, there is a strong implication in his comments either that autistic people and autism parents are either morally equivalent, or at least that were are morally analogous in some qualified or relative sense, to the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan; both factions of evil, irredeemably reprobate thugs who are known primarily for mass murder, violent extremism, terrormongering, and the systematic dehumanisation of others.
So let us just be crystal clear on the obvious basics:
Autistic people are not Nazis.
Autistic people are not KKK.
Autism parents are not Nazis.
Autism people are not KKK.
Or anything like it.
The fact this even needs to be said is utterly dispiriting.
Of course, Professor Baron-Cohen may well be inclined say in response that he did not intend to liken us to Nazis and Ku Klux Klan; but if so, the burden of proof is on him to explain how is is logically conceivable for people to use a hashtag analogous to one the Nazis or the KKK might use, without being to some degree guilty by association with Nazis or the KKK.
For it really ought to go without saying that if someone uses a hashtag that is somehow worthy of the Nazis, then they ought inevitably to be considered a person of low character whose character and views substantially overlap with those of the Nazis themselves. And I should also have thought that if someone used a hashtag of the kind you would expect the KKK to use, that they are behaving just like the KKK, and are not only morally culpable in their actions, but morally reprobate in terms of their personal character and moral worth.
If Professor Baron-Cohen can perhaps be so good as to explain why all this is not so, and my understanding of the deeper significance of his tweet is somehow misguided and fallacious, then I am all ears. But the fact remains that he simply has not done so; and in such a case, the highly stiff and bureaucratic handling of the affair up to now must inevitably appear tantamount to some sort of ‘reputation management’ exercise. Unfortunately, I am not interested in public relations at all; I’m interested in the inflammatory comment the Professor has made, and in the broader consequences of his conduct in this matter.
It’s Not About the ‘Feelz’
And speaking of consequences: all this brings me to a very crucial point.
This is not merely about ‘hurt feelings.’
Yes, it definitely hurts for many autistic individuals and autism parents to be spoken of in this vicious manner; but there is an even broader context at play here. The politically correct valorisation, even sacralisation of autism as just another form of ‘diversity’ risks disincentivising research into cures; because of autism is not really a big deal, then why not just spend the money on something else instead? If there are real problems out there like cancer, or sexually transmitted diseases, or diabetes, then surely autism is a secondary consideration, and it can be safely shifted down the list of funding priorities?
I must be clear that I don’t begrudge people with leukaemia or HIV or motor neurone disease the research money; I’d just like to see a more realistic attitude taken towards autism. Take all other disabilities and illnesses seriously, by all means; but please take autism seriously too, instead of palming the problems of autistic people onto ‘society,’ and downplaying the essential and intrinsic role biology plays in our suffering.
For after all: Bill Gates, Temple Grandin and Sheldon Cooper are not the norm; the fashionable, twee ‘sexiness’ of Asperger’s Syndrome in much of the popular imagination doesn’t speak to the experience of all people with Asperger’s Syndrome, let alone autistic people who don’t have high-functioning forms of autism.
Ultimately, extravagantly controversial comments like the one quoted from Professor Baron-Cohen here (the internet is forever!) risk contributing towards an anti-cure culture; the problem here is that ‘symptom relief’ is not much comfort to a lot of autistic people, and indeed a lot of autism parents as well. The option to have an autism cure should always be there. I realise it is impossible to magic a cure out of thin air, and the last thing I would want to do is to pile pressure on anyone currently conducting research into a cure; however, whenever scientists are doing precisely this, people should be supportive, instead of making false accusations of ‘genocide’ or ‘eugenics,’ as so many level 1 Twitter eggs do, or drawing false analogies and misleading allusions either with the disability-selective abortion of today, or the T-4 programme of the Nazi era.
In order to be fair to all concerned, I realise that the ARC is not a monolith, and a contentious dispute like this will likely lead to a variety of views among the individuals at the ARC, both about the rights and wrongs of the dispute, and how to effectively deal with it.
So I will not tar everyone with the same brush; however, someone, somewhere, seems to have some kind of obstructionist intentions, and I do not know who it is, and I am not too worried about who it is.
My responsibility is to publicly expose the comments made by Professor Baron-Cohen, and to remind everyone that autistic people are not remotely analogous to Nazis and the KKK, and indeed, many of us were indiscriminately slaughtered by the Nazis. I will also remind everyone to beware of any association of autism parents with such people too.
This is not about victimhood, but about fighting hard against the stigmatisation of autistics and autism parents, and against those who risk recklessly contributing to such; it is not so much about settling scores or about being defensive, as about trying to create an atmosphere where this horrible disease of autism will one day be cured.
I would encourage Professor Baron-Cohen to actually speak with real autistic people and autism parents; there are many autistic people who, like me, are in constant physical pain, 24/7, from our digestive pain. Other autistics have other problems, and parents have as well. Some autistics are even autism parents too. Scientists must always remember that we are not objects of study, first and foremost. Nor are we even autistic people or autism parents, primarily. We are human beings; not clean ‘n’ easy barrel-fish targets on the blood-strewn ideological shooting range of neurodiversity, of the Autism Wars, and of politically correct autistic identity politics.
None of the above is about eliciting sympathy or pity; it is really more about how people need to have an objective, dispassionate, unsentimentally impartial understanding of autistic people and autism parents; instead of the kind of attitude which condemns and dismisses us, and likens us to the Nazis and to the Ku Klux Klan. This doesn’t just apply to neurotypicals; it also applies to anti-cure autistic trolls and flamers, whose ‘zero degrees of empathy’ and understanding for their fellow autistics causes unnecessary harm for people who are often already in a lot of physical and emotional anguish.
If you found this article of value, please share it.
I want the whole world to remember once again that flippant and tasteless Nazi analogies don’t do anyone any good, but only serve to poison the atmosphere any further.
What are you going to do today to support autistic people, and not work against us?
And what can you do for any autism parents that you know?
And finally, what are we able to do for you?
Let’s all work together to try and find a way through.