Saturday, September 26, 2009

More on Disagreeing by Diagnosing

Via dkmnow on the Autism Hub email list, I found this odd article on, provocatively titled "Are Republicans Autistic?"

The usage of "autism" in this context --- by a left-leaning website, seeking to explain behavior (by Republicans) that seems bizarre to that website's audience (Democrats, other miscellaneous liberals and progressives) --- did not fill me with hope for an unbiased, unsensationalized portrayal of autism. Not at all. Indeed, from the title alone I expected a conception of autism heavily influenced by stereotypes, particularly the eternal-child stereotype, the lost-in-our-own-worlds stereotype, and the fallacious notion that atypical development means no development at all.

I was not far off:

The word autism was first used in 1911 to describe human behaviors so self-centered as to suggest failure to process the realities of the outside world in language, and an inability to relate to other humans. In the 1940s the symptoms were defined further as social withdrawal, difficulty in communicating, extreme self-absorption, and repetitive or stereotyped behaviors.

Now called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it is generally agreed that people with ASD have few linguistic, social, cultural or logical constraints to manage their lives. A current definition adds "... people with ASD have difficulty seeing things from another person's perspective. Most 5-year-olds understand that other people have different information, feelings, and goals than they have. A person with ASD may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people's actions."

Historically, severely afflicted individuals have been burnt as witches, honored as shamans, hanged or incarcerated for crimes, or celebrated as geniuses. Adolph Hitler, Thomas Jefferson, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Mozart, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Kaczynski, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Charles Richter, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all been labeled autistic by one or another critic.

The language used in this passage --- citing "self-centered"* behavior as the characteristic feature of autism, for example, or saying autistic people lack "linguistic, social, cultural or logical constraints to manage [our] lives " --- draws strong, if implicit, parallels between autism (a neurological condition) and selfishness (a moral quality).

This rhetorical sleight of hand is more pronounced when consider how the title question --- "Are Republicans Autistic?" --- fits into a tradition of progressive critique of conservatism by seeking to explain the psychology of conservatives. The best example I can think of is Erich Fromm's (and, later, Theodor Adorno's) work on the "authoritarian personality," which postulates that the people who have the most difficulty dealing with personal freedom will tend to seek security in a strong leader, who will make all the hard decisions for them. (While Fromm thought this anxiety in the face of freedom was something everyone felt, to varying degrees, and that authoritarian character types could be found within all political ideologies, some of the theorists who came after him linked authoritarianism specifically with right-wing politics).

So, bearing all that in mind, the simple question "Are Republicans Autistic?" morphs into this string of propositions:
  1. Republicans are selfish, blinkered, disconnected and unempathic.
  2. Republicanism is no longer an ideology to which a mentally healthy person could subscribe.
  3. Because Republicanism is crazy, Republicans must be crazy as well, or they'd leave the party.
  4. Autism is a pathologically extreme form of self-absorption.
  5. Self-absorption characterizes the Republican psychosis; ergo, maybe Republicans are autistic!
Believe it or not, the article's handling of autism only gets worse from there:
Last winter the Kent community was rocked by the terrible tragedy of an 18-year-old youth named Sky Walker beating to death his mother, Trudi Steuernagel, a distinguished professor at Kent State University.

Apparently Trudi did things right - loved Sky unconditionally, got the best professional help available, offered extraordinary opportunities for Sky to be in situations he could handle and among people he could function with.

The horror is that Trudi survived for a week after the attack, probably aware that she was suffering and dying at the hands of the child she had tried to do right by. She had protected him from the consequences of his actions for 18 years, unable to control his behavior. Reality intervened.
So, not only are autistics utterly self-absorbed and practically insensate, we are also unpredictably violent, stone-cold killers.


*It's true that "autism" does actually come from the Greek word for self, autos, and that the word was initially coined to describe a pattern of slowly closing oneself off from other people and the external world that the word's creator, the early 20th-century Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, noticed in some of his schizophrenic** patients. But expert understanding of what autism is has changed a whole lot since Bleuler's day --- sometimes even in response to what actual autistic people have told the experts! --- and I don't think the article reflects that.

**Bleuler invented that word, too.


Tera said...

"The language used in this passage...draws strong, if implicit, parallels between autism (a neurological condition) and selfishness (a moral quality)."

Thank you for this. Whenever I see claims that such-and-such politician is autistic (used how you're describing), the best way I could put it into words was that autism was "a metaphor for 'I don't like you.'" Your definition (equating a neurological condition with a moral quality, particularly a failing) is *way* better.

Kowalski said...

Wow! That is so ironic coming from Democrats, who like their European counterparts (Social Democrats, "New" Labour, etc) have become almost indistinguishable from their right wing opponents.

Clarissa said...

The article you quote is so offensive, unintelligent and just plainly wrong that I'm shocked. I only just discovered it but I had to leave a comment because this is just outrageous.

Lindsay said...

@Clarissa - yeah, it's pretty horrible.