Friday, September 9, 2011

Another Writer Uses "Autism" Where He Means "Selfishness" or "Amorality"

I'm getting quite a collection of examples of this sort of rhetoric, in which the writer/speaker tries to discredit someone else's political philosophy by calling it, or them, "autistic."

So far, I have a literary critic contrasting Jean-Paul Sartre's nihilism and profound alienation from other people (which he calls "autistic") with Albert Camus's more humanistic philosophy; a liberal editorial writer asking "Are Republicans Autistic?"; a liberal talk-radio host comparing Republican reliance on "talking points" to autistic verbal stims; and a liberal podcast blaming President Barack Obama's inability to overcome opposition by a vocal Republican minority on his inability to understand them, coupled with his overly scrupulous adherence to rules.

The latest addition to this group, which I saw on Emily's blog, A Life Less Ordinary?, is the author, neuroscientist and outspoken atheist Sam Harris talking about why he thinks Ayn Rand's philosophy of rational selfishness is unrealistic, morally obtuse and incompatible with actual human nature.

Here is the relevant part of that post (I'm including a bit more context for the offending one-liner than Emily did, because I'm interested in exactly what "autism" is supposed to imply here):
Many readers were enraged that I could support taxation in any form [in an earlier post on taxes and income inequality in the US]. It was as if I had proposed this mad scheme of confiscation for the first time in history. Several cited my framing of the question --- "how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep?" --- as especially sinister, as though I had asked, "How many of his internal organs can one person be allowed to keep?"

For what it's worth --- and it won't be worth much to many of you --- I understand the ethical and economic concerns about taxation. I agree that everyone should be entitled to the fruits of his or her labors and that taxation, in the State of Nature, is a form of theft. But it appears to be a form of theft that we require, given how selfish and shortsighted most of us are.

Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people's children? It amazes me that such questions require answers.


As someone who has written and spoken at length about how we might develop a truly "objective" morality, I am often told by followers of Rand that their beloved guru accomplished this task long ago. The result was Objectivism --- a view that makes a religious fetish of selfishness and disposes of altruism and compassion as character flaws. If nothing else, this approach to ethics was a triumph of marketing, as Objectivism is basically autism rebranded. ...

And I say this as someone who considers himself, in large part, a "libertarian" --- and who has, therefore, embraced everything that was more or less serviceable in Rand's politics. The problem with pure libertarianism, however, has long been obvious: We are not ready for it. Judging from my recent correspondence, I feel this more strongly than ever. There is simply no question that an obsession with limited government produces impressive failures of wisdom and compassion in otherwise intelligent people.

This passage rests on the same assumption I noticed in the editorial "Are Republicans Autistic?", which is that autism is the same thing as selfishness. There is also the implication that to be autistic is to be profoundly ignorant of how the world works, how people are (Randians try to live by a philosophy that might work for some alien species that is 100% rational and naturally solitary, but which does not map very well onto human lives), or even the circumstances of their own lives (later in the article he mentions how much luck is involved in even the most "self-made" person's success, and alludes to people erroneously attributing to their efforts things that practically fell into their laps by virtue of their being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and being the right "kind" of person).

It seems to me that it's no accident that all these rhetorical uses of "autism" to characterize a deeply selfish person or worldview are cropping up at the same time the popular conception of autism is shifting to "someone without empathy." It seems to me that those two things are actually mirror images of each other; as long as people talk about autistic people as being without empathy, autism will be the metaphorical diagnosis of choice whenever someone wants to talk about an actual lack of empathy.

So the stereotype gets reinforced from both ends.


Ali said...

The fact that Harris and others who use this metaphor would never grasp that it is actually hurtful and extremely dangerous for autistic people is not lost on me. Gallows humour and all that. Am I still allowed to have a sense of humour, I wonder?

nominatissima said...

And just a few days after I was so happy about a top blogger in the skeptical community showing some interest in being inclusive to disabled people, another one is callous and puts his own idea of cleverness before truth and respect. Nice.

Anonymous said...

Similarly, I have long heard people using the term "schizophrenic" to mean, roughly, haphazard and makes no sense. I wonder how schizophrenic people feel about that.

Lindsay said...

@Anon, yes, I've heard that as well.

@nominatissima - PZ has long seemed to me like a nicer person than Sam Harris; Harris has written in defense of torture, which strikes me as an especially awful thing for a famous writer/thinker to do. This surprised me most because Harris is a neuroscientist, which led me to expect a deeper understanding of what autism actually is.

That Hairy Canadian said...

@Lindsay@nominatissima - I'm absolutely shocked to see such commentary coming from a neuroscientist. One would expect a researcher in the field to have much better knowledge of neurodevelpmental differences and thus employ a more literal use of terminology. His name is now firmly imprinted on my "Watchlist".