by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
We in the disability community knew it was coming. We’d known it for days.
After a young man in Aurora, Colorado took the lives of 12 people, wounded 58, and left nothing but grief and misery behind him, we knew they’d start rounding up the usual suspects. They always do.
And they did — on the television, in the newspapers, and on the Internet. Pundits, reporters, and ordinary people all decided one thing: He must have been mentally ill. After all, how could a sane person do such a thing?
It’s as though utterly ordinary people don’t do atrocious, violent, unthinkable things every day of the week. I sometimes wonder whether people in this country are aware of the sheer level of violence that goes on all over the world, every minute of every day, perpetrated by folks who are neither mentally ill nor delusional. And I sometimes wonder why the message hasn’t gotten through that most mentally ill or delusional people never harm anyone — except perhaps themselves.
And then I remember: Oh yeah. People love a scapegoat. So, hey, they figure, let’s go after some of the most vulnerable, stigmatized people out there. Let’s choose people who are the victims of crime far, far more often than they are the perpetrators. Let’s choose people on the margins, without a lot of power. Let’s choose people who have already been kicked to the gutter. Yeah. Let’s do that. The hell with them. They’re not worth much anyway.
And, by all means, let’s ignore the fact that most of the people who commit these crimes have two things in common: they are young and they are men. God forbid that we should ask ourselves, What are we doing to our young men that makes them do such things? What are we teaching them? What are we not teaching them? No. It has to be someone else — that crazy person over there. Not my son. Not my neighbor. Not someone I might chat with on my front porch. Someone else. Someone other.
I saw it beginning to happen. And then there was more. I saw people in You Tube videos and in the comments on news sites opining that the shooter must have been autistic — as though that would explain it. It was disturbing to read, but I thought, You know, Rachel, you can’t get upset with every ignorant person with an Internet connection and a YouTube account. Don’t give them your energy. I figured that the folks whose words I was reading didn’t have that much reach, and I comforted myself in the knowledge that people were speaking up and countering the ignorance with information. It was an uneasy kind of comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless.
And then I woke up this morning, and I read what had come out of Joe Scarborough’s mouth. On Morning Joe, an MSNBC program with an audience of millions of viewers, Joe decided that it was time to join the He Must Be Autistic chorus. According to an article on Politico.com:
“You don’t want to generalize,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said today before saying that James Holmes, the suspected Aurora, Colo., shooter, was “on the autism scale.”
“As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society — it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale,” said Scarborough, whose son has Asperger’s syndrome. “I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses — they can even excel on college campuses — but are socially disconnected.”
Whenever I hear the phrase You don’t want to generalize, I brace for impact, because I know that what’s about to come next is a disaster. In this case, the disaster was, as my kid would say, epic. The disaster consisted of two bombshells falling to earth, one right after another, and blowing to smithereens the hard work of autism advocacy carried out by thousands of autistic people, autism parents, and autism professionals.
First, there is the absolutely false idea that people who commit mass murder are on the autism spectrum. According to Joe, it happens more often than not. What? Where’s the evidence? Oh, right. There isn’t any. Because it’s not true. There has never been any evidence what-so-fucking-ever that autism is associated with criminal violence. It makes me feel sick to even have to counter this nonsense, but I have to, because now, millions of people are going to believe it.
And then, there’s the image of autistic people who can “walk around in society” looking like everyone else, putting together respectable GPAs, and seeming so utterly, utterly ordinary, until one day — well, you know. I’d like to take this moment to thank Joe for representing autistic people, in the popular mind, as ticking time bombs. Well done, Joe! I’m sure the next ethical, talented, gentle autistic young man who doesn’t get a job because the hiring manager thinks he might be the next office shooter will thank you. Maybe he’ll even name his kid after you. And what about the shy kid with Asperger’s who already has difficulty making friends? What will happen to him with such falsehoods circulating in the world he inhabits? And what of older autistic people, heading into their elder years facing exclusion and ignorance? What about them?
I wonder sometimes. Do people like Joe Scarborough know what it means to be that stigmatized? Do they have any idea of the fear it engenders in people? Do they have any idea of how it tears at the heart?
I don’t know. But I do know this: We can’t let such things go without protest. So please, let Joe Scarborough and the folks at MSNBC know how you feel by leaving your comments at the Morning Joe feedback page. And remember to sign my online petition asking Joe Scarborough and MSNBC to issue a full retraction of Joe’s remarks.
Please add your voice to the outcry. Thank you.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
This post first appeared on Disability and Representation: Changing the Cultural Conversation on Monday, July 23, 2012.