by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I find it very painful to write about the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. I’ve done so extensively in the past, and this spring, I decided to take a break from it. But there is a passage in his latest book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, that has haunted me since I read it last year, and I feel the need to explore why. I’ve critiqued the book before, but somehow couldn’t touch this passage until now, and I think I understand why: The passage doesn’t simply speak volumes about how others view autistic people in particular, or disabled people in general, but constitutes a particularly telling example of the ways in which our society pathologizes difference and blames people outside the norm for the treatment we receive.
In Chapter 4: When Zero Degrees of Empathy is Positive, Baron-Cohen makes the extreme, pejorative, and wholly incorrect assertion that, for people on the autism spectrum, “Other people’s behavior is beyond comprehension, and empathy is impossible,” and concludes that autistic people have “zero degrees of empathy” (Baron-Cohen 2011, 117). He attempts to mitigate the impact of these statements by saying that autistic people are “zero-positive” because, in his estimation, our systemizing skills enable us to build such things as elaborate moral systems (my elaborate moral system is built on empathy, thank you, but I digress) and cutting-edge technology (for which I have no aptitude whatsoever, thank you, but I digress) (Baron-Cohen 2011, 122-123). Despite this apparent attempt to redeem us from the lack-of-empathy stigma, Baron-Cohen presents the story of a 52-year-old man named Michael, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, as representative of the lives of autistic people, and he characterizes Michael as almost robotic: controlling, anti-social, utterly logic-minded, and incapable of understanding other people’s feelings or of having any emotional responses of his own (Baron-Cohen 2011, 96-100).
To illustrate his view that autistic people are on the zero end of the empathy scale, Baron-Cohen begins by writing about Michael’s childhood. I find two things rather fascinating about Baron-Cohen’s rendering: 1) His descriptions of Michael’s childhood do not illustrate Michael’s lack of empathy, but the lack of empathy of the children around him, and 2) the wholesale lack of empathy on the part of “normal” children goes entirely unremarked. He writes of Michael:
Even as a child he found social situations confusing and stressful. He didn’t play with other children in the playground, was never invited to their birthday parties, was not picked to be on their team. He avoided the playground by going to the bottom of the playing field at primary school — alone — and counting blades of grass. In the winter when it snowed, he became obsessed with the structure of snowflakes, wanting to understand why each one was different. Other children in his class couldn’t understand what he was talking about because in their eyes all snowflakes looked the same. Although the teacher had told all the class that every snowflake is unique, it seemed that he was the only person in the class who could actually see the small individual differences in the snowflakes. The other children in the class teased him, calling him “snowflake brain.” (Baron-Cohen 2011, 97-98)
It’s difficult, at first, to grasp all that is wrong with this passage, because Baron-Cohen is uttering entirely prejudicial things in a very kind and reasonable tone. Let’s start at the beginning: He suggests that a sign of Michael’s lack of empathy is that he didn’t play with other children, wasn’t asked to their parties, and was the proverbial last kid picked for the team. Baron-Cohen seems to take it entirely for granted that Michael is at fault, and that it was quite natural that the other children would reject him because of his as-yet-undiagnosed disability. He gives not the slightest nod to the idea that perhaps Michael didn’t play with the other children because they themselves were unempathetic — because they would not tolerate his confusion and stress, because they rejected him based on his difference, because they shut him out from every birthday party, and because they didn’t want him on their teams. After continual social rejection, what exactly is wrong with a child running to the other end of the playing field alone and amusing himself as best he can? Counting blades of grass is not a normative response, but that doesn’t make it wrong; in fact, I can certainly understand why a stressed-out autistic kid who is being rejected for reasons he can’t fathom would try to calm himself with a counting ritual. Given the other possibilities for dealing with wholesale social rejection — lashing out in anger at others or doing harm to oneself — an obsession with grass seems to me an entirely non-retaliatory response, and says quite a bit about Michael’s gentleness. Not surprisingly, given the purpose of his narrative, the author never remarks upon this gentleness.
What I find most heart-wrenching, however, is the story of Michael’s fascination with the unique structure of each snowflake, and the ways in which the other children respond to it. Michael’s attentiveness to details that most people miss, and his love for the small and intricate beauty of the natural world, are deeply moving to me. The other children do not see what Michael sees and they do not understand his fascination, but Baron-Cohen does not tar this lack of understanding as a lack of empathy, despite the fact that he considers Michael’s inability to see what other children see, and his lack of interest in what gives them happiness, as prima facie evidence that Michael has an empathy disorder. I’m not sure on what logical basis a scientist could make such a subjective, one-sided, prejudicial assessment, but then again, it’s passages like this one that long ago caused me to give up on the idea of objectivity altogether.
Perhaps the most distressing part of the entire passage is the way in which Baron-Cohen assesses the children’s response: He writes that they “teased” Michael by calling him “snowflake brain” (Baron-Cohen 2011, 98). I take issue with Baron-Cohen’s use of the word “teased.” The children were not teasing Michael; they were calling him names and laughing at him. Teasing is good-natured fun between people of relatively equal power. There isn’t a hint of equal power here, and there is nothing good-natured about making fun of a beautiful thing that brings joy to an isolated, rejected kid. At best, several other children laughing at their defenseless classmate constitutes harassment; at worst, it’s bullying. Anyone who has ever been laughed at as a form of dismissal and exclusion knows exactly what I’m talking about. These are the kinds of microaggressions that accumulate to create self-doubt and self-hatred in those who are the targets of them. But Baron-Cohen does not seem to consider laughing at a vulnerable kid evidence of a lack of empathy in the “normal” children. In fact, he seems to imply that if Michael had any empathy for his classmates, he would have known better than to talk endlessly about snowflakes.
While Baron-Cohen’s much-cherished and erroneous belief that autism is an empathy disorder is the reason for the inclusion of this story in his book, the framing of the story is indicative of a much larger problem in writing about disability and other forms of difference: Non-normative people become responsible for our own social rejection. The accusations launched at Michael and, by extension, at us — that we’re incapable of “normal” human feelings and that we’re trapped in our own worlds — could just as easily be launched at those who reject us. How many “normal” people have enough human feeling to befriend and understand non-normative people? How many “normal” people are trapped in their own “normal” worlds, without any consciousness of what it means to be non-normative? The accusations of lack of caring and lack of engagement adhere to the ones who are different. Those in the majority are simply acting “normally” by doing all the things that, when non-normative people do them, are considered evidence of pathology.
These kinds of accusations are a form of victim-blaming that have no place in a civilized society. That people who consider themselves objective engage in it is an indication of how deeply entrenched a habit of mind it is.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg