Monthly Archives: July 2017

Who Is at Risk? Neurodiversity and Free Speech


Laurie and Debbie say:

Geoffrey Miller, writing at Quillette, offers “The Neurodiversity Case for Free Speech,” which is perhaps better characterized as the Oversimplified Neurodiversity Case for Protecting White Men.

Neurodiversity is an extremely important issue. Miller is writing primarily about universities, places where conditions such as autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia syndrome disorders and other conditions mentioned by Miller are insufficiently addressed.

Neurodiversity is a major issue, and very under-examined and under-respected. Universities, like most other institutions, have extraordinary work to improve conditions in classrooms, in grading structures, in application and acceptance processes, in graduation standards, and many other places.

Miller, however, is focused on none of these things. He doesn’t want universities to be a place where people he is calling neurodiverse learn better, or are more welcome, or have accommodations made for their specific needs. He only wants his group of neurodiverse people to have what he blithely calls “free speech,” which means the right to insult anyone at any time and get a pass because they are neurodiverse. Real free speech also considers who is being silenced, not just who is allowed to say everything they want to say. It’s no accident that nowhere in Miller’s long article does he even consider the possibility that a person could be neurodiverse and dark-skinned, or neurodiverse and physically disabled. In his list of important and famous people whom he chooses to label as neurodiverse, he mentions four women out of about thirty people (two of them long dead), and no people of color.

Once he tips the scales so that neurodiversity is a problem that belongs to people who are all white and mostly male, he then skews things further by claiming that campus speech codes cause harm, while never acknowledging for an instant that they also prevent harm. He offers a long list of conditions that might make people insensitive, rude, or even hostile, while never acknowledging that the very same conditions can make other people timid, fearful, and easily hurt. If one person’s difficulty in avoiding insensitive speech tramples on that person’s freedom, why doesn’t another person’s strong reaction to hearing insensitive speech also deserve concern?

Our friend Guy Thomas, long-time disabled activist, says “Some people need service dogs; some people are allergic to dogs.” So you can’t make a space where everyone is comfortable and safe all the time. Instead, the intention behind the creation of formal speech codes is the search for compromises, middle grounds, ways to encourage discourse among all of us with our gloriously diverse styles, abilities, and limitations: yes, campus speech codes may make some people with some brain styles uncomfortable, while they are also making others comfortable for the first time in their lives.

Of course, white men are the people who are most accustomed to comfort, to having things their way, to having the world made for them. Miller makes the dubious claim that “formal speech codes at American universities were also written by and for the [allegedly] ‘neurotypical,'” especially dubious because he continually claims that universities attract neurodiverse people in high numbers.

What’s wrong with this formulation?  Formal speech codes were written by a newly diverse university leadership, with more women, more people of color, probably more neurodiverse people, and more people from other marginalized groups than universities have historically seen. Thus, they are among the first such codes written with attention to other factors than the comfort and safety of white men. Also, universities do not attract neurodiverse people in higher numbers than anywhere else; neurodiverse people are everywhere, doing everything. Universities, rather, have in the fairly recent past been a place where eccentric white men, neurodiverse or not, could get more of a pass than they could in other places.

We can get much more specific.

  • Isaac Newton, to whom Miller devotes his first few paragraphs, was known to be rude and condescending, but his ideas which Miller describes as “eccentric” were not uncommon for his time and place. He hid and obscured those ideas because otherwise he would have been burned as a heretic; universities at that time were not sanctuaries for eccentric ideas.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder is something that happens to people as they live their lives, and does not fit well under the label of neurodiversity, unless (as Miller does) you just want a laundry list of reasons people might not be good at obeying formal speech codes.
  • Miller says:

“Censorship kills creativity, truth, and progress in obvious ways. Without the free exchange of ideas, people can’t share risky new ideas (creativity), test them against other people’s logic and facts (truth), or compile them into civilizational advances (progress). But censorship also kills rational culture in a less obvious way: it silences the eccentric.”

In Newton’s day they didn’t silence you, they killed you. Perhaps more to the point, believing that you will be called names, patronized, and/or attacked every time you open your mouth also  “kills rational culture.”

The article is bursting with similar errors, poking out through Miller’s more generalized inaccuracies and indefensible claims.

He left one out, though. He doesn’t talk at all about ISWMS: Insecure White Male Syndrome, a condition which formal speech codes at universities and elsewhere does threaten. Too bad.

Thanks to Lizzy Lynn for pointing out the article, and to Rich Dutcher for advice and input while we were writing.


Dr. Poison: Disfigurement as a Proxy for Villainy


Debbie says:

I saw Wonder Woman the week it came out, a month or two ago, and while I liked a lot about it, I also share a lot of the concerns that have been raised about the (almost non-)portrayal of people of color, centering the male protagonist, and more. I was also especially disappointed at how badly the film-makers trivialized Etta Candy.

I was, however, fascinated by the character of Dr. Poison, and I admit that her disfigurement was part of the fascination for me. As a long-time body image (and disability) activist, I am very aware that disfigurement is especially difficult for most people to learn to look at, and that facial disfigurement is especially unsettling. This may well be hard-wired into many or most of us, to varying degrees. And we can also learn to change/control that reaction.

I’ve done enough of my own work (always more to do!) that I preferred seeing Elena Anaya’s disfigurement (created in the make-up department; Anaya is not disfigured) to her prosthetic mask.  Perhaps predictably, given our fear of disfigurement, photos of Anaya in character after she takes off her mask don’t seem to be available.

At Bustle Ariel Henley writesAs A Woman With A Facial Disfigurement, This ‘Wonder Woman’ Villain Pisses Me Off.”

In the film, Maru/Dr. Poison is a chemist working to develop a deadly gas for the Germans to use during World War I. There’s some historical significance here: Facial injury and disfigurement were common casualties of the war, because of the advanced weaponry and trench warfare. In The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain, historian Suzannah Biernoff stated, “Unlike amputees, these men were never officially celebrated as wounded heroes. The wounded face … presents the trauma of mechanized warfare as a loss of identity and humanity.”

She went on to say that “the loss of one’s face — is perceived as a loss of humanity.” After the war, patients with disfigured faces were seen as monsters and treated as pariahs. Many committed suicide. As a result of the high suicide rates, damaging social stigma, and desire to give returning veterans a shot at living normal lives, the art of facial prosthetics — much like the one Dr. Poison wears — was developed. These prosthetics were an art form, and literally saved thousands of lives. Yet, these dark, painful, historic tragedies were never addressed in Wonder Woman, choosing instead, to perpetuate the damaging myth that disfigurement and evil go hand-in-hand. …

Instead of exploring the threads explaining who Dr. Poison is, and creating a villain with substance and depth, she is portrayed as nothing more than her evil, disfigured face  — a common character device that plays into a larger issue in the entertainment industry, including characters like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street and Darth Vader in Star Wars, as well as numerous villains in the James Bond series. In an interview with Brendon Connelly of the pop culture website Bleeding Cool on why so many Bond villains have disfigurements, James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson stated, “it’s very much a Fleming device that he uses throughout the films, the idea that physical deformity and personality deformity go hand in hand in some of these villains.”

No wonder Henley is pissed off. In fact, she’s probably steamingly furious and being too polite. Not only is she facing a very successful film that perpetuates a stereotype that harms her, she’s also facing a very powerful film producer justifying the stereotype as a “device.” She lives with frequent and recurring social support for vilifying people like her; anger is both appropriate and sadly inevitable.


Photo used for illustrative purpose

Disfigured soldiers aren’t the only suicides in this story; Lucy Grealy, pictured above, the brilliant author of Autobiography of a Face, is a nonmiitary example. I followed Grealy’s work from Autobiography until she killed herself. I recommend Ann Patchett’s superb memoir of their friendship, Truth and Beauty (although I just learned by writing this that Grealy’s sister objected to Patchett’s book).

Let’s leave the closing words to Henley:

As someone with a facial difference, I know many people with facial disfigurements and scarring, and not one of them is, or has become evil, because of the appearance of their face. The only evil most of us have experienced has been at the hands of a society that refuses to accept us.

I found Henley through Alaina Leary’s related essay in Teen Vogue.