Who Is at Risk? Neurodiversity and Free Speech

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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.


2 thoughts on “Who Is at Risk? Neurodiversity and Free Speech

  1. Yeah, Geoffrey Miller’s history is just a bit selective. Take the case of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a cosmologist and philosopher a bit before Newton’s time, but a contemporary of Galileo. He was at least as radical and heretical as Newton. He was one of the first to suggest that stars were other suns, with their own planets; he was a pantheist, to boot.

    He spent a good part of his life wandering around Europe, trying to get a university position. Those he got, he did not keep. He unsuccessfully applied for a math position at the University of Padua that was later given to Galileo. He was arrested by the Venetian Inquisition, snatched from Venice by the Roman Inquisition, tried, and burned at the stake. His current status as a martyr for science is, I’m sure, some small consolation.

    England in Newton’s time did not have a formal Inquisition, but people in the period were persecuted and sometimes executed for non-conforming religious speech (ask the Quakers and Levellers), and university membership was no promise of immunity. Privilege could be, if you were lucky.

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