Sunday, March 16, 2008

David Brooks, Master of Psychiatry

This is a subject I hadn’t planned on addressing on this blog, but now I feel I must. This sort of brain-dead bigotry and contempt is par for the course on, say, a YouTube comment thread, but when it’s printed in The Newspaper of Record it merits a public response, however ineffectual that response is likely to be. Be warned that this post is long and has little or no direct relationship to libertarianism (except to the extent that “David Brooks sucks” is a sentiment every libertarian can come together on), though I hope that you’ll take an interest in it anyway.

First, a bit of background. I am diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome, which is an autistic spectrum disorder. It is distinguished from its fellows on the autistic spectrum by the fact that it does not involve mental retardation or delays in acquisition of speech, though the boundaries are somewhat fuzzy, and it is a matter of some controversy how meaningful the distinction between the different types is; there's talk of folding it into the general "autism" category in the next version of the DSM. Thus, I do know a thing or two about the issue.

In a recent column in the New York Times entitled “The Rank-Link Imbalance,” columnist David Brooks describes what he sees as a class of people who are very common in politics and other high-status fields. They are, as he describes them, achievement-obsessed, arrogant, narcissistic, aggressive, masterfully skilled in manipulating and dominating others, and highly successful in their professions or in politics because of this. However, they are incapable of having meaningful emotional relationships with others, have no true friends, are unaccustomed to having limits placed on their activities, and lack any sensitivity to others. They appear to be sociopaths, or nearly so. Oh, and a lot of them employ the services of prostitutes, because they can’t understand non-mercenary relationships.

These loathsome people “have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank, but none of the social skills that lead to genuine bonding.” They have a “coating of arrogance.” They depend on social tricks like “the capacity to imply false intimacy.” In conversation, “They treat their conversational partners the way the Nazis treated Poland,” crushing others with an “onslaught of accumulated narcissism.

Then we get to the money quote, in which Brooks say, "These Type A men are just not equipped to have normal relationships. All their lives they’ve been a walking Asperger’s Convention, the kings of the emotionally avoidant. Because of disuse, their sensitivity synapses are still performing at preschool levels."

Mr. Brooks likes to use big words, much as five-year old boys sometimes try to use daddy’s power tools. This comment doesn’t merely betray a total ignorance of what Asperger's is like, it gives the impression that Brooks has been reading psychiatric diagnosis manuals from some sort of Star Trek-esque Mirror Universe, where rivers run uphill, Hitler won the Second World War, and autism makes people masters of the social dance. Had Brooks bothered to understand what Asperger’s Syndrome is like on this plane of existence, on the other hand, it would be obvious that people with Asperger's are among those least likely to fit the personality profile he describes; by the very nature of the condition, they are highly unlikely to be skilled at the sort of social dominance, leadership, and social cunning he describes. "Qualitative impairment in social interaction" is one of the diagnostic criteria for a reason. Had Brooks taken the time to actually learn something about the tens of thousands of Americans he so casually heaps contempt on, he would know that. If Brooks actually knows a lot of people with Asperger’s who “have all of the social skills required to improve their social rank,” are gifted with “the specific social skills that are useful on the climb up the greasy pole,” or “dominate every room they enter,” I’d certainly like to meet them.

People with autism spectrum conditions have enough difficulties to face in their lives- difficulties I can’t imagine Brooks being able to even comprehend- without major national commentators in America's biggest newspaper demonizing them and turning their very nature into a synonym for a lack of humanity.

This is the dark side of public awareness. As Asperger's has started to become known to the general public, I see more and more people using it as shorthand for lack of compassion, indifference to others, lack of emotions, and general wickedness. None of these traits are characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome, but they are becoming the public "face" of Asperger's for this nation because of people like Brooks, who encourage false, degrading, and hateful stereotypes. It’s growing more and more common, and it has consequences.

A friend of my family has a son in junior high school. He is an intelligent, kind boy who has Asperger's. His biggest problem isn't his shyness or his trouble with social cues. It certainly isn't some inherent inability to form meaningful human relationships. No, his biggest problem, by far, is that many people treat him like garbage because he's noticeably different from most kids. People are cruel enough to him as it is; I shudder to think what his life would be like if, on top of that, the other kids in his school were up-to-date on the malicious stereotypes people like Brooks propagates.

My own youth was unpleasant. But there was one small mercy- though I was certainly viewed with contempt by the people around me, I didn't have to grow up in a society that considered me some sort of dangerous monster, devoid of human feeling and incapable of love or meaningful emotional connections. The next generation of children with Asperger's, I fear, will grow up being told precisely that about themselves by the culture at large, on top of all the other difficulties associated with being different.

I was one of the lucky ones, in many respects. Not all kids with Asperger's were, or are, as fortunate as me. How many innocent young people have killed themselves, or otherwise had their lives shattered, because of the way they were treated? How many more in generations to come will suffer that fate, living in the society that people like Brooks are creating- a society that openly condemns and despises them for what they were born as?

My reaction to this may seem extreme, especially since Brooks was probably just using the term to sound smart. I’m not terribly interested in his intent; whether he’s viciously slandering hundreds of thousands of innocent people out of outright malice or merely depraved indifference is not terribly important. The reason I care so much is because Asperger’s is penetrating deeper and deeper into the public consciousness every year, and it can make a big difference to the way people are treated if the average person’s first encounter with it is being told by some jackass like Brooks that people who have it are soulless monsters devoid of human sentiment.

Frankly, I suspect that I am fighting for a lost cause. Brooks is merely one drop of water in an oncoming wave, albeit an unusually prominent one, and the deep-rooted assumptions of our culture mean that the cause of acceptance is at a deep disadvantage before the contest even begins. But, hell, I write a libertarian blog, so it’s not as if hopeless battles are a novel experience. Still, if someone you care about has an autistic spectrum disorder, and you don’t consider that person innately evil, please consider sending an e-mail to Brooks or the Times and letting them know.

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1 comment:

Peter said...

Brooks is such a phony.