In case anyone missed it, I’ll bring everyone up to speed.
On or around August 18th of this year, an article appeared in Time Magazine about “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet” (the link does not point to Time Magazine itself. I linked to a Wayback Machine-captured cache of the original story, as it first appeared online and ran in the print edition, complete with the objectionable slur in question.)
Right away, in the second paragraph of the story, out of left field, appeared the following:
(Objectionable sentence: “Now the web is a sociopath with Asperger’s.”)
Those two words, “with Asperger’s” created a(n) (understandable) volcanic uproar. Within (I don’t know how many) days, as the Twitter outcry continued to mount, the article was whitewashed, scrubbed of its original anti-neurodiversity slur (sans remorse), and thumbtacked at the very end with a mere unapologetic footnote:
(“An earlier version of this story included a reference to Asperger’s Syndrome in an inappropriate context. It has been removed.”)
And like a cowardly wussbag, Joel Stein ran whimpering away from the Hostile Meanie-Butt Internet that he simultaneously claimed to rail against and yet unethically perpetuated.
(“(As you could guess, I won’t be on Twitter for a while)”~Joel Stein Tweet)
But he has to come back eventually. And he will have to “face the music”. And when he does, there will be an “orchestra” waiting, an orchestra that is the Asperger’s/autistic community, of which one of the common characteristics is (interestingly enough) a long memory. We’re not going to “forgive and forget” so easily. Our orchestra has a “symphony” to say, of which I’m hoping this Open Letter might be part of one of its “movements”…
To Joel Stein & Time Magazine,
I “have” Asperger’s. I don’t claim to be a spokesperson for the entire Asperger’s community, nor do I claim to speak for all of us. But I know that many of us do share this viewpoint.
I have several issues with your misguided and uncalled-for slur against people with Asperger’s.
The first is that, in a seeming quest for shock value constructed by stringing together cheap cliches, your stab came off as flippant and ignorant. One of the principal values of a journalist is to report the facts, a lofty goal which may–and usually does–involve doing research, arming yourself with information before your words go to press.
So far, you’re zero for two; your statement was not factual, nor had you done any research on Asperger’s Syndrome before you submitted your story.
In short, you really hosed this one.
The fact is, sociopaths and Asperger’s don’t actually have much in common. Sure, they share some characteristics: higher-than-average IQ, an apparent “lack of empathy” (quote-marked because that assertion is highly debatable in the case of Asperger’s), and sensitivity to criticism. But a handful of shared characteristics does not an identical comparison make; from there, the two pictures diverge, and sharply so.
Other characteristics of Asperger’s include (but aren’t limited to):
- introversion, a desire to remain out of the spotlight
- difficulty with expression/communication
- intense interest or focus in particular (benign) subject matter, may collect items related to these areas of interest
- an honest and matter-of-fact manner of interaction (bluntness)
- sensory sensitivity (highly sensitive to lights, sounds, textures, tastes, etc)
- reliance upon routine
Contrast that with other traits of sociopathy, of which I’ll mention the highlights:
- impulsive behavior
- compulsive lying
- deriving pleasure from seeing others in pain
- narcissism, grandiose self-image
- shallow emotions
- cold, calculating
- as children: animal cruelty, bed-wetting
- usually as children and as adults: bullying
I’m sure that by now, it’s pretty obvious that the two labels are completely different.
What you described in your article, Mr. Stein, was essentially pure sociopathy/psychopathy, period. It was cruel and completely inaccurate to drag Asperger’s people into that dark hole by attaching the two terms. The “with Asperger’s” phrase added absolutely nothing to what had been, up until that point, a pretty decent description that was understandable, well-expressed, and accurate. The reference to Asperger’s detracted immensely from the point you were trying to make, downgrading your credibility to somewhere south of zero, confessing your lack of authentic journalism, and instead revealing your true colors as a shock-jock storyteller who can’t be bothered to run the most basic of Google searches.
Another fact that you might not be aware of is that Asperger’s (and other autistic) people often find ourselves to be victimized–daily–by the rest of the world at large. Not only is the world itself an assault to our senses (imagine all of your senses being doubled or tripled in intensity), but we’re also the victims of the very sociopathic behavior you mentioned: the bullying, the lying, the cold cruelty, the anonymous narcissism, the trolling.
We’re hardly ever listened to. We’re studied, written about, blogged about, reported on; so many “experts”, even those claiming to be on our side, overshadow us, eclipsing the voice we’re trying to find. And those self-appointed “allies” are few and far between; most people are intent on perpetuating and supporting what’s actually a pro-eugenics mindset; you’ve probably come across a 100-fold-greater cry for a “cure for autism” than an actual Asperger’s/autistic voice.
The worst part is, even when we are heard, we may not be listened to or taken seriously; instead, we’ll more than likely be brushed off, pushed aside, and trampled over.
Mr. Stein, the very bullying you called national attention to and railed against, you perpetuated on a group of innocent people who suffer voicelessness, skepticism, and marginalization from the rest of the world on a daily basis. And what have we done to deserve any of that from anyone? Absolutely nothing.
People with Asperger’s aren’t bullies; we’re the ones (although not the only ones) getting bullied.
What does that make you? “Hypocrite” is too bland and gentle a word.
The second issue that I have is that Time Magazine actually approved and printed this story. Don’t periodical magazines employ editors who fact-check and also maybe scrutinize the social, compassionate aspects, to see how the story might be received on a psychological or emotional level? Didn’t those people recognize that phrase as maybe the least bit offensive?
In truth, I’m not a Social Justice Warrior, nor am I one of those people that looks for the tiniest minutia to get all riled up about, nor do I get butthurt-offended over the slightest provocation, nor do I even lean to the left side of the political spectrum.
But this was over-the-top, and the fact that it slipped through the process, escaping the critical eye of layers of media staff, is mind-boggling to me.
The third and final issue that I have is with the curt footnote at the very end, which reads: “An earlier version of this story included a reference to Asperger’s Syndrome in an inappropriate context. It has been removed.”
Although I appreciate the removal of the phrase from the article, I don’t think that enough has been done (at least not yet) to remedy the situation properly.
Where was the apology to the group of innocent people whose lives are constantly met with misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and judgment? How difficult would it have been for the magazine or yourself to say something like, “we apologize for our error”, “we regret our inaccuracy”, or a similar apology?
What about a correction, to make up for the increased collateral damage? “Asperger’s is in no way related to cruelty/bullying”, “Asperger’s is not a mental illness, and is not in any way related to sociopathy.”
My father is a fairly successful businessman and he impressed upon me from a young age that people (the customers) may remember little about you–what you look like, what you said, did, how much you charged, etc, but that they will always remember how you made them feel. Even a sincere, one-liner apology could go a long way. It takes courage to admit you were wrong. I guess you and your magazine haven’t mustered that courage yet (at least, not that I’ve come across at this time, even after extensive searching…and it’s been three weeks…).
The removal of the Asperger’s reference from the online version may at least cease the creation of new damage online, but the fact remains that the original article went to press, and once distributed, it cannot be taken back. The original article, with the anti-Asperger’s slur, is now in the hands of over 16 million homes and businesses across the United States, influencing the opinions of however many people pick it up and read it. Oh, how I wish you were The Enquirer or some other cheeky tabloid, instead of a widely-read and seriously-taken publication with nationally influential clout.
How about a follow-up apology and article, perhaps of a genuine interview with an actual Asperger’s/autistic person? (It would be ridiculous to complain if I couldn’t also suggest a solution, so here’s mine: I would offer to be part of the solution; I would volunteer to be interviewed for such an article.)
Or, given such a lack of genuine journalism, how about a job termination? Or several? (This could include any one or combination of the people involved.)
People with Asperger’s often recoil against injustice and falsehood. We’re calling you out. Part of being an adult and especially a visible public figure is to be held accountable for one’s actions and then step up to take responsibility for them.
Please, have the integrity to do so, and to follow up and make things right; we’ll remember that effort, too.
~A Non-Sociopath, “‘with’ Asperger’s”