Sandy Hook Aftermath: Asperger’s, the Media, and Social Justice

I wish to warn readers in advance that this is going to be a very heavy post. Dealing with the tragedy of Sandy Hook properly requires an acknowledgment of its seriousness as well as its lasting impact.

The reason I haven’t written about it earlier is that I felt as if everything had already been said. Of course, as I dug around more these things began to change. I believe that this calls attention to some deeper cultural issues, especially revolving around Asperger’s and Autism.

Opening the Floodgates

Beaver Damn Floodgates Opening

There are of course many different things that arose from what happened at Sandy Hook. The gun control debate, the disquieting notion that this is not an isolated incident but now added to a list of mass shootings, the dark shadow cast upon our culture of violence, and so forth.

I will, however, focus on the Asperger’s-centric parts of the issue. While I have my own viewpoints about these other issues, fact of the matter is that this blog is meant to discuss Asperger’s.

I remember reading a Facebook post on Adventures In Asperger’s quoted as follows:

“You know why our parents didn’t have school shootings & all this
       bullsh*#? It’s because back then we could beat the sh*t outta the
       weird withdrawn f*#king sh*tbags!”

As the blogger had noted, this post has received likes from his friends. He continued to voice his concern for his Asperger’s affected children, and the media’s handling of the situation.

I am equally concerned. However, I wish to address this in the context of a systemic problem, rather than its own issue. All in all, this plays into social justice and functions as an example of the hostile attitude towards those on the spectrum.

Breaking Down The Broken Down

Let’s begin by unpacking what exactly happened. What motive was there for posting information about his diagnosis? After any given school shooting or massacre, information about the perpetrator is gathered and released. But why call attention to Asperger’s?

We want to know why Adam Lanza did it. Just what goes on inside the head of someone who commits such an act? So naturally, the media is going to look is for anything mental health related.

However, this overly simplistic view is more respective of 1950′s understanding of the human brain rather than the understanding we are capable of today. As such, Asperger’s is lumped into the “mental illness” category. There is no vetting to figure out whether or not it’s even relevant to the case, because honestly it’s hard to vet something when you’re looking for the juiciest scoop.

Word About Words

But what of the conflation of Asperger’s and “mental illness”? Let’s stop and analyze that for a moment. Despite the old saw “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”, real world evidence points to the fact that words are more powerful than we tend to believe.

Framing Asperger’s as a mental illness rather than what it actually is, a pervasive developmental disorder, is key when it comes to how it’s handled. The phrase “pervasive developmental disorder” is a rather large gobbledygook of words that sounds quite technical, and lacks the emotional charge of “mental illness”.

More importantly, using the term “mental illness” allows us to separate ourselves from Lanza. Certainly we are not capable of such an act ourselves. We can take comfort in that, because it’s very easy for us to imagine ourselves on one side of the moral chasm and the school shooter on the other.

The Moral Gradient

But I’ve done my homework on this sort of issue. I’ve read about the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiment ran by Philip Zimbardo. In fact, I’ve read Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” cover to cover.

Philip Zimbardo Speaking In Warsaw
Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect and head of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
Source: Wikimedia Commons photo by user “Jdec”

It’s an uncomfortable fact, but a lot of things go into any given shooting. Reducing it to a game of “find the crazy” is simply an exercise in fooling ourselves. We have a wealth of human atrocities to know that we are indeed more malleable than we like to think.

But alas, it’s so easy to boil it down as such. This is why even in the face of such powerful reminders, we are given the same fable of “he’s just crazy”, and we keep buying into it.

The Dangers of Dehumanizing

So why do I call attention to this at all? Because as the aftermath of the incident has demonstrated, this has dangerous long term consequences.  The behavior such as the above Facebook post enabled and fed by the media is a process that Zimbardo terms “dehumanization”.

Anti-Japanese Propaganda
Example of propaganda involving dehumanization. Linguistics such as slurs, in addition to caricature, are meant to influence the reader’s viewpoint on the Japanese.

Dehumanization is the systematic stripping of human qualities from a person or group. We can see it throughout history with the Holocaust, when Jews were branded as “vermin”. In Rwanda, the Tutsis were labeled “cockroaches”.  This is not a trite detail, but a necessary linguistic element. It is much harder for humans to harm others if the reminder of the victim’s humanity remains ever-near.

The Insidiousness Revealed

Let’s look at that Facebook post yet again, this time with highlights for emphasis:

“You know why our parents didn’t have school shootings & all this
       bullsh*#? It’s because back then we could beat the sh*t outta the
       weird withdrawn f*#king sh*tbags!

If we examine the structure of this monstrous claim, we can begin to see elements of dehumanization. People are referred to as “weird withdrawn fucking shitbags.”(Uncensored this time for demonstrative purposes).

And of course, this is piggybacked onto an implied solution: Corporal punishment. If parents were able to hit their children again, this problem would simply disappear. Forgive my own incredulity, but I’m honestly not buying that.

Let’s remember this: The proposed solution to a problem of violence is more violence. That’s a bogus argument if I ever saw one. What really happens when you hit a child? That stays with them, and that becomes part of what is taught, that you solve your problems with violence. I asked my father why he never hit me, and that was his response, that he didn’t want to teach me to solve problems with violence.

Instead, I would propose that we further examine our culture, its methods, and its implied values, and ask what exactly we are teaching in terms of behavior. Much like dealing with sexism and racism, we have to deconstruct the prejudice against those on the spectrum in order to get anywhere. This prejudice is also known as “ableism”, and it remains a constant reminder for those on spectrum, now amplified by the fallout from Sandy Hook.


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68 thoughts on “Sandy Hook Aftermath: Asperger’s, the Media, and Social Justice”

  1. Excellent blog post.

    One piece of data you forgot to mention, however, was that Adam Lanza was never diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s. The media got an anonymous tip from a law-enforcement officer claiming Lanza had been diagnosed with autism, which was followed up by Lanza’s brother saying that Adam had “autism-like tendencies” (because he spent most of his time alone in his room playing video games) and the media just ran with those bits of misinformation such that the general public now remembers Lanza as an “autistic shooter.” Whether he was actually autistic or not can never be known now, since he is dead. But he was never diagnosed as such.

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