I believe in free speech, full stop. I especially believe in free speech by those whose views and values I despise. I can’t read body language well, and I have a hard time reading between the lines, especially in face-to-face conversation. I rely on free speech, particularly what people put down in print, so I can have some clue of what a lot of people are thinking.
In the case of the #BoycottToSiri storm going on out there, it’s rather sobering to see what people are thinking.
I’m not going to directly comment on To Siri, With Love by Judith Newman. I haven’t read the book, and I make a policy of not reviewing books I haven’t read. That would be a bad habit, and I’ve got plenty of those already.
I have, however, read a lot of reviews, and those I will comment on. Because there’s some interesting and sobering stuff in there. Here’s some various blog reviews, if you want to poke them yourself.
Fair warning, reading the second will probably trigger I Need a Freaking Drink. Because given the book quotes… yeah. That poor kid.
And then there’s the Amazon book reviews. In a way those shook me up more, because you can count them. As of today, it’s almost exactly a split of two-thirds 5-star reviews to one-third 1-star reviews. And the substance on each side is… remarkably consistent.
5-star reviews tend to be non-autistics, gushing about the tender relationship between the mother and her autistic son, how funny the book is, how this is exactly what it’s like when they have to “deal with someone like that”.
1-stars are autistics, and a few relatives of autistics, reacting with shock, horror, and sincere questions of what was the author thinking, describing intimate details of her son’s life without his permission? Specifically without his permission – book quotes make it clear Newman didn’t think her son would agree, or had the mental capacity to agree, so she just… did it.
Bad enough, yes. But what really blew the lid off in the reviews and caused the tweetstorm was Newman putting in print that she intended to get medical power of attorney to sterilize her son when he turned 18.
Newman claims to have been completely surprised at the absolute fury erupting from the autistic community. You can look up some of her replies and decide for yourself how sincere that is. “I didn’t write this for the autistic community” does not strike me as someone willing to reflect on what she’s done. Neither do the claims of “I wasn’t advocating eugenics” when she stated flat-out in the text that yes, that was eugenics.
One thing I found particularly interesting was a comment on one of those 1-star Amazon reviews, made by someone claiming to be the French translator for the book.
Magicien: “In Europe, accusing an author of writing ‘eugenics’ would be libel, pure and simple.”
The interesting thing in here is, Magicien is technically correct. In Europe, saying someone wrote eugenics would be libel, whether or not it was factually true. And indeed, the author could sue – in Europe. In the U.S., however, with the right to free speech, we can point to a quote from the text where she says she’s advocating eugenics, and the court would toss the European lawyer out on his ear.
This clash of worldviews is obvious. The clash between NT and autistic worldviews on this book is one you have to piece together from the reviews to pin down why this book has provoked outrage, fury, and even calls on Harper-Collins to pull it from print.
I do not, cannot, condone censorship. Free speech protects even idiots. Especially idiots. Free speech also means everyone said idiot claims to be writing about has the right to be justifiably alarmed, mad as hell, and organize a book boycott.
And yes, anyone autistic is justifiably alarmed. Given the usual rates of autism (1 in a hundred or much less), every autistic grows up, as one wit put it, “neurologically outnumbered”. They’re surrounded by people who don’t think like they do, talk like they do, move like they do.
And when you’re outnumbered, you’re socially expendable.
Human nature – gut-level, bone-deep reactions – says if X person does not react in the same way as the rest of your group, they are not part of the tribe.
Tribes kill Not-Tribe. Always have, always will. We can tone that down with laws and penalties, we can soften it by making our “tribe” as big as a nation, but we can’t eliminate it. Not without cutting out part of human nature.
I don’t want someone doing hacksaw work on human nature. You never know where they’d stop.
Are the calls for pulling the book from print wrong? I think so. But the fear is real. It is justifiable. It’s not that long ago, historically speaking, that autistics were sterilized. Or euthanized. They’re still being murdered today, often by parents who claim they “just can’t take it anymore”.
(Child Protective Services, people. Call them.)
That torrent of positive reviews on the book, both editorial and 5-star on Amazon, confirms every autistic’s worst fears about the rest of humanity: That even if NTs let them live, they’re pathetic jokes, not even human, who ought to be sterilized.
After all, this book made the New York Times bestseller list. That’s the good list, right? The socially acceptable things to read. What all the in-crowd aspires to be like. So if a NYT bestseller says autistics can’t think, can’t feel, can’t love, and are criminals waiting to happen… isn’t that what all the right people in society think? The ones who make all the rules the rest of us have to survive under?
This is a nightmare. Unfortunately, the world is full of nightmares. I have no answer to this one.
The point behind free speech is that in the long run, in the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will outcompete bad ones. Because good ones work. They match reality.
Mainstream publishers don’t want books by autistics? Fine. Use Amazon. Self-publish. Use CreateSpace, or a dozen other sites. Get the autistic POV out there where people can read it and imagine what it’d be like. Write. Write more. Never stop.
Censorship never wins. Truth can.