Reaction to #BoycottToSiri: Free Speech, Idiots, and No Good Answers

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.

#BoycottToSiri: Here’s Why #ActuallyAutistic Reviews

#BoycottToSiri Response from an #ActuallyAutistic reader to the book To Siri with Love by Judith Newman

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.

Except this.

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.


24 thoughts on “Reaction to #BoycottToSiri: Free Speech, Idiots, and No Good Answers

  1. Permitting public advocacy of internal mass murder is important for two reasons: 1. Open discussion of genuinely bad ideas is necessary for the spread of the best counterarguments to those specific bad ideas. 2. It is easier to shut someone up than to change someone’s mind. You get unpleasant surprises when you shut people up.

    Nasty nasty people exist. No surprise there.

    This could be the ‘chest beating’ presaging something horrible? I could fill hours discussing examples of that sort of thing. I’m not excited about that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Truth can.


    I think It’s the eventually that scares people.

    Because, yes, eventually people will learn and more importantly accept the truth as truth but that doesn’t help the people who are in danger right now from people who believe the lie.

    Granted, censoring people who spout the lies doesn’t stop people from believing lies. Often that just makes their beliefs stronger because there is nothing like being told that you are wrong and implied you are stupid for believing that to make people dig in their heels.

    And today someone might be censoring a lie. Tomorrow it might be the truth.

    Legal Note: Freedom of speech promised by the Constitution only means that the government isn’t allowed to curb your speech. This is why your employer, as long as they aren’t a government agency, can fire you for running your mouth in a way they don’t approve of. They might be a berk for it but it’s not illegal.

    And freedom of speech is not freedom from the consequences of your speech. That’s why you get in trouble for inciting a riot.

    Also look up the “Fighting Words Doctrine”

    Through I can understand why people want to just shut them up. This level of stupidity is annoyingly common and hair-pulling frustrating to deal with. At best. At worse it can and has been lethal. And because the lie-book is popular, people will use it to justify their horrible behavior and attitudes. Which, again, not good.

    I’m not autistic but I have family who are and this shit scares me. The thought of someone using this crap to hurt my cousin even more than the society already does scares me. Especially since I know some of my other relatives will believe that bull – and one of those relatives is his mother. Since he’s still a minor that’s very scary.

    Boycotting is better if for no other reason than that hits people where they might actually pay attention – their wallet. Losing money tends to win where ethics and morals fail.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. a) Boycott requires that it first be something I would buy in the first place. Even if I had the funds, this isn’t exactly my usual sort of purchase. b) I value signals that tell me when to run, who from, and how far. Cues who I shouldn’t trust are also useful, but being careful about trust in the first place mostly substitutes. c) The reason France has laws against calling a thing eugenics may have something to do with government interest in pursuit of eugenics without being called out on it.

      That said, I’d also be cautious of spokesmen falling all over themselves to promote the public political interests of autistics. In part because I also have existing reservations about some of the candidate groups. It is also possible that I am a wee bit untrusting.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh wow, ouch.

    The sad part is that none of this surprises me. I have heard people say that if they’d known their kid would be autistic while they were pregnant with them that they would have gotten them aborted.

    And yeah… being known for not-being normal and having a label attached to whatever it is that makes you not normal gives people something to aim at.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ….Hmm.
    Honestly, I’d like to read that book firsthand before I make a judgement. From the reviews this woman sounds like she views her son… well, more like a pet than a child. Which is sad.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think people would be better off reading Temple Grandin’s work. She’s the most functional autistic person I’m aware of – they were recommended when we were having real issues with our child (who isn’t autism spectrum) but the books were excellent and very interesting anyway – And has brought a lot to the world, from what seems to have been a very bad start. In the effort to replace bad info with good, I’d be more inclined to push her books and just not recommend this one.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. After reading the links you posted, I have to say this is only the second time ever that I actually honestly considered that it might be a good idea for a family to be broken up by the government and the kids taken away for their own protection. Having been homeschooled, this was always a fear I had, because my family knew other families that were broken up this way because of local CPS officials deciding “you’re Christian, and Homeschooling, therefore you must be evil and harming the kids, and it’s our Duty to take them away from you, even if the court says we’re not allowed to”. But this author shows for only the second time I have seen, just why something along the lines of CPS needs to exist in this day and age.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Conversely, suppose an ineffective or harmful treatment protocol has societal approval or is politically expedient.

      I think a skeptical eye should be cast at all bureaucracies interacting with children. At the same time, if there wasn’t a defensible case for the bureaucracy and the interaction, we could easily be rid of it.


  7. I would like to point out that saying someone is advocating eugenics in Europe is libel only if there is no proof. As I did not read this book I can not say one way or the other though.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. all that talk, really reminds me of germany, 1939 to 1944.
    The very idea that the woman would seek the right, to sterilize the son when he reaches 18… its scary.
    Very scary.

    people are NOT pets! no matter what seems wrong with their mind OR body, to the normal person.
    the above mentioned example for a functioning autist bringing something good to the world, is not the only one, but one of many.

    And should someone say that not all autists bring something good to the world-ask them if THEY accomplished something praiseworthy, after all, there are billions of normal people without noteworthy achievements too.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. “Tribe kills non-tribe.” I get what you’re saying, here, but I wonder if it’s not more “test to destruction.” That is, test someone’s ability and willingness to conform to the tribe’s established norms. After all, tribes have adopted or married-in new members about as often as they’ve killed or cast out members, throughout history.
    Which, from an evolutionary standpoint, makes a certain amount of sense, I guess — look at military indoctrination. It’s mostly about maintaining unit cohesion and hierarchical authority even under extreme conditions, and for primitive hunter-gatherers dodging predators and fighting scavengers for every meal, the baseline requirements for unit/tribal cohesion must have been broadly similar. The closer a tribe lives to the existential edge, the less they can tolerate members who deviate from the norm.
    Of course, modern human societies generally have the slack to tolerate many more ‘deviants’ (ahem), with larger deviations from the norm. But our instinctual behaviors seem to be lagging the trend.
    (either that, or they’re hard-wired in a “in case of civilization-ending catastrophe, break glass” sort of sense)
    I wonder if this explains how hellish most modern high schools are for the ‘oddballs’ — cram hundreds of strangers together for hours every day, with no overarching unifying goal or clearly-defined hierarchy (unlike, say, the military), and damned little discipline, all during the part of the human life cycle where humans are *least* capable of rational, dispassionate thought… the emergent social order puts the strongest/fastest/meanest on top, and anyone who doesn’t join into the resulting scrum for status gets marked not only as “outsider, shun/cast out/kill!”, but also “easy prey to show dominance over.”
    …eh, I’m babbling.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Apologies for letting my emotions get the better of me.

    I’m autistic. Followed the second link. With her descriptions/quotes from the book, I am kind of horrified.

    First, what you were saying about tribe/not tribe? That’s something I’ve been very aware of since at least second grade. And thank you for saying it. Seriously. Most people seem to dance around it or deny that its still a part of how humans work. Having someone else acknowledge that side of humanity is comforting. There are 3 people (my mom, my twin (though not my other sister), my friend (who is one of my three roommates)) in the world that I can be around without fear that they will hurt me if I offend or annoy them. I get through things like class and grocery shopping by telling myself I’m being paranoid, but that really just locks the fear away so I don’t freeze. That sickening fear is still there pretty much any time I’m not alone in, in a space which is mine, with the windows covered and at least two locks on every door. This book managed to remind me of why I started being afraid of people.

    Second, I am very grateful for my mom. She has her flaws. She’s a bit forgetful, bad at keeping track of time. A bit of a hoarder. But the only times she wasn’t available to help or comfort or explain or do whatever else I needed or wanted were when she was in so much pain she couldn’t function. Migraines and back problems from a car accident/pregnancy. If I didn’t understand something, she was always willing to explain. If I wasn’t ok with something, she accepted it. Asked me to explain, because she wanted to know what was wrong and why, but accepted it. She has always been there, always treated me like a person, and always accepted me. The quotes from that book made me realize how lucky I am. Better a slightly forgetful hoarder than someone who seems to struggle with viewing her kid as a person.

    But even with all of that, I don’t don’t think the book should be pulled from print. Maybe this is just because I’ve been learning about the Spanish Inquisition recently, but I think censorship is wrong and foolish as well. On the practical level it just doesn’t seem to work. People who want to read it will still find a way. On the moral side, telling people what to read/think/believe is debatable at best. People can be idiots but I’d rather deal with the idiots, even though I get so afraid of them that I feel sick, than have someone else decide what I’m allowed to think.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. On reflection, I think the positive reviews may be less horrifying than they first seem.

    What’s the most hyperbolic worst case scenario for this book? Mein Kampf for autistics.

    Imagine someone reading Mein Kampf, and being so ignorant of Jews that they are grateful to hear that Jews exist, and having so little reading comprehension that they don’t notice any of the rest. “Oh, that’s why Moe doesn’t come in on Saturdays, but covers a shift on Sunday.” Okay, that’s not a plausible scenerio.

    The case can be made that such a scenario is actually plausible here.

    Item the first, ignorance about autism. Back when I came across isnt dot autistics dot org (decades ago, site may be dead, link may be wrong), I was a little bit puzzled by all the ‘theory of mind’ talk. “What’s that, can you eat it?” There are formal academic explanations and truthful practical explanations, but not everyone is going to seek them out and fully comprehend them. Basically, you are talking about people who want to know why most everyone treats them certain ways, or people who have a pretty strong intellectual interest in the subject. (The overlap of the two sets has some presence here.)

    Item the second, some people see mostly what they have been primed to expect. Such people might overlook the actual literal meaning of, say, Best Practices for Substance Abuse Treatment Utilizing Wall to Wall Therapeutic Methodology, if it was marketed by their favorite muppets talking about how many people the approach could help. Between the apparent marketing, and not reading the whole thing carefully and critically, you might expect Siri to be misread in such a way.

    How do these possibilities relate to the markets this sort of book could be chasing? One target audience is the sort who would just as readily read ‘my son with ALS’ or ‘me and my grognard son’. This is a market that wants an accessible book, and may bounce off of one that requires an understanding of, say, the finer details of someone’s Operation Coronet scenario. The careful, decent, intelligent reader of this market is less likely to leave an angry review, and more likely to stop early and move on to a different book. This leaves the remainder more heavily weighted towards assholes (whom we are expressing concern about), and let’s call them skimmers. Some of the reported positive reviews sound more like skimmers, who now have an explanation for, say, disturbing at-the-level-of-sensory-issues behavioral oddities. The other market is often people who already understand autism, have read other books on it, and will be assessing it on content rather than emotional experience or how accessible it is. “This is a terrible book on running a Coronet scenario. Three of the names of the staff officers are mispelled.”

    So I don’t think the positive reviews are as threatening as I had originally assessed them.

    You should always, on general principles, have some ongoing planning for worse scenarios.

    New York publishing is pretty closely tied to Big Eugenics, plus a number of other issues.


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