Whether you agree or disagree with her message, Greta Thunberg has suffered from the typical stigmatizing comments from those who disagree with her because of her Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. This is the kind of ignorance most people have left behind in the last century.
But some critics, instead of focusing and replying to her message about the threats of climate change, chose to focus on the messenger, Thunberg herself. Calling her “mentally ill,” one critic even went so far as to suggest she was some sort of parentally-controlled pawn in a vast global conspiracy.
It shows a stunning amount of discrimination, stigma, simple lack of respect, and an inability to argue from the facts when someone brings in another person’s mental health status if that status has little to do with the topic at hand.
Asperger’s syndrome has been renamed as a mild form of an autism spectrum disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)(American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It is in a category of disorders called Neurodevelopmental Disorders, ones that typically begin and are diagnosed in childhood.
In reading many conservative critics opinions of Thunberg, many seemed to focus on the personal characteristics of Thunberg, rather than her message. And just to be clear, her message was a very simple one. She asked the leaders of the world and lawmakers to listen to the science and scientists who are in strong, general agreement about the impact of climate change. Very few critics actually addressed the subject on which she was speaking.
Instead, they went after Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish teenage girl who was passionate and articulate in her speech to the U.N. But you wouldn’t know it from some reactions to it.
Even the President of the United States, Donald Trump — who, you’d think, might show some restraint when responding to the speech by an energized and enthusiastic teenager — mocked Thunberg. “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Trump tweeted sarcastically after her speech to the U.N.
Conservative commentator Michael Knowles led the charge in the personal, ad hominem attack against a 16-year-old girl on a Fox News program:
“None of that matters because the climate hysteria movement is not about science. If it were about science it would be led by scientists rather than by politicians and a mentally ill Swedish child who is being exploited by her parents and by the international left.”
It’s as if Knowles listened to a completely different person talking to lawmakers and leaders this past week. She specifically said, “I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists… I want you to unite behind the science.” How much more clear can an advocate be?
Instead, Knowles and other conservatives piled on the “mental illness” and “poor parenting” bandwagon, attempting to derail Thunberg’s impassioned defense of the planet. People who gladly tell others that how they parent their own children is nobody else’s business felt the freedom to become the people they regularly lambast for giving out parenting advice.
Dave Rubin, a popular conservative podcaster, tweeted:
She is right about a few things.
1. She shouldn’t be up there.
2. People have stolen her dreams with empty words…just not the people she thinks.pic.twitter.com/uo86W3s7Mm
— Dave Rubin (@RubinReport) September 23, 2019
Ian Miles Cheong, the editor of something called Human Events, suggested Thunberg was just a “prop” (which is exactly how all teenagers like to be thought of, as children incapable of independent thought and nothing more than the pawn of someone else):
Am I a bad person for thinking children shouldn’t be used as political props like Greta Thunberg? pic.twitter.com/kGEErp35Jn
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) September 23, 2019
Attacking the Messenger, Not the Message
Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against those with a mental or neurodevelopmental disorder are still commonplace, sadly. It is a clear indication that many people still hold very prejudiced and backwards views when it comes to
Vox noted that “Thunberg has been open about having Asperger’s syndrome, tweeting in August that “I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.”
Thunberg added that, “I’m not public about my diagnosis to ‘hide’ behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness,’ or something negative.”
Andy Ngo, an “independent journalist” defended Knowles use of the language that he did, because she apparently does struggle with different disorders:
Knowles described Greta as “mentally ill” in an interview, citing her family’s autobiography. Everyone has rushed to condemn him. In the book, released last year, her parents detail Greta’s struggles w/depression & severe anxiety. She stopped eating, talking & going to school. https://t.co/zvDounfsrU
— Andy Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) September 24, 2019
But he completely — and purposefully — misses the bigger question: why are people talking about Thunberg’s mental health status? If she had a cancer diagnosis or diabetes, would people be trying to dismiss her comments based upon those diagnoses?
Of course not.
And that’s the point. By labeling her with these diagnoses, critics believe it’s a legitimate response to Thunberg’s argument. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is simply more stigma and prejudice being thrown at a girl in an attempt to silence her.
This is the worst kind of stigma, but I have no doubt it will not stop Thunberg’s impassioned defense of the planet and helping to educate others about the dangers of climate change. Every month we’re given more scientific evidence about how the world’s environment and climate is changing for the worse, how flooding is becoming commonplace, how bird and other species are in decline, and as the oceans warm, fish populations decline.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.