Video version of this post at the end.
One of the reasons that I am angry about producer Lee Hirsch's decision not to mention Tyler Long's Asperger's syndrome in the movie Bully is that doing so gave Emily Bazelon an excuse to trash another kid who killed himself.
Bazelon's point of view is that people who kill themselves are the only ones who have any responsibility for their suicides, and that no one else should ever have to take legal or moral responsibility for that action. Because I spent fifteen years teaching in public schools, I know that Ms. Bazelon's efforts could not be more misguided: the problem in America's schools is not the half dozen cases where bullies have arguably been prosecuted too rigorously but the thousands of cases where nothing at all is done and everyone looks the other way.
In this article, she may not realize how blunt she is being about the fact that she has no sympathy for kids like Tyler, who are unable to stand up to bullying:
I was prepared to love this movie for offering an in-depth take on a difficult problem that I’ve been covering for a few years. And I did love parts of it—the parts about children who face troubles from their peers but also show inspiring resilience.
Tyler doesn't inspire her. So she pulls out from the court records the one mean thing she could find that he said-- it's not relevant, but it makes him look bad. She criticizes Hirsch for taking Tyler's parents side too much, but actually paraphrases the school district's brief and pretends that she is just giving "more of the story."
She even calls into question the idea that Tyler was really bullied at all:
The suicide note has seemingly nothing to do with bullying. By now, you must be wondering: What bullying did Tyler Long experience? Honestly, after watching the movie and reading all of the legal papers filed by Tyler’s family and his school, I’m not sure. In the film, David Long says that kids banged Tyler’s head into a school locker a day or two before his death. No one has said who those kids are supposed to be. Murray County High has 42 video cameras installed throughout the school and grounds. They cover the hallway where Tyler’s locker was. The police looked at the tape on the relevant days and saw no one pushing Tyler’s head into a locker or doing anything else to him. This allegation also disappeared from the family’s lawsuit after it was challenged by the school. In the movie and in the suit, Tyler’s family says that he was bullied daily. Nine students quoted in the Longs’ brief say things like “students spit in his food in the cafeteria,” and “he was pushed in the back of his head in the cafeteria and would yell ‘leave me alone’ and then throw his plate away and leave,” and “they’d call him retarded, slow, faggot,” and “people would pull his pants down in the bathroom and throw stuff at him.”
She changes what are cited as specific incidents in the Longs' brief into vague-sounding generalities, and pretends that's all they are. She also chooses to leave out the more disturbing and specific allegations: that Tyler had things thrown at him while he was attempting to use the toilet and that another boy rubbed his genitals on him. She leaves out the specific things that Tyler complained about (that other students said he was gay and looked at gay porn, for one) and then pretends that those things just weren't there.
What matters to her is that there is no obvious trigger from a bully that happened immediately before Tyler's death. Also he did not say "A bully made me kill myself" in his suicide note. And those are fair points. Which she could have made without suggesting that there was no real evidence that he was bullied.
Because she leaves out fact that after Tyler died, other students celebrated his suicide and were not stopped or disciplined in any way. They wore nooses around their necks to school. The school let them. They don't dispute that fact in their own brief. The idea that such a hostile culture could have grown up after Tyler's death without being there before it is absurd. To write such an environment off with "maybe kids were mean and unfriendly in Tyler’s junior year" is dishonest at best. To tell Tyler's story to a general audience and leave out the reaction to his death at the school is despicable.
But so is bringing in an "expert" to drive home her own belief that people with Asperger's syndrome are unsympathetic. Ann Haas from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is astonishingly bigoted:
". . .If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive. We might feel sympathy for him, but he wouldn’t have the emotional pull of a character who is being romanticized. When you turn a real person, who had a very painful, distressing life, into a kind of fairytale character, that’s something young people are much more likely to identify with. And identification is at the heart of contagion.”
Got that? They needed to say he was an aspie because that would make him less sympathetic. Tell that to the people who voted for James Durbin on American Idol last year.
I had an enormously painful and frustrating conversation with Ms. Haas yesterday. She told me this:
It is our belief that in most cases people commit suicide because of an underlying disorder, a mental disorder or, in the case of Aspergers, a developmental disorder. It is very difficult to convey this without stigmatizing people who have those disorders.
That's because it is a stigmatizing, biased belief.
I think anyone who takes seriously the idea that people with Asperger's syndrome should be safe at school or have a place in the world would immediately see the bigotry in this article.
So it pained me tremendously that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is one of my favorite writers, could not see it, and recommended it without reservation. He does not see that she matches perfectly the formulation of bias I recently quoted him as giving on Up with Chris Hayes:
Absolute sympathy for some people, and absolute skepticism for others.
Emily Bazelon shows absolute sympathy for the people accused of playing a role in the suicides of other people. She shows absolute skepticism to people like Tyler Long. She fails to notice that the school district references the money his special education cost the general population and uses that to suggest that he could not have been a victim of discrimination because he is a member of a privileged group-- that's the thinking of people who would argue that Affirmative Action proves that African Americans are members of a privileged group, and, thus, racism cannot exist.
And Mr. Coates, who I respect tremendously, holds that up as a model to his readers. He was more eloquent than anyone else for me on the smearing of Trayvon Martin after his death, but he fails to see that Ms. Bazelon's career is based largely on finding the equivalent of that irrelevant empty marijuana bag, and letting everyone know it was in the backpack of some kid who killed himself.
Mr. Coates recently asked his readers why it is that white people think that any accusation of racism means that the accuser is saying the person doing a racist thing is all bad. I think one of the reasons is that they have not had an experience I have often had as a gay person and as autistic person, that I think people who are members of ethnic minorities often have, and that I have today with Mr. Coates: I know he is good, I know he is smart, and I know he thinks I am less than him.
I have been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin this week (If you aren't familiar with the case, please start by watching the clip from the Chris Hayes show embedded below). One reason I've been thinking about Trayvon is the danger that our own autistic men of color face. Most recently, Stephon Watts was killed by police for attacking them with what his family says was a butter knife. Ernest Vassell was killed by police last year for carrying a toy gun.
I especially wanted to show the above sequence from Melissa Harris-Perry, which features young black men reacting to the tragedy. They are the people I am most interested in hearing from, just as I want most to hear from autistic people about events that affect us.
After the jump, I also include a clip from my favorite MSNBC show, Up With Chris Hayes. One of the other reasons I've been thinking about Trayvon Martin so much this week is that Ta-Nehisi Coates, my current favorite writer on the web, has been writing brilliantly and passionately about him. Coates appeared on Hayes' show yesterday to discuss the case, and the entire panel ended up talking about bias in a very nuanced and intelligent way that I wish we could bring to similar discussions about autism.
Coates talks about how we think of racists as "evil trolls who live under the bridge." We do not recognize that we all carry bias, that we are all guilty of bigotry. We want to say these things exist only in the other, and only when they approach cartoon villainy (like The Help). He says that bias also operates in this way:
Absolute sympathy for some people, and absolute skepticism for others.
A Boy Like Me
Please read this one. It does relate to autism. I think it's best for me not to explain how directly, at least not much, and not until the end. I'd rather have you put things together in your own way.
Part One. The Effect of Bigotry on Self-Image
Did you know that dolls played a crucial role in desegregating America's schools?
One of the things that lawyers had to prove in Brown vs. The Board of Education was that a system that separated children by race had damaging effects. A key piece of evidence that they used to do that was a series of experiments with dolls done by African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark:
The Clarks' doll experiments grew out of Mamie Clark's master's degree thesis. They published three major papers between 1939 and 1940 on children's self perception related to race. Their studies found contrasts among children attending segregated schools in Washington, DC versus those in integrated schools in New York. They found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black; that, asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a lighter shade than was accurate; and that the children gave the color "white" attributes such as good and pretty, but "black" was qualified as bad and ugly.They viewed the results as evidence that the children had internalized racism caused by being discriminated against and stigmatized by segregation.
The video above is from 1968. In it, actor Bill Cosby contrasts pictures created by African American and Caucasian children. Dr. Emanuel Hammer explains that the pictures drawn by white kids show healthy self-images, while the ones created by black kids show feeling of powerlessness. It's disturbing for at least three reasons:
A. The contrast between the pictures, which indicates that black and white children still saw themselves very differently, even after school desegregation. It was not necessary for kids to be completely separated from the dominant culture in order to feel inferior to it.
B. Dr. Hammer adopts a standard similar to the one used by the children in the Clark experiment: the work created by the the dominant group, the white kids, is "good," so the ways in which the work created by the minority group vary from it must be "bad." But my first reaction when I look at them is that white kids' pictures are "ordinary" and "boring," while the black kids' pictures are "original" and "talented." Does everyone in every picture have to smile and have arms? It is also possible that the pictures reflect not just subjective self-image but reality: I can think of a lot of reasons why white kids would see more smiling people than black kids in 1968.
C. African American Cosby has adopted the same standards as the white doctor. He agrees that the work created by the majority is good, and that the work of people like himself is bad. He believes that the way to help people like himself is to help them be more like the people in the dominant group. He associates "white" with "good," in much more subtle ways than the ways that kids in the Clark doll experiment did.