Three kinds of people have been sharply dividing the nation over the past few weeks: People named Tom Brady, people who had movies made about their involvement in the Iraq War, and people who refuse to vaccinate their children. Each reveals the utter insanity of large swaths of the American public in their own special way. But I’m going to focus on the latter, because of what it reveals about just how stigmatized mental differences are in American society.
Now, it would be easy to rail against anti-vaccine parents for bringing extremely contagious deadly diseases back from near-extinction, putting the lives of their children, and other immunocompromised children, in needless jeopardy because they can’t be bothered to learn what scientific consensus or herd immunity means. And many have.
But I’m going to take the high road. After all, science is hard. And I, too, am frankly suspicious of the medical industrial complex.
What I’ll rail against them about instead is that they are so afraid of mental difference that they would prefer to risk a measles outbreak to non-standard psychological makeup.
Before I go on, just to reiterate, there is zero peer-reviewed, non-debunked evidence that any vaccine has in any way contributed to any mental illnesses, disabilities, or even changes. From the New York Times, “The anti-vaccine movement can largely be traced to a 1998 report in a medical journal that suggested a link between vaccines and autism but was later proved fraudulent and retracted.” On the other hand, there is a ton of peer-reviewed, non-debunked evidence that not vaccinating is the leading cause of the recent resurgence of measles cases. NTY again: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that measles cases soared last year to 644, many more than in any other year in more than a decade. Since Jan. 1, the C.D.C. has confirmed 84 measles cases in 14 states. California’s health agency, which is updating a measles count more frequently, has reported 91 cases, with the biggest number, 27, here in Orange County.”
So that means two things. First, many parents refuse to believe there is any chance of a spike in deadly diseases as a result of not vaccinating. This is a level of delusion that’s hard to even comprehend, much like still believing the Iraq War was necessary or beneficial. But for the rest of non-vaccinating parents, they must believe that the small chance of bringing back whooping cough is worth decreasing the chances their kids will end up on the autism spectrum. Let’s say that again. They would rather kids possibly die of a preventable disease than be slightly off of what’s generally considered psychologically normal.
The problem with mental illness is that it’s fundamentally less straightforward than any other type of illness. We know how a liver is supposed to function. When it functions differently in a better way, no one generally knows. When it functions differently is a worse way, we call it an illness. Determining that someone is mentally ill requires knowing how people function normally, and then deciding whether deviations off the mean are good or bad.
Let’s look at autism specifically. Autism is marked by certain deficiencies, the most glaring being the ability to read others’ emotions. It’s also marked, sometimes, by other heightened abilities, such as memory or information synthesis. Autism prevents some people from forming meaningful relationships or holding down a job. It provides others with incredible genius. People with autism are different from people without autism, yes. But what makes that difference an illness? Being an asshole also prevents some people from forming meaningful relationships or holding down a job. Does every form of asshole need a diagnosis?
And what makes the mean preferable? All genius is neuroatypical, by definition. That what differentiates genius from madness in our society is the ability to get along well with neurotypical people and fit snugly into the machinery of 9-to-5 corporate work should give us pause about the shaky foundations of our bigotry against people who fall outside that mean.
One drawback of this bigotry can be seen in the measled-up faces of hundreds of American children. The other is unseen. We’ll never know how many geniuses languish unrecognized, who never utilize their strengths because they spend their energy trying to fix what’s wrong with them instead of use what is right. How horrible to go through life feeling broken instead of just different.
We can get angry at parents deathly (literally) afraid of a non-neurotypical life for their children, sure. That’s easy. Or we can look in the mirror at how we contribute to this fear by stigmatizing and ostracising people who think and feel outside the mean.
This post originally appeared at C4SS.org.