So I’m going to keep this brief. I’ve already spent too much of my life arguing against the utter crock of shit that generally exudes from Simon Baron-Cohen’s person. If you want to read arguments about autism and empathy, I literally would like you to just Google “autistic,” “blog,” and “empathy” (not “autism and empathy,” because we all know what happens when you do that). You can also look for posts on Diary Of A Mom that contain the word “empathy,” and those will also help. Now that that’s been said, I can get on with things.
Caption: The pictures are of the front and back covers of Simon Baron-Cohen’s most recent book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Yes, I’m serious). The front cover has the title, the author, and a blurb from (of course) the New York Times that reads “A simple but persuasive hypothesis for a new way to think about evil.”
The back cover includes the following book description: “Borderline personality disorder. Psychopathy. Narcissism. Autism. The people who exhibit these conditions have one thing in common: a lack of empathy. In some cases, this absence can be dangerous–resulting in such horrific acts as the Columbine massacre–but in others it can simply mean a different way of seeing the world. In The Science of Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen, an award-winning psychologist who has been investigating autism for decades, offers a new brain-based theory of human cruelty, examining not only the biological but also the social and environmental factors that can erode empathy. A critical look at the science of compassion, The Science of Evil calls for major changes in the way we think about, and even treat, human cruelty.” The blurbs on the back are boring, and basically can’t match the disinterested, opaque hubris of that NYT comment from the front cover.
- Do. Not. Even. Start. With. Me. On. Borderline. Personality. Disorder. Or, as I like to call it, “complex PTSD in women/people who aren’t cis men.” *(See note at bottom for an explanation of the gender terms I’m using here)* You might think I’m joking. I’m not. It is unequivocally one of the most absurdly sexist diagnostic categories still in existence. Classic Baron-Cohen.
- Psychopathy. Narcissism. Autism. A convenient quote from the Wikipedia page for “Psychopathy” should tell us what to think of that first choice: “Although no psychiatric or psychological organization has sanctioned a diagnosis titled ‘psychopathy’, assessments of psychopathic characteristics are widely used in criminal justice settings in some nations, and may have important consequences for individuals. The term is also used by the general public, in popular press, and in fictional portrayals.” And every time Simon Baron-Cohen uses the word “narcissism” I just laugh. For a long, long time. And then the last one. That’s why we’re here, ain’t it? I think that I can summarize the logic behind all these word choices pretty well: “Socially-stigmatized, fear-mongering, psychological mumbo-jumbo; more socially-stigmatized, fear-mongering psychological mumbo-jumbo (that’s part of some DSM Personality Disorder diagnoses); THE WORD FOR THAT ABYSS OF SOCIETY FROM WHENCE THE TERRIFYING NONVERBAL KRAKENS CREEP!”
- I’m waiting for his justification for referencing Columbine. I will be waiting for all eternity, because there is no justification for referencing Columbine unless this is a book about gun control, or the kinds of toxic societal messages that teach so many young white men that if they feel alone, ill-treated, or unloved, that justifies trying to solve their problems by using firearms to murder large numbers of innocent people. Do not debate the race and gender politics of this with me, by the way, regardless of whether or not your name is Simon Baron-Cohen. I will win.
- I like that cute nod towards “Hey, sometimes really smart white guys have Aspergers and no empathy, but it’s okay because they’re math and science geniuses!” So sweet, really. Much progress, super compassions, very equality.
- Nobody told me that this whole time he’s been investigating autism! Simon Baron-Cohen, autism detective. I’m curious as to whether or not autism is a felony, or just a misdemeanor?
- As a giant cognitive science/neuroscience nerd who also spends a lot of time studying the history and philosophy of science, I can tell all you one thing with almost complete confidence: whenever you see someone use the phrase “brain-based theory,” I can almost guarantee that the theory in question is complete and total popular-science-reporting fluff-bullshit. Nobody worth their salt feels the need to clarify that their theory is “brain-based.” Neuroscience studies the brain, and the things in the brain. “Brain-based” is really just shorthand for “Hey! I’m someone who makes theories that are like way super better than dumb social science theories because I study brains and brains are real science, unlike all your wimpy, girly, PC feelings-research.”
- “…[N]ot only the biological, but also the social and environmental factors…” You’ll need to excuse me while my uninterrupted screaming devolves into a kind of vicious witch-cackle. There’s no reason for concern. All of these sounds are normal.
- Ah, yes. Human cruelty. That thing that exists everywhere in every culture in the same way even before colonization or invasion by “Western” folk occurs. That. That like…total bullshit concept. That. I’m going to go off on a limb and say that I’ll bet hardcore money that Baron-Cohen managed to write a book on “evil” and “cruelty” that focuses entirely on: genocide (which, as we all know, is limited to the Holocaust, Rwanda/Sudan, and the other two or three instances of violent racial cleansing in the past 25 that were covered by American news media); serial killers; terrorism (which, as we all know, is limited to violence committed by brown and black people); and mass-murderers. I’m also going to bet that at no point will it substantively discuss: slavery, domestic violence, rape, war, systematic policies of incarceration based on race, or torture.
- Just, you know, needed to include/end this with a brief shoutout to the “Extreme Male Brain Theory,” which I noticed is markedly absent from either cover of this book…I’m confused as to why he feels the need to be so coy, given that everyone knows only lady-brain have secrets and MAN-BRAIN JUST GO SMASH, INVENT MATH, HAVE PENIS, WILL TRAVEL!
That is all I have to say for the moment.
*(For those of you who aren’t familiar with the gender terms I sometimes throw around, a quick primer: trans is the prefix used for someone whose gender assigned at birth does not match the gender they identify as/experience life as. A trans woman is a woman who was not assigned the gender “female” when she was born, a trans man is a man who was not assigned the gender “male” when he was born. Cis is the prefix used for someone whose gender assigned at birth matches the gender they identify as/experience life as. These prefixes are derived from Latin, and used in a variety of fields/contexts–in organic chemistry, cis and trans are used as prefixes to describe the position of two functional groups on a molecule. The cis prefix means the two groups are in equivalent spatial positions/point the same direction, and trans means they aren’t in equivalent positions/point in opposite directions. Fun facts of the day. When it comes to talking about social stigma, prejudice, and gender inequality, I try to make sure that I refer to both women and trans/non-gender-conforming people, on the one hand, as opposed to cis men, on the other. This is because, when it comes to people being hurt, excluded, bullied, and abused because their gender puts them at a relative social disadvantage, both women and trans/non-gender-conforming people need to be considered marginalized/disadvantaged groups relative to cis men. Obviously things are more complicated than this once you take into account the other parts of people’s identities, like their race, class, disability/ability, etc. But those are many footnotes for many other days!)