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Autism Is No Excuse For Racist Priorities

Much thanks to Olivia from Skepchick for her help with this post.
For some background on what happened with Mark Schierbecker at Skepticon 8 and what happened there I suggest reading the re-caps from Alex at Skepchick, Jason Thibeault at Freethought Blogs, and Feminace on her blog.

After the events of Skepticon and after Skepticon posted an apology the incident has gotten a lot of attention on social media and traditional media. In that process the fact that Schierbecker is autistic became a major part of the story, particularly on Twitter. Some of this came from Schierbecker himself, but a huge number of the people bringing attention to his diagnosis are known anti-feminist and anti-social justice trolls.

The claim being made is that those criticising Schierbecker are just bullying an autistic person. In fact, many of them refer to him as an “autistic kid” despite the fact that he is an adult University student (people with various learning disabilities are often infantilized in this way). Skepticon, and those attendees like me who were unhappy with the inclusion of this Q&A in the programming, are being accused of ableism because we are willing to critique Schierbecker for his racist perspectives and priorities.
Most people making this argument are known trolls from the Slymepit and related anti-social justice groups. It is not a claim made in good faith, but instead intended to undermine both Skepticon and people trying to work against racism. However, it is possible that some are making this claim seriously, or that those who hear it will consider it a valid concern, so I want to address it anyway.

First of all, autism does not make someone racist, or sexist, or prejudiced in any other way. A society built on white supremacy and patriarchy do that. In fact, there are many autistic people deeply invested in social justice issues and who work on changing society for the better in our own ways. The ways in which we do this may be very different than allistic people in some cases, but we’re here and participating in these movements every day.

Secondly, Schierbecker put himself in a position as a public figure. He is being featured on traditional news media, is pushing his priorities publically, and chose to be on stage speaking publically about these issues. This means he can be publically criticised, both in the moment as he was at the conference, and afterward as he has been across the internet. When a person decides to take a stance on something on a stage, the audience is going to respond to it. When that person is doing harm through their stance, they are going to be criticised for it. In fact, that audience has a responsibility to respond to things like the Schierbecker Q&A

In fact, to say that Schierbecker cannot handle that criticism because he is autistic is in itself incredibly ableist. A key part of not being ableist is to assume competence – we assume that someone is able to do something until we are told otherwise. To assume that Schierbecker is not able to understand why his priorities contribute to white supremacy is to presume incompetence, and I am not going to do that. I believe he can understand this and do better, if he is willing to see beyond his own ego.

So, to those posting “gotcha” tweets and blog comments – no, you haven’t caught the Skepticon crowd throwing an “autistic kid” under the bus. We’re criticising an aspiring journalist for putting his personal desires before the safety and lives of black students at his school. We’re assuming that as a person who has made himself a public figure he is competent to handle the pushback that he is getting. I believe that autism does not mean that Schierbecker is not capable of being better.

Image is of Mark Schierbecker.

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Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes is a queer polyamorous transman, curious skeptic, and enthusiastic seeker of knowledge. He's an undergraduate student in his 30's and loves teaching people about alternative sexuality and gender issues.

1 Comment

  1. November 21, 2015 at 8:19 am —

    This so much.

    There’s so much that is wrong with the “black students bully autistic kid thrown under the bus by the evil trans woman” story.

    This is somebody who was actively trying to violate other people’s boundaries. Somebody who actively sought out his 15 minutes of fame. You cannot suddenly claim that all this social interaction and stuff is too much for you just because it turns uncomfortable.

    And yes, it robs Schierbecker of any agency and autonomy in this whole affair as well.

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