For more than a year now, Swedish teen Greta Thunberg has been the face of a global surge in youth climate activism, starting with school strikes in her home country and culminating in mass international demonstrations last week. In a nation that’s divided on the issue of climate change, the 16-year-old activist is a polarizing figure.
She’s adored by the American left for her chutzpah, which was on full display at the United Nations on Monday. She chastised the assembled officials, diplomats and political leaders for offering only half-hearted technocratic solutions in the face of global catastrophe: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Among climate denialists on the right, she’s portrayed as a pawn manipulated by the left for political gain. Conservative filmmaker (and convicted felon) Dinesh D’souza likened the pig-tailed Thunberg to blonde girls used in Nazi propaganda:
Conservative contempt for Thunberg often manifests in concern trolling that infantilizes her. She’s described as a “child,” but Thunberg, who turns 17 in January, will be legally an adult in a little over a year. One Breitbart writer even recommended giving her a “spanking,” which is as creepy as it is condescending.
Most sickeningly, the right feigns concern for Thunberg’s mental health while in the same stroke, attempting to invalidate her message.
In a discussion on Fox about the climate conference, Michael Knowles, the host of a show on conservative website The Daily Wire, said: “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.”
On Twitter, Knowles disingenuously attempted to claim some moral high ground:
In his mind, there’s nothing wrong with what he said. After all, her mother wrote a book about her “mental issues,” right? But this incident highlights a problem with the way mental illness is conceptualized and spoken about in America.
Conservatives might deride the shift in the language used to describe disability (ex. differently abled, developmentally challenged) as needless “political correctness” but the subtle semantic distinctions are important. A “disabled person” is defined by their illness—they are broken—whereas a “person with a disability” is still a whole human who happens to have an illness.
Knowles reduces Thunberg’s entire identity to “mentally ill Swedish child” robbing her of any agency whatsoever. He implies that having a mental disorder makes her functionally crippled and vulnerable to exploitation.
In his follow-up Tweet, Knowles is more conscious about his language, characterizing her as “a child with mental disorders,” but the underlying assumptions remain unchanged: she is a child whose mental illness renders her incapable of thinking for herself.
The conditions Thunberg has been diagnosed with—Asperger’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder—aren’t debilitating. There are countless examples throughout history of people with these same disorders who’ve reached the top of their field.
Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins was only diagnosed with Asperger’s in his 70s, after a long and distinguished career. Martin Luther’s OCD didn’t stop him from sparking the Reformation and altering the course of human history.
Because the mind is the locus of the self, one can’t neatly draw a line between a person and their mental illness they way you can with a physical disability. Many scholars, such as psychologist Kay Redfield Jameson, have studied the connection between genius and mental illness, observing a link between atypical psychology and great achievement in science, art and politics.
Thunberg, speaking of her condition, has said that “being different is a superpower,” and she’s right. Despite their vastly different connotations, “abnormal” and “extraordinary” have the same literal meaning. There’s a good case to be made that Thunberg’s peculiar psychology is crucial to why she’s so effective as an activist.
Steve Silberman, author of a book on autism, wrote in an article for Vox:
[T]he idea that people like Greta Thunberg have valuable insights not in spite of their autism but because of it is gaining ground as part of a global movement to honor neurodiversity, a word based on the concept of biodiversity — the notion that in communities of living things, diversity and difference means strength and resilience.
This view is shared by psychologist Tony Attwood, an international authority on Asperger’s, who argues that people with the syndrome “have a different, not defective, way of thinking.” He notes that they usually have “a strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities than would be expected with other people.”
Those characteristics of Thunberg’s personality that many on the left find so endearing—her passion and forthrightness—are common in people with Asperger’s. Attwood explains that people with the syndrome are “renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice.”
People like Knowles, who insincerely clutch pearls over the “exploitation” of a “mentally ill Swedish child,” have obvious ulterior motives. They see the climate movement picking up steam and they’re willing to resort to the most disgusting ableism to undermine one of its most prominent figures.
For her part, Thunberg just shrugs it off: “It’s quite hilarious when the only thing people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, as it means they have no argument, or nothing else to say,”