Over at the Autism from a Father’s Point of View blog, today’s post by Stuart Duncan was The day ‘hackers’ told 6 year old autistic children that they should ‘kill yourself’. One of Stuart’s sons is autistic and when he saw how much bullying autistic kids were experiencing on public Minecraft servers, he set up and now runs an autistic-friendly Minecraft server called Autcraft.
If that was the end of the story, it would still be a cautionary tale about bigotry and vulnerability, contempt and compassion, and ultimately about love and hate. But that’s not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. After two weeks of relative peace, hackers began to attack the site and have been doing so continuously for about three years. At one point they successfully redirected the site to their own servers and for a brief time kids logging on were told, among other things, that they should kill themselves.
The typical societal approach to bullying defines it as a two-party conflict. Over the years we’ve developed lots of interventions for both parties–bullies and victims. For most of us this makes it someone else’s problem. If you aren’t a bully and aren’t a victim then it’s not really personal. Except, that’s a fiction. If you aren’t a bully and aren’t a victim then your role is to define the victim pool available to bullies.
Bullies don’t just pick victims at random. They look for victims they can attack with impunity. They look for people who are already marginalized because they know nobody is going to come to that person’s aid. If we were going to rally to the defense of that kid sitting all alone at lunch time, that kid wouldn’t be sitting all alone in the first place. When we make someone an outcast we give permission for them to be victimized. We don’t have to say it out loud or acknowledge it for it to be true.
The scope and severity of bullying and hate crimes describes a map of who the social group cares least about and the degree of disdain in which the group holds that person or class of people.
The thing about society is that our ethics are more transactional than principled. If we intervened on behalf of victims out of a belief that bullying is unacceptable, then it would not matter the character of the person victimized. We’d intervene simply because it is the right thing to do. Such people are rare and when they do walk among us we revere them and build entire religions around them.
Unfortunately, most of us practice relative ethics. In this model, some people have intrinsically more human worth than others. People high up on the food chain deserve more of our respect and we’ll protect them if they are threatened. If those at the bottom get hurt, well they had it coming. Family, friends, peers all cluster close to us in the social hierarchy. Based on victim statistics, autistics other than family members are somewhere far below.
The less like us a person is, the less interaction we have with them, the less intrinsic worth we attribute to them and the more likely they are to be a victim. When we consider that the primary indicator of autism is social impairment, it is little wonder that the autistic population is vastly over-represented as victims of violence. That we consider the autistic kid weird factors into our willingness–or lack thereof–to intervene to stop a bully.
Consider what this tells us about character. If we intervene out of principle then the character of the victim doesn’t factor into the equation. That intervention is an expression of the principle that bullying is unacceptable. It tells us nothing of the character of the victim and everything about our own character. Most people I’ve discussed this with agreed with this assessment.
The next case is a bit harder for many folks to accept though. If our intervention is situational then the character of the victim still doesn’t factor into the equation. The autistic kid may be weird and socially inept but those are communication impairments and not character. In fact, the dividing line between the populations of people on whose behalf we would or would not intervene tells us nothing about the character of the individuals in those pools. It does however quite faithfully reveal a map of our own character.
If that’s true then it means bullying and hate crimes are really not someone else’s problem. It means we have the capability to act and that failure to do so leaves a stain of culpability on our souls. It means that victim statistics reveal the map of our society’s character just as our personal rules of engagement define us as individuals. And the picture revealed isn’t flattering.
When Stuart reported the hackers attacking Autcraft servers the FBI were uninterested. When he reported it to Mojang, the developers of Minecraft, they too were uninterested. If the hackers used the exact same methods to attack the web site of a presidential candidate, if they told the candidate to go kill him or herself, I guarantee the FBI would investigate. That they have not and we don’t rally and force them to shows that our enforcement is situational. Some people are better protected than others. Autistic children didn’t make the cut.
As a society we’ll intervene in a heartbeat for the concept of children. Unborn children are passionately defended. Hypothetical children are just as passionately defended from all manner of perversions real and imagined. Conceptual kids who exist only as rhetoric have yet to be cursed with the human failings of race, religion, socio-economic class, gender, or disability and receive unending and passionate support of social reform groups and our legislature.
Actual flesh-and-blood children on the other hand are not so lucky. Once born they are assigned relative worth depending on what they are. Race, religion, socio-economic class, gender, and disability determine the extent of support and protection they receive from society, or conversely the degree to which they are institutionally disadvantaged. The question of who they are–their character as individuals–doesn’t come into play until after their relative human worth is already decided, and when we do bother to factor character into the equation we do so only to diminish someone’s standing.
Addressing this is easier said than done. Defending a principle sounds simple. If something is wrong it is always wrong. That takes all the guesswork and judgment out of it. But sometimes defending a principle benefits people you dislike. In those times we need to remind ourselves that it is the principle we are defending and not the person.
Most importantly though, once we accept that bullying requires permission of the social group then we can intervene through influencing that group. We can explain the role of onlookers in providing tacit permission and encourage people to withhold that permission. We can go from telling people it gets better to actually making it better. Today. Right here, right now.
Personally, I direct my outreach through many different channels. Obviously, writing is a large part of it. I speak at anti-bullying events and I volunteer at a local elementary school. I use Donors Choose to direct funds directly to teachers with autistic and special needs kids. When I find groups working toward compassion-based social reform, I support them financially and with in-kind gifts where possible.
One such group is the Special Assistance Network, a newly formed non-profit out of Florida. The founder Trish Bowden realized that families dealing with profound disability are most in need of legal protections such as trusts and wills but often least able to afford them. Not one for doing things by half-measures, she earned a law degree while working full time, then took early retirement from a prestigious and well paying job to study for and pass the bar. With law degree in hand she then assembled the team who would become the core of the Special Assistance Network.
Among her other goals for SAN was that it have some autistic leadership at the top. She reached out to me and I’m happy to announce that I have accepted an advisory position on the Special Assistance Network board. It is early days yet and we don’t know what SAN will blossom into but we do have our first client. I look forward to contributing and helping the organization grow.
And although we can’t help Stuart with his hacker problem, SAN is working to address the root of the problem through leadership and example. The FBI might not care about autistic kids. Mojang may not care about autistic kids. Society may not care about autistic kids enough to rally around Stuart and demand equal protection under the law for the Autcraft server and community. But SAN is willing to stand up and say “We care. You are important and deserve the opportunity to live up to your fullest potential.” The hacker activity at Autcraft is a vivid reminder of why we need to take that stand.
When I talk about compassion-based social reform people often tell me I’m wildly optimistic, if they are being polite. Others simply tell me I’m delusional. Nothing I work on, they tell me, can ever hope to solve the problem or even make a big dent. In the end it all comes down to character. To know the extent to which autistic people are victimized and stand silent is to give assent. Taking action isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about saying #WeAreNotThis. It’s about saying I am not this. In the end that’s the most important thing any of us can do.