Life

Don’t Call Greta Thunberg “Superhuman”

We don’t need pernicious code words about autism to praise a remarkable 16-year-old girl.

Greta Thunberg at a podium.
Greta Thunberg speaks at a rally on Sep. 27 in Montréal.
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

On Monday, an effigy of climate activist Greta Thunberg was hanged from a bridge in Rome. Around the effigy’s neck: A sign that read “Greta is your God.” Italian authorities have vowed to investigate, but the display seems to be the latest symptom of the fiercely polarized reaction that has greeted Thunberg—in this case the revulsion she’s inspired on the right.

The incident sparked the stunned headlines and tweets you’d expect. But I’ve also noticed a troubling flipside to Thunberg’s reception that’s drawn less attention. If not quite consecration, Thunberg has drawn intense adoration from the left, largely from well-meaning people who see a revolutionary figure in her. And that praise, too, has too often crossed the line into the dehumanizing.

All the reaction to Thunberg rests on a simple fact: her diagnosis 0f Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. On the right, it has been used to deride and delegitimize her accomplishments. There are numerous claims that she is being exploited by her parents, environmentalists, or otherwise unseen forces. The Federalist gave a particularly evocative account, claiming “sexualized dances, psychedelic hallucinogens, worshiping nature, confessing sins in pagan animism, worshiping purified teen saints, and throwing them up on an altar, bereft of their childhood.” (Seriously.) Who precisely is doing any of this is unclear, but it sounds like quite a party.

Other right-wing commentators have been considerably less creative, directly referencing Thunberg’s mental health. She has repeatedly been called “deranged” and a “mentally ill child.” Piers Morgan has mocked Thunberg’s voice. The president of the United States has mocked Thunberg’s demeanor. It is unusual, even in today’s unruly social media sphere, to see so many middle-aged men shamelessly attempt to bully a teenage girl. She is not a person to them. She is a symbol of a truth they would prefer to dismiss and ignore.

Then there are the commentators who love Thunberg—and portray her as something beyond human. At Vox, David Roberts claimed that autism confers the power to be “indifferent, often blind, to social cues and incentives,” “a kind of superpower.” Liza Featherstone at Jacobin reckons that autism makes Thunberg “uniquely suited” to leading a worldwide movement. The frontman of ABBA has also said that Greta Thunberg has a “superpower,” perhaps a garbled reference to a tweet in which Thunberg, or someone closer to her, wrote that “given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower.” On Twitter, she is “superhuman.”

I am also autistic. At first, this kind of praise was heartwarming. My autism presents in similar ways to Thunberg’s. Many of the things people laud about her—her tenacity, that she marches to the beat of her own drum, her seriousness—are things I and many of my autistic peers have been mocked for.

But the praise is not without harm. The idea that these qualities point to something deeper, something mystic, is far from new: It often takes on the form of the “disability superpower,” a classic cliché of “blind seers” and the like that goes back to Greek mythology and beyond. The most spectacularly silly recent example that comes to mind is in The Predator, the 2018 take on the dreadlocked aliens in which an autistic kid is being hunted by the predators because Asperger’s is “the next step in human evolution.” You don’t have to look far for more instances—they’re everywhere.

To do this to Thunberg, though, feels especially misguided. Pathologizing her skills is soft scorn. Attributing her talent to autism is a remarkably illiberal way of looking at leadership—that some people are simply better than others because of inborn traits. Part of what makes Thunberg so remarkable is her ability to inspire other young people to become activists. But if her clarity and leadership are essential biological facts, why would they even bother? To flatten her gifts to a result of her diagnosis undercuts exactly what’s made her such a powerful advocate in the first place.

More than that, it’s important to remember that superhuman and subhuman are both something other than human. They are two sides of the same degrading coin. It seems that no one is interested in simply allowing Thunberg to be what she is: a remarkable, talented young person who’s breaking through to millions.

Thunberg herself has been careful to avoid claiming to be anything other than human. She has repeatedly, in her speeches, invoked the fact that she would rather be in class or at home.
“You have stolen my childhood,” Thunberg told the United Nations during her speech there last month. This apparently hasn’t broken through. It is easier to think of her as a mascot or a mutant than as a human being. But doing so does not do justice to Thunberg’s work or message.