Explaining William Shatner

In the past week, former Captain Kirk actor William Shatner has been thrown into a world he didn’t know existed. On the second of April, Shatner tweeted:

This caused a huge fuss, but most people probably couldn’t see why it would. What’s wrong with trying to raise awareness of autism?

Nothing, obviously. The main problem is that both the image and two of the hashtags are strongly associated with a charity (henceforth The Charity) with a history of demonising autism. The Charity has historically been anti-vaccine, has lacked autistic representation, and has sued people who have parodied it. They’ve recently mellowed on all these stances following the death of their founder, but this hasn’t been communicated particularly well. Many people are unaware of their reversals, and many of those who are simply can’t trust them after past reversals were reneged on.

Shatner didn’t explicitly show support for The Charity, but it’s understandable that some people would incorrectly read that from his Tweet. Unfortunately, instead of asking for clarification or politely informing Shatner of why they disagreed, some of the people responding insulted him. This probably soured his perceptions of the whole bunch. Shatner started dismissing people’s opinions seemingly out-of-hand:

Of course there are problems with the Confederacy, but please don’t tell me about them!

The vast majority of the responses Shatner received were respectful, but the few who attacked him seem to have soured his perception of the whole. He started defending The Charity, and told critics that if they didn’t like it, they should set up their own organisation. He then blocked Ari Ne’erman, founder of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, when he criticised Shatner’s responses to the critical tweets. Shatner misrepresented the ASAN as an organisation dedicated to opposing The Charity, rather than one dedicated to positively furthering the interests of autistic people.

It started to get weird when Shatner shared an article criticising Emily Willingham, a Forbes writer specialising in autism. Like every sensible person, Willingham is pro-vaccine; this article had a strong anti-vax slant. David Gorski, a doctor and science blogger engaged in a protracted discussion with Shatner about the merits of vaccines. Although Shatner repeatedly stated that he was not anti-vax, he made a rod for his own back when he shared several articles critical of Gorski that came from fringe anti-vax websites. When Slate wrote an article criticising this turn of events, Shatner blocked several journalists for sharing it.

So far, this looks pretty bad for Shatner. While his behaviour was largely understandable, he was petulant, dismissive, and arrogant. Fortunately, a few days later he managed to take a step back and started engaging with some of the criticisms. Shatner showed himself capable of having an open and changeable mind. He started Tweeting measured criticism of The Charity (although dismissed the horrible advertising campaigns on the grounds that they happened in 2013). He agreed to use identity-first terminology, and not to use functioning labels (although he did try to maintain the high/low dichotomy using other words).

This shows that Shatner isn’t some evil bigoted bogeyman we can chase out of town with our pitchforks raised. He’s a product of his environment. Like most people, he simply doesn’t have the ability to process all the information out there about which websites are full of pseudoscience and which charities demonise the people they claim to support.

The real problem is twofold. Firstly, The Charity’s hegemony makes anyone who speaks out against them seem unreasonable to the uninitiated. Secondly, The Charity, itself so lacking in autism awareness, encourages uninformed celebrities to spread Autism Awareness.

Shatner characterised Ne’erman as someone who is “doesn’t want awareness”. I am confident in saying that’s literally not true. Instead, ASAN objects to a shallow understanding of capital-A Awareness, in which people with very little genuine awareness simply remind each other that autism exists, helping nobody. ASAN’s supporters contrast capital-A Awareness with genuine acceptance, encouraging tolerant attitudes and positivity.

Like all forms of prejudice, ableism is sustained not by convenient bogeymen, and not solely by privileged classes, but by the way the human brain deals with a world full of immediately irrelevant information. Few of us fact-check everything we say. Almost all of us unintentionally spread misinformation. Few of us have a position where our voices will be heard widely. Shutting down Shatner won’t do very much, but winning him over might do.

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