Stop Infantilizing Greta Thunberg With Claims of 'Abuse'

These unfounded claims are little more than paternalism masquerading as concern.

Posted Sep 25, 2019

Anders Hellberg/Wikimedia Commons
Greta Thunberg
Source: Anders Hellberg/Wikimedia Commons

by Andrew Solender

There has, of late, been a movement stirring among a certain segment of the media to finally put a stop to the contemptible, heart-wrenching, politicized child abuse occurring before our very eyes since the summer of 2018. 

No, it’s not the Trump administration policy of detaining children separated from their parents at their border. Rather, it’s Greta Thunberg’s status as a globally recognized, widely beloved climate activist. Really.

Thunberg–a 16-year-old Swede who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in addition to OCD and selective mutism–captured the hearts and minds of climate activists and young people last year for her rousing public speeches and her impressively organized climate strikes. 

Thunberg comes off as passionate, eloquent, and wise beyond her years in her addresses, which she delivers to climate-anxious communities around the world.

Several right-of-center political commentators and reporters, such as the Washington Examiner’s Tiana Lowe and the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, see Thunberg’s prominence in a much different, more nefarious light. They have posited that she is the victim of abuse perpetrated by a cabal of her parents, the environmental left, and the media. She has been referred to as a political prop, a political shield for climate activists.

Lowe notes in her column, “This Greta Thunberg thing is child abuse,” that Thunberg’s parents are climate-conscious actors, singers, and directors. “Now,” she alleges, “they've pivoted into the parental act of every stage parent looking to secure the next generation of fame,” namely, “pimping [their] kid out to the cause of climate apocalypse.”

Lowe clarifies that she doesn’t think all youth activists are being exploited and abused. The Parkland activists, who are–as far as we know–neurotypical, are worthy spokespeople for their causes with lived-experience, she says. 

But the case of Thunberg is “more egregious,” she writes, before delving into a laundry list of Thunberg’s disorders and illnesses. She argues that someone with Thunberg’s conditions cannot possibly handle the spotlight and asserts that Thunberg’s mom is “a fading opera starlet” attempting to “secure a bit more fame by milking [her] child's clinically diagnosed obsession” with climate change.

By casting Thunberg as little more than a puppet of her parents and climate activists (as satire site Babylon Bee put it: “Marionette Strings Clearly Visible During Greta Thunberg Testimony”) these authors can discredit Thunberg as a pawn, without agency, for a group of manipulative, Machiavellian adult activists.

Lowe insists that she penned the column out of the goodness of her heart, as someone who has “spent the last decade actively advocating for the accessibility, rights, and dignity of kids with special needs” with “a distinct disdain for rich & famous parents pimping out their already at risk kids for political expedience.” 

These articles do not cite any mental health professionals, let alone psychologists who have worked with or treated Thunberg. Nor do they source any of their claims that Thunberg’s parents are the malevolent drivers behind her supposedly self-destructive activism. It passes off speculation and posturing as hard and fast truth while providing no evidence to back it up.

Yet what we can see with our own eyes clearly points in the opposite direction. Thunberg is a leader, not a follower. She has roused a generation of climate-anxious young people to sit up and take the threat seriously. She has done the same with political leaders in her condemnations of their complacency.

To suggest that Thunberg is just a cardboard cutout controlled by adults, and that her achievements and words are disingenuous and invalid, is paternalism masquerading as concern and is contrary to all available evidence.

And that’s if we suspend our disbelief and assume that these pundits are good faith actors with Thunberg’s best interest at heart.

Thunberg has been the victim of brutal personal attacks on her appearance, her mannerisms, and her disorder by pundits adjacent to those claiming concern that she’s being manipulated.

One such pundit, speaking on Fox News, derisively dismissed her as a “mentally ill Swedish child.” That pundit was Michael Knowles, who writes for the Daily Wire along with Matt Walsh. Fox News host Laura Ingraham and prominent commentator Erick Erickson both compared her to the creepy children from the movie Children of the Corn in response to her passionate but dire UN address.

Thunberg's ridiculers defend the practice by alleging a double standard: You want us to take her seriously when she talks about climate change, they say, but we can't critique her like we would a neurodivergent adult. Except, these are not critiques. To call them critiques would imply they have substance. They are snide insults and cruel attacks that would be condemned whether they were lobbed at a neurodivergent teenager or a neurotypical adult.

Knowing where these attacks come from, one might find it difficult to believe that pundits from the same outlets and blogospheres are both brutally mocking Thunberg while also advocating for her mental health and decrying the toxicity that publicity has injected into her life.

But even if we grant them their premise of good faith advocacy, their concern comes out to little more than infantilization of an outspoken young neurodivergent individual who is quite clearly acting of her own volition.

Most of the pundits who claim concern for Thunberg also gleefully promote and cheer on youth conservative activists like CJ Pearson and Kyle Kashuv without concern that they’re not acting of their own agency or that they can’t handle the toxic effects of publicity. Even when Kashuv lost his acceptance to Harvard after screenshots surfaced of a group chat in which he used the N-word repeatedly, few if any of his conservative allies suggested he relinquish his platform and recede from the spotlight. Most encouraged him to become even more outspoken. 

Now they encourage Thunberg to recede from her ostensibly toxic spotlight. The difference, besides politics, is that Kashuv is neurotypical while Thunberg is on the spectrum. 

Lowe even notes in her piece that neurotypical teenage activists with whom she disagrees, like left-wing gun-control advocate Cameron Kasky, can handle the spotlight, unlike Thunberg. In the past, Lowe decried all uses of children in politics, but now seems to have drawn a new line of demarcation for the acceptable use of children in politics: whether you're neurotypical.

Because of her Asperger's, Thunberg is seen by neurotypical commentators as unable to function in situations where, with all conditions equal, her neurotypical peers thrive and succeed. She cannot even be seen as acting with agency–or even as fully human. 

To be sure, the weaponization of mental health diagnoses, or pseudo-diagnoses, for political gain is far from a new phenomenon and is prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum. 

One staple of the Trump era has been non-psychologists, such as lawyer George Conway, making unqualified armchair diagnoses of the president as having narcissistic personality disorder or another mental illness, as if to suggest that a necessary prerequisite for his outrageous behavior and offensive statements is a mental illness or disorder. Trump’s political opponents on the left frequently use these diagnoses to suggest the President is unfit for office.

Condemnations of Thunberg's "abuse" fall into the same category. They are armchair prescriptions, made by individuals who are unqualified to make such calls, without any sourcing from those close to Thunberg or mental health professionals familiar with her state of mind. 

I can personally sympathize with Thunberg. As someone with Asperger’s and ADHD, I was instilled throughout my teenage years with a belief that I must modulate myself and limit my social, professional, and academic expectations. 

I was told by counselors and school administrators that I would likely not be able to attend a normal (read: neurotypical) college, have a normal job, and live a normal life, let alone be renowned or admired or extraordinarily successful. I was told “less is more” and “take things slow."

I didn’t listen. I’m as bombastic, outspoken and neurodivergent as ever, and yet I’m in my last year at a prestigious liberal arts college and working as a political journalist. I did not allow neurotypical advocates, who may very well have had my best interest at heart, to define my limitations and to declare me irredeemably lesser than my neurotypical peers. I didn't accept that my disorder was a limitation. Greta Thunberg, who has referred to her Asperger's diagnosis as a "superpower," shouldn’t either. I highly doubt she will.

Andrew Solender is a senior at Vassar College and a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine. His work has been featured in Inside Sources and City and State New York, and he has previously interned at MSNBC.