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Prejudice Spillover

I have lately been doing some historical research on the Holocaust. I wanted to find some profiles of people who had died in Hitler's involuntary euthanasia program, which targeted primarily children, and primarily the disabled and mentally ill. My best estimate, taking into account the prevalence of autism and the number of dead, was that over three thousand of these victims must have been autistic. But I could not find a single profile that suggested that an autistic person had died in Aktion T4.

This did not, however, lead me to conclude that autistic people were not targeted, or had somehow not existed back then even though people who were children at the time, and survived to today, are still being diagnosed, long-overdue, with autism that has been missed or misdiagnosed all these years. I still believe autistic people were killed in Aktion T4, just as people with other disabilities were, because the lack of profiles--diagnosis, personalities, even home city--extends not just to the autistic people, but to all disabled people. There are very few records that go beyond names and ages--and the records that exist, the people who were remembered, were often the victims who were neither disabled nor mentally ill. For the disabled and mentally ill, all that remains is usually a small card filled out by a doctor with a name, a few dry biographical details, and a death sentence. When there are long stories about who the person was, what they were like, they are often stories about political dissidents, religious or ethnic minorities, or non-Germans whose existence had become inconvenient.

In a situation where the primary victim group was disabled or mentally ill, the victims who are remembered are the ones who were caught up in the carnage, who did not belong to the target group, who were instead too outspoken against Hitler, or too inconvenient, or thought to be disabled and weren't, or were part of another group that Hitler also wanted to be rid of. About half the cases I read about were non-disabled people. And yet we know that most of the deaths were of people who were indeed disabled--mental asylum inmates, people with obvious physical disabilities, and people with disorders like epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

This isn't a phenomenon that's unique to the Holocaust or to disabled victims. I found the same tendency when the killings of gay men in the Holocaust were discussed, to point out that many were not gay. There are the stories of people who were institutionalized in horrendous "asylums" and were not insane or intellectually disabled. Howard Dully's lobotomy is discussed as though it were particularly horrendous because at the time he was a normal boy with family trouble.

We react to these situations with particular horror not because they were any more horrible than what happened to the intended victims of such abuse; we react to them this way because they make us feel unsafe.

If Hitler is going after the Jews and you are not a Jew, then the situation doesn't threaten you. You're safe. You can sit comfortably back and say, "How horrible," but in the end you are still sitting comfortably and it's someone else who is at risk of being crammed into a cattle car. We feel much more threatened when we hear that someone has been accused of being a Jew, even though he's not, and been rounded up with the rest. We feel somehow as though it were a greater injustice.

Some autistic people try to escape prejudice against the disabled by insisting that they are not disabled, or by hiding their disabilities. These are survival strategies. Even as very young children we know that our disabilities make us vulnerable.

I have some stories of this sort of spillover prejudice on the autism memorial. Rylan Rochester was killed by his mother because she thought he was autistic, even though he was a healthy six-month-old baby. Daniel Pelka's abusive stepfather tried to justify his ultimately fatal abuse by claiming that Daniel was autistic. In both cases there is no evidence that either child was even disabled, much less autistic. But they are dead, nevertheless, as dead as the most obviously autistic person on that list, and they are victims of anti-autistic prejudice just as they would be if they had been autistic.

Spillover prejudice makes us feel unsafe. In our cave-man brains, we want to be sure that atrocities meant for minority groups will not hurt us. We want things to be predictable. So when they are not, we feel outrage. And yet, shouldn't we feel just as disturbed when the victim actually is part of the targeted minority?

Comments

When studying human cruelties, it's worth taking a breather and remembering the heroes. Frex you will find comfort in the opposition to the murder of the disabled by people such as Theophil Wurm, Bishop Galen, Professor Creutzfeldt and others.

Action T4 was the only one of the Nazi atrocities to trigger widespread public protests.
Yeah. Some of the most amazingly badass people in history were the people who kept right on helping their neighbors when the government started trying to kill them off. I'm German by birth, a naturalized US citizen now, and if I'd been born fifty years earlier I would've had to make that choice too. I've always wondered what the difference was between people who helped and people who didn't. They didn't seem to be any more heroic or any more good. It was more that they just didn't, or couldn't, look the other way.

Anyway, turns out that no matter how much you try to label a child "unworthy of life", they're still someone's child. We didn't get to be human beings without a hefty dose of protective instincts to devote to our children. The church in Germany was a force to be reckoned with, even during the height of Hitler's power.
And we see rhetoric from so-called charities such as 'Autism Speaks' that explicitly supports the notion that we're a subhuman tragedy. And don't get me started on the anti-vaxxers...
Yeah, that really scares me. Autism Speaks is using practically the word-for-word reasoning that they used to use during the eugenics movement. They can't realize they're doing it; they seem sincere. They're probably just going for the emotional appeal that raises the most money. The trouble is that, no matter how much money you raise, you can't do any good with the money if you get it at the cost of separating autistics from the rest of humanity and painting us as a tragic, helpless group whose existence is a problem for everyone involved.

Thankfully, this kind of attitude is not universal. Many autistics, and plenty of parents of autistic children, aren't buying into it. Add momma-bear fierceness to tenacious self-advocacy, and I really think we'll have them beat eventually. I don't think we'll actually convince the hardcore people, but after a while it'll get less and less popular to exclude us and treat us like problems, and they won't be able to get away with it any longer.

Edited at 2014-02-24 10:55 pm (UTC)