Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Political Tuesdays: Child Activists and the Adult in the Room

You've all seen it. A Swedish teenager, whom I won't name because I believe excessive media attention does terrible things to children, impassioned and outraged about climate change, scolding the adults she thinks have failed her and stolen her childhood: "How dare you?!"

The adults in her life have failed her, but perhaps not in the way she thinks. Her parents and other activists who have promoted her as the face of climate change have ignored her underlying needs for something much more basic: unconditional love in a safe environment. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe all humans, including the disabled, have the right to think, believe, and say what they wish. And she is sincere in her beliefs, and she has a right to express them. It doesn't have to be pretty. It also shouldn't be so public.

This girl has many serious diagnoses: Autism/Asberger's, OCD, anxiety, depression, selective mutism. Any one of these would seem to indicate caution in use of social media and exposure to large crowds and intense pressure. Together in the persona of a teenage girl who, in her own words, is not mature yet, they create the perfect storm. Her speech yesterday, in a foreign country and foreign language, was terribly painful to watch for anyone who loves someone with these conditions. She has been suddenly catapulted to fame and prominence by activists who set her schedule and control her public persona, and are happy for their cause to profit from her angst. Her face was contorted, she was gasping between phrases. Her psychic pain was obvious, and for adults to use it for political advantage is unconscionable. That wasn't the impassioned wisdom of a child grieving for the future of the world; that was a panic attack, a highly publicized meltdown which will, unfortunately, typecast her forever. How will she be able to bear watching video footage of herself? How could anyone with intense social anxiety? Her parents and handlers seem to want to create a patron saint for the environmentalist movement, but I fear they have created a martyr. "How dare you?! indeed.

Her treatment has been rightly characterized as child abuse, in my opinion. It's exploitative, designed to manipulate public opinion. And when the climate justice warriors have moved on to another short-term celebrity, she has to continue to grow up and find her place in a world she has been taught she can't trust. Michael Knowles was criticized for calling her "mentally ill," but aren't we supposed to be removing the stigma around mental health issues these days? Still, focusing more negative  attention on her is not healthy. Somebody, somewhere, needs to get her a glass of lemonade, some cookies and a quiet, cool, dim room where she can listen to Mozart or whatever makes her happy. That's the question. Does anything make her happy? Maybe a positive affirmation or two that is not predicated on the end of the world. She did get one, from perhaps an unexpected source:

"She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!" (Donald Trump's tweet)

This also caused outrage in the media. They assumed he was speaking ironically and intended this as a mockery. But remembering that irony is not always understood by those with autism, or by young children, I'm not so sure. Sometimes, if you tell someone she seems happy and has a wonderful future, she will be that way. It has the virtue of not having been tried yet. I hope it works.

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