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Greta Thunberg: voice and silence

Brazilian mental health experts speak out against the hateful discrimination evident in attacks on Greta Thunberg


This open letter, from a distinguished group of Brazilian mental health academics and professionals, was first published in El Pais Brazil on 2 September 2019. You can read the original here. It was translated for LAB from the Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus Whitty.

Greta Thunberg gives life to the climate cause, just as the climate cause gives her life. Anyone who knows what it is like to live for a humanitarian cause is well aware that it must go both ways, that this is what underpins a person’s commitment and responsibility to the world she or he inhabits. Greta’s voice reaches so far when she speaks out about humankind’s greatest challenge that the world is asking who she is.

In the age of the internet, the answer comes fast: Greta is a 16-year-old girl who lives in Sweden with her family, rides a bike, goes to school, wears braids, eats vegan. And is on the autism spectrum. Who organizes news-making demonstrations, attends international summits, and speaks before parliaments on climate. Yes, Greta has much to say about the climate collapse.

While there is so much we might wonder about a person, it is Greta’s autism and age that have stood out. For many people, these facts only increase their admiration for the scope of her knowledge and might of her actions. She has had less than two decades to learn everything she knows and, at the same time, has already set much more in motion than we can fathom or elaborate, even though we have been on the planet longer. Other people—those who disregard science and have decided the climate crisis is still an incidental problem—make flippant use of Greta’s condition to attack her and dismiss her arguments and the integrity of her acts.

There is a name for this. Ableism. As a form of prejudice, and a sibling to sexism and racism, ableism spurns the bodies and ways of functioning that do not abide by the norms of the day; it assigns people who inhabit and experience the world differently to the categories of incapable, inferior, and voiceless, with no right to take part in society. This hateful brand of discrimination has been used against Greta as a strategy for silencing a voice that challenges the structures behind climate collapse and defies powerful interests.

Greta has said on social media: “I have Asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And—given the right circumstances—being different is a superpower.”

Everything Greta does is not despite her Asperger’s. She advances into the world of knowledge and science and skillfully occupies spaces where her voice will resound loudly. Greta addresses a cause much bigger than herself, a cause that does not omit anyone who is alive. Before she has even entered so-called adulthood, Greta knows how to do what many adults do not want to do or know how to. Her superpower is igniting worldwide action.

Greta’s tender age does not invalidate her actions. Why would being a child or teenager nullify what someone has to say? The notion that children are naïve and manipulable discounts the possibility thattheycan know their own lives. The responsibility that governments, communities, and parents have, as adults who mediate experience, must not impede a person from expressing his or her subjectivity. To the contrary, listening to children is a vital step to fulfilling our commitment to them. What Greta is doing is precisely that: through her actions, she is demanding that we care for the world so children will have the chance to be adults in it. Who can doubt her truth?

With her actions, Greta also evokes an important discussion: what does a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome entail and what impact does it have on the person receiving it? Since the prejudice of ableism naturalizes the inequalities and violence a person can suffer in life, it presupposes that the truth spoken by someone with this diagnosis is divested of any value. But the Aspie community and the neurodiversity movement do not see themselves as having a disease. Rather, they see themselves as having a non-typical way of approaching and knowing the world, of questioning what seems so everyday and crystal-clear to us. Above all, they ask whether these diagnoses ultimately exclude them from the diversity of human experience.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities offers us a path that is easy to follow. Instead of trying to rectify bodies we see as disabled in order to fit them into an excluding society, we must direct our efforts to recognizing and, primarily, tearing down the barriers that keep each and every individual from taking part in society and engaging with others. This is what we understand Greta to mean when she says “given the right circumstances.”

It has taken us a long time to figure out that the struggles of various groups of people who are subjected to a gamut of abuses cannot be waged separately. Greta is a female, a teenager, and on the autism spectrum. Because of her intransigent defense of lofty causes, she experiences more intensely the perverse effects of routine forms of fascism that have come boldly out of the woodwork, cellars, and sewers. She experiences this and replies: “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go.”

Today it is up to each of us to guarantee that Greta can speak. Not because we consider her three times as defenseless. But to take a resolute stand beside her.

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Ilana Katz, psychoanalyst; post-doctoral fellow, Psychology Institute, Universidade de São Paulo (USP).

Ricardo Lugon, child and adolescent psychiatrist; professor of psychology, Instituição Evangélica de Novo Hamburgo, Rio Grande do Sul (IENH); professor of medicine, Universidade Feevale, Rio Grande so Sul; PhD candidate in Social and Institutional Psychology, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

Biancha Angelucci, psychologist; professor, School of Education, Universdade de São Paulo (USP).

Luciana Togni de Lima e Silva Surjus, occupational therapist; PhD in Collective Health; professor, Department of Public Policies and Collective Health, Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Unifesp).

Maria Aparecida Moyses, pediatrician; full professor of pediatrics, Universidade de Campinas (Unicamp); activist with Movimento pela Despatologização da Vida (Despatologiza).

Cecília Azevedo Lima Collares, educator; associate professor, School of Education, Universidade de Campinas (Unicamp); activist with Movimento pela Despatologização da Vida (Despatologiza).

Maria de Lurdes Zanolli, pediatrician; public health specialist; professor, Department of Pediatrics, School of Medical Sciences, Universidade de Campinas (Unicamp).

Iolete Ribeiro da Silva, psychologist; associate professor, Universidade Federal do Amazonas.

Barbara Costa Andrada, psychologist; researcher, Núcleo de Pesquisa em Políticas Públicas de Saúde Menta (NUPSSAM)/Instituto de Psiquiatria, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IPUB/UFRJ).

Cláudia Mascarenhas, psychoanalyst, Instituto Viva Infância.

Maria Cristina Ventura Couto, psychoanalyst; PhD in Mental Health from Instituto de Psiquiatria, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IPUB/UFRJ) ; researcher, Núcleo de Pesquisa em Políticas Públicas de Saúde Menta (NUPSSAM)/Instituto de Psiquiatria, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IPUB/UFRJ)