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Before You Call Bernie Sanders a 'Diva,' Consider This

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Based upon a book about the 2020 U.S. Presidential candidates, Fox News recently lambasted Vermont politician Bernie Sanders for what the network derided as “diva demands.” The allegations were a result of the Independent Senator’s numerous hotel and airplane specifications. Among his requests were a hotel room temperature of 60 degrees, a preferably dark blue extra cotton blanket in the closet and a king-sized bed in his living arrangements. He would also require that his hotel rooms be away from ice machines and elevators, and demanded a fan for white noise. Furthermore, Sanders’s chartered jets couldn’t be too bumpy, nor could his seating accommodations be too cramped.

While Sanders has not disclosed any health conditions related to the requests, the media coverage of the former Presidential contender’s comfort needs is troubling. Such requests could easily be the result of sensory processing issues, but the press fails to entertain this possibility.

Sensory processing disorder or SPD is defined by as “a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information (stimuli). Sensory information includes things you see, hear, smell, taste or touch. SPD can affect all of your senses, or just one. SPD usually means you’re overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not.”

Affecting an estimated 5 to 16 percent of the population, individuals with sensory processing disorder may hyper-react to everything from noise to colors to textures, and may experience discomfort from sounds in their environment or from sleeping at temperatures they perceive as too warm or cool. While only a licensed physician can diagnose sensory processing issues, it is incumbent upon the media to inquire about the possibility that Sanders’ requests may have nothing to do with “diva” behavior, and everything to do with his biological needs.

That conservative media outlets rushed to define Sanders’ specifications as evidence of megalomania, never bothering to even query his staff about potential sensory issues, is a troubling consequence of our current historical moment. As a hyperpartisan society, we are more concerned with our own ideological commitments and which side of the cultural and political divide we are on than in charitably investigating the etiology of an adversary’s behavior. Thus, the right-leaning New York Post, summarizing the book in question, pronounces Sanders “a demanding hotel guest whose requirements would make even the most pampered celebrity blush.” The bottom line is that reporters are entrusted with the duty of uncovering the root causes of issues, regardless of if they will generate fewer clicks than salacious gossip about a sitting senator.

While such a rush to judgment is a dereliction of duty by those entrusted with the responsibility of reporting on our political climate, the media framing of Sanders’s requests has disturbing implications beyond the Vermont Senator. When anyone — from politician to plebeian — has comfort requirements, and they are dismissed as the result of entitlement, it is stigmatizing to people who have confirmed sensory processing issues. Coverage like what we see with Sanders buttresses the default assumption that neurodivergent people are fastidious, demanding and egotistical rather than recognizing that they may have biological differences necessitating accommodations. The more American society stigmatizes people’s needs, the more difficult it is for those actually living with sensory processing disorder to be taken seriously. After all, the reality is that our culture too often elides legitimate medical conditions as undesirable behavior.

The solution to the prevalence of such cultural tropes is for Americans — everyone from reporters to advocates to everyday individuals — to become more aware of the incidence of sensory processing disorder. Thus, the next time a celebrity or a politician requests accommodations that seem prima facie over-the-top, it is worth pondering if there may be a biological basis for the specifications. Only when we take sensory processing issues into account will we give everyone in our public discourse the due process they deserve before deriding them as a “diva.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally published: June 1, 2021
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