One thing you need to know about me is that I’m likely to be very emotionally receptive to what you say. I’m likely to take what you say very literally. This means that a mean word can really get under my skin and affect mentally, just as I can really take a kind word to heart.
I’m reminded of a debate I with a friend about a quote from psychologist and lobster enthusiast, Jordan Peterson. Needless to say I’m not a fan and this quote perfectly sums up why our choice of language is vital.
“If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave, but I don’t want to know. Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom”Peterson, 12 rules for life
My friend wanted to give Peterson the benefit of the doubt and interpret this as understanding the problem. I mean…you could interpret it like that. Still, I’ve known people who have been in toxic relationships and I can’t help wondering how the statement might read to them. ‘weak willed’…’pointless martydom’…Anyone reading could be forgiven for thinking that Peterson’s suggesting that your at fault if your in an unhealthy relationship . The mistake here – again, benefit of the doubt – is a failure to connect wording to thier concepts and experiences.
This is a principle which spans across disciplines
The Influence of Words
I ‘m not about to entertain the idea that language determines reality; I’ve been down that rabbit hole and the consensus is that language can influence the way you think, but not to the ridiculous extent that races with less colour categories can’t distinguish between green and blue.
“Cross-linguistic research on color perception shows us that the language we speak doesn’t bind us to a particular world view, but it does dominate the way we perceive and think about our experiences”David Ludden, Fifty shades of Grue
Words provide the tools to convey meaning, although that meaning is dependent upon the context. For example, one thing that may define our generation is struggles over identity as well as to protect the environment. In which context, you might hear questions like this:
How do you decide what needs to be changed?
There’s a useful way of asking this question and a not very useful way of asking. Genuinely questioning which issues deserve the most attention to make sure our efforts aren’t counterproductive: fine. Implying that you can’t, and that we shouldn’t bother: less fine.
I’m sometimes surprised at the potential meanings my language imparts. My friend and colleague casts a critical eye over some of these posts (Thanks Sion!), and a few weeks ago he flagged up the word ‘ally’ in describing where I stand in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement – I clarified how that was the agreed upon terminology, but agreed by whom? I support the principles of BLM, but I’m not with them in America, charging into battle. Maybe supporter – a term with separate pitfalls – would have been better to use?
In 2017 the Trump administration published guidance to the US center for disease control on seven terms they should not use: evidence-based, science-based, vulnerable, fetus, transgender, diversity and entitlement.
“what isn’t named can’t be counted. And what can’t be counted can’t be acted upon. If a word like “transgender” is never mentioned—or categories like race or gender are never recorded in official documents—then you can never have data about how services, violence, social ills or outcomes are distributed across those groups. So if you ever want to see if we have a problem in policing related to race, pay related to gender or a problem with violence against transgender individuals, in all of those cases it becomes impossible to make a scientific argument—because if those categories are never recorded in official documents, you can never do the data collection to show what’s true”Maron, 2017 , Why Words Matter: What Cognitive Science Says about Prohibiting Certain Terms
So by prohibiting those words from being used in official documentation, Trump was trying to shape conversations around transgender people, identity issues and science, presumably to get people to think about those issues in a very ultra-conservative, right wing way, influencing public policy in doing so.
He’s not the only one to pull this tactic. Politicians, advertising execs, writers, musicians, all use language to fulfill their purposes. No doubt I do…
Words and Autism
For instance, this blog is named atypical perspectives – I have chosen ‘atypical’ to show that my autism is something which affects all of my perspectives on the world, and to demonstrate that my autism is something which is part of me, rather than something I ‘have’ or…sigh…’suffer from’.
“I have people say to me ‘I understand you suffer from autism. I don’t. I have autism, I suffer from idiots”Anne Hegerty, television personality
This is an admittedly huge debate within the autistic community, and I’m not saying that everyone will like the same terminology as me, simply that people should be conscientious about the terms they are using.
One example is the term ‘retarded‘ – a term that has been historically used to demean disabled individuals, is now used to describe something that’s broken or unpleasant. I have a particular issue with usage of the word as that language reinforces traditional stigmas around disabled people – that they’re broken or weak compared to other humans.
Phrases that I remember being more commonly used in my lifetime, that are thankfully now beginning to exit popular usage, are the terms ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning‘. This is an oversimplifed way of looking at the autistic spectrum which categorizes people based on how well they’re perceived to perform certain tasks. This should be obvious but as humans we don’t ‘function’ – we act, we perform, we even create but we’re not machines built to perform a series of tasks – if you apply my creative skills to a task I will probably excel. If you put me in a busy, customer facing environment…well, to use that terminology…I wont function.
So again, we have to be very careful about the language we’re using. We should take care not to use words that in any way mean ‘broken’, or have a stigma attached to them, and we should also rid ourselves of the purely capitalist mindset that autistic people are there to ‘function’. No one is arguing that these words will shape the fabric of our reality. Simply that the language we use determines how we think and behave towards autistic people.
Finally, an explanation of the title. I started this blog by noting how the individual words and phrases that people use towards me can affect me massively. One word that can really get under my skin is ‘snowflake’ (which is in itself ironically taken out of context, for those who have seen Fight Club) and I’m sure if this blog post goes widespread, a few will want to call me one. The term was paticulary bothering me one day, before I heard Grace Petrie sing ‘You’ll see how much a snowflake matters, when we become an avalanche’ and later, Idles bellow at the top of their lungs ‘This Snowflakes an avalanche!!!’. The word is not hurtful now I’ve repurposed it in my mind – ’cause if that phrase could mean so much to two of my favourite musicians, what could the term mean to someone like me?
An Atypical Perspective:
Words have an emotional response (and that matters): I’ve mentioned how words can get under my skin. And by no means am I trying to speak for anyone here, but the reason I took such issue with the Peterson quote at the start of this blog is because I imagined how a toxic relationship survivor would react hearing that. I could expand on why being crass about how you use language, and brushing criticism aside as ‘political correctness’, can reap some awful results but frankly I think you can guess them, and being compassionate shouldn’t need any further justification.
Words carry influence: As humans we act on how we understand topics. I need a lot of guidance and spelling out in order to understand instructions. If then we act on the meanings we’re given, then language chosen in policy affects how we’re ruled over. If you have a condition, yet your condition isn’t on a certain medical list ’cause the powers that be don’t believe your condition to exist, then you may not get the help you desperately need. And of course, with the current situation, ‘stay alert’ conveys different connotations to ‘stay at home’. The principle applies in multiple areas.
Context is an explainer, not an excuse: You might have heard it said that context is everything, but not necessarily. Offensive use of language in a humorous environment is still offensive use of language, victim blaming in a book that’s going to be read by your fans is still victim blaming. Alternatively, someone questioning your motifs for trying to affect change can be more ambiguous, yet still requires that extra clarity. Its why I say when I’m called a snowflake ‘this snowflakes an avalanche’ – it mocks the idea that words and how we choose to use them don’t matter.