Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Power of Language

Originally posted August 2005

Certain Internet windbags (who shall remain nameless here, as the Autistic Bitch from Hell prefers not to dignify such fools by mentioning their names) often rely on a particular fallacious argument to characterize autism as a disease. First they observe that the diagnostic categories for the autistic spectrum include such terms as "disorder" and "syndrome." Then they cite a dictionary as authority for defining a "syndrome" as a collection of symptoms and defining a "symptom" as a characteristic of a disease. Finally, they declare triumphantly that autism must therefore be a disease—after all, one can't argue with the dictionary!

The utter lack of logic in such an argument ought to be so embarrassingly obvious as to require no further comment, but alas, common sense is sadly lacking in the vast majority of opinions regarding autism. For the benefit of the logic-impaired windbags of this world, I'll just point out that, as Plato taught his students in ancient times, a word is not the pure truth of a thing. It is no more than an imperfect representation, and unfortunately, some representations are a lot more imperfect than others.

One could just as easily declare left-handedness to be a disorder and insist that all left-handers are therefore diseased. In fact, social prejudice against the left-handed was once commonly found; for those interested in the history, there's a collection of links on Neurodiversity.com about

Or the psychs could arbitrarily decide to classify homosexuality as a disorder and treat gays as diseased sufferers. Oh, wait,
they did that too. Am I detecting a pattern here? Hmmmm.

It's not a new pattern, actually. As described by the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, the deliberate use of medical language in the psychological realm as a tool for suppressing social deviance has been widespread since the earliest days of insane asylums. Wife getting uppity? Maiden aunt's independent ways too annoying? Surely anyone with such a lack of proper respect for their social superiors must be sick—off to the asylum with them!

What this means for the autistic civil rights movement
is that the first step in resisting social oppression must be to change the terms of the discourse. The language of disorder and syndrome must be rejected, with all its ugly connotations, and replaced with the language of identity politics and diversity. The diagnostic categories must be seen for what they are, unscientific terms that function mainly to classify social minorities as diseased sufferers in need of treatment and control.

Autism is, to a large extent, a political construct. Why should the particular combinations of personality traits found in the autistic population be considered any more of a disorder than any other set of traits, such as optimism, extroversion, or (as already mentioned) left-handedness? The diagnostic categories reflect a social value judgment that some personality traits are less desirable than others.

Back when the autism diagnosis was applied mainly to nonverbal children, there was little opposition, chiefly because very few people knew enough about it to form an opinion. But abusing a small number of helpless, mute children is a lot easier to pull off than classifying a large percentage of the world's intellectuals and computer geeks as mentally defective. In the age of the Internet, I'm frankly amazed that the psychs had the gumption to think they could get away with it. Did they really expect that millions of us would lie down, roll over, and meekly accept the status of second-class citizens forever? If they're crazy enough to believe that, I have a new diagnostic category just for them: Psych Hubris Disorder. Recommended treatment is to take two behavior control meds and kiss my autistic ass in the morning.

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