Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Diagnostic Label Is Not an Insult

At best, a label is a means of enabling people to get useful services for their particular needs. Although the system does not always work as it should, at the very least a label ought to be simply a descriptive term, rather than being used as an insult by people who do not have the diagnosis. Unfortunately, we all know that such language is used all the time:

"That was such a retarded thing to do."

"He's so clueless, what is he, autistic or something?"

"You're acting like a total spaz."

Now, I'm fairly sure that most of the people who talk like this are being thoughtless, rather than intentionally hateful. If they had ever considered the possibility that they might be overheard by someone who actually had a diagnosis of Mental Retardation, or Autism, or Spastic Cerebral Palsy, they'd have chosen their words more carefully. But such language is so widespread in our society that millions of people just repeat it without thinking about it.

And then there's what I would call the flip side of using a label as an insult: Taking great offense to any criticism of one's behavior, out of fear that others might suspect that one has Big Bad Behavioral Disorder Cooties. Here are a few examples of that:

"How dare you slander me by saying that I have problems controlling my temper! I'm perfectly sane and nothing at all like Those People who go to anger management counseling!"

"Someone told me I was being passive aggressive in a conversation. I'm extremely insulted by that because there is an official psychiatric category of passive aggressive personality disorder."

"What do you mean, I'm too defensive? Are you suggesting I'm some kind of psycho?"

Once again, I think that in most such cases, it's a matter of thoughtlessness and not outright hate. The person who took such umbrage to the words "passive aggressive" probably never stopped to consider the social implications of insisting so vehemently that she wasn't at all like those with an official diagnosis. I'm sure it never even occurred to her that by equating a diagnostic category—which no one had suggested that she actually belonged in—to an insult, she was adding to the stigma against those who really were diagnosed in that category. That's often the way stigma works; it's like a children's game of Hot Potato, where everyone is so anxious to get it away from themselves that they don't care who ends up with it.

Sometimes, people just need to stop and think before they speak.



  • This reminds me of the homosexual community wanting to stop the use of "gay" as meaning stupid. So many words are being used incorrectly and it hurts.

    By Blogger Sharon, at 8:47 PM  

  • I agree that people aren't being intentionally hateful either but cetain types of language patterns like you mention can indicate a persons tolorence level for disability and difference.

    The idea that some people are overly sensitive or prone to what is dismissed as political correctness has always seemed like an irrational concern.Our culture still does a lot to glorify certain atributes by sacrificing the dignity and respect of those who don't posess those attributes. Being overly concerned about these issues is hardly the real problem.

    By Blogger Ed, at 12:31 AM  

  • I have not heard of "autistic" being used as an insult before but I have been on the receiving end of "spastic retard" and that hurt.

    By Anonymous renaeden, at 3:23 AM  

  • The German word for autistic (autistisch) is very commonly used as an insult, it's depressing and has annoyed me for years.
    Here's a link to an online thesaurus, that has examples of how the word is used in German.
    For those who don't speak German, I used Babelfish to translate the page (it isn't perfect, but you get a pretty good idea).
    Here's the translated page:

    Terrible, eh?

    By Blogger Gonzo, at 8:55 AM  

  • The best way to avoid the insults is to cure yourselves.

    By Blogger John Best, at 9:41 AM  

  • Insults such as what you metioned don't really bother me.

    Luckily, I'm autistic enough to not really care what other people think or say about me; I could honestly care less and it doesn't really bother me at all.

    It has bothered me before, yes, but that was usually with doctors, those who are supposedly trained in their field and yet still know nothing. Having doctors call you "worthless" or "not smart enough to finish high school" is a bit hurtful and is probably against some code of ethics.

    By Blogger Stephanie, at 11:15 AM  

  • Honestly those words have almost no effect on me. I don't let them.

    The words that hurt me the most are the patronizing pseudo-kind words that on the outside seem kind but in the inside they are far crueler that blunt slurs.

    By Blogger Bard, at 2:21 PM  

  • I remember when I was about 17 or 18 when I learned that spaz meant spastic, and I learned more about CP. Up until then I thought it was a synonym for hyper. Yeah, a lot of things people aren't thinking about it, even when they know the origins, because they categorize it as a different use, not intending to ridicule people in the original category, and therefore okay. Then there are the truly mean people who really intend to malign.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 5:44 PM  

  • I for one hate those words - not just when they are applied to me, but whenever they are applied to anyone (deserved or otherwise).

    And penalties can occur. Ask Aussie tennis player Lleyton Hewitt. He once called a linesman a "spastic" and boy did he get into trouble for that - and rightly so as well.

    It's about time the words were put into the same basket as calling a black a ------ (starts with "N" - I think we all know the word I'm talking about). And I agree with Sharon about the habit of people using the word "gay" as meaning stupid or dumb.

    This is cultural intolerance at work. Education is the way to stop the insults - and penalties for those who insist on being incredibly insensitive.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:41 AM  

  • @TimeLord.

    Honestly putting them in the same box as the "N" word and "Fag" is just giving them power and verbal leathality. It's probably why indivuals in the black community call themselves "niggas", to disarm that word to reclaim it. To turn into something else, same reason the GLBT community is reclaiming "queer" and "fag", they want to get rid of the painful sting.

    Besides more you try to taboo a word the more people want to use it. Either we reclaim the word into something else or we ignore the sting. People will still use "Spastic" and "retard" weither we curl up and go "AWW U HURT MAH FEELIN'" or not.

    Socitey isn't going to stop using it, just as it hasn't stopped using "Fag" "Wop" "Chink" "Gook" or any other slur. It how react to them that is important.

    By Blogger Bard, at 8:07 PM  

  • geosaru: Yeah, I thought "spaz" meant either "hyper" or "not paying attention," or "freaking out," for a long time, because that was how it was used at all the schools I went to, and I thought there was nothing wrong with it. Mostly because it was one of the least pejorative names I got called by, among the many I got called. I used to say it about myself, too, because I'd been taught somewhere along the line that it was "healthy" to "laugh at yourself" (which seemed to mean, in practice, "not objecting or fighting back when you're bullied"). I didn't even realize what the origin of the word was until I heard someone with some pretty antiquated vocabulary refer to someone with CP as "a spastic."

    I don't think the only two possible responses to an insulting word are "reclaim it" or "curl up into a ball going 'waahh, you hurt my feelings.'" The latter obviously doesn't stop people from doing it, and, in fact, tends to spur bullies on. This doesn't make the bullying right, or that the victim gets what they deserved because they responded to it, or that there's absolutely no responsibility on the dominant society's end to change. I've seen "be tough and don't react to them" given as the response way too often to people who were being bullied. It's not that easy or that simple. There's a lot of power stuff involved, and ignoring is a lot easier to do when you're in a position of power, as opposed to in a position where you know all too well that the people calling you names are more than willing to back it up with violence, or attempts to prevent people like you from existing in the future.

    In any case, the "reclaiming" of words like "nigga" isn't by any means a monolithic thing. I've met a lot of black people who really, really disliked the use of "nigga" and see it as something that's too ugly and hurtful to ever reclaim. Same with the GLBT community and "fag." (FWIW, I'm transgendered, and I'm only barely ok with "genderqueer." If there were a more widely recognized word for people with a gender identity like mine, I'd use it.)

    And society does change in its norms over time, in terms of what words are considered acceptable in what contexts. I have a friend who was born in the fifties, who said that at the school he went to growing up, "nigger" was a generic insult, even if you didn't look remotely black, in much the same way "retard" was used as a generic insult when I was growing up. Nowadays it's considered unacceptable to the point where it gets bleeped out on television. (I'm not arguing in favor of censorship, just saying that it's a gauge of how offensive something is generally considered.) Yes, "people still say it," but not nearly as widely or casually as they did fifty years ago, when some people considered it a neutral nondescript term for any black person.

    By Anonymous Riel^Amorpha, at 4:07 AM  

  • Night Storm - we have to draw the line somewhere. Remember that if you insult anyone enough (and I mean anyone) the response wouldn't be the proverbial foetal position. It would uncontrolled fists, kicks etc etc - leading to another sort of legal trouble. So treating it as "something that will eventually pass" (so to speak as I read your meaning) is just not going to do the job.

    Take what Amorpha said about things being better than they were 50 years ago. That's education at work. BUT! Whatever is left is more extreme because of the sharpening of intolerances. And again - I'm speaking generally and not just for us ASD people. The reason for that is that these extremists just won't move with the times. They won't embrace new cultures and ideas and so forth, and because they are more and more in the minority - they try and yell louder. They even try their own fists - and there's a great example of that based on race down here in Melbourne with Indian students being targeted, and the student body is reacting very badly to it.

    See what I'm talking about? And the Autistic community has it's own version of "fists" being thrown by the intolerant - with John Best Junior at the top of the list and Jonathan Mitchell, Jake Crosby, Diane Davis and Daniel Faiella not far behind.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:39 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Bard, at 11:02 AM  

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