Monday, January 27, 2014

Label Me, Illuminate Me

The label-debate rages on, and now that I know I have autism, I have firmly come down on one side: I am in favor of labels.

Labels can be used to dehumanize, to misconstrue, to overgeneralize, and to blind us to a person's humanity and individuality. As Wayne said, "If you label me, you negate me".

Preach it, Wayne.
Then party on.
Actually, it was the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who originally said this. "Butterflygirl" on Yahoo Answers summarized Kierkegaard thusly:
Once you label someone you cancel out their own individuality and replace it within the boundaries of that label, so their individually has been restricted within that label and therefore, for all those who accept that label for that person they have no longer accepted that person for who they really are but understand them only to the limit of that label.
And I know all too well from my research into mind control that loaded language combined with us vs. them techniques can indeed leverage labels to negate an individual and render her selfless. It can be used to dismiss external points of view. Labels can make a group insider feel benevolent and normal while demonizing outsiders as inhuman and evil.

Many people fairly point out that labels, particularly psychological labels, can divide people. Labels can become truth. We are all individuals, but dumping thousands or millions of people into the same bucket removes some sense of self. Being labeled in school can make kids a target of bullying, not just from other kids but from teachers as well. It can impose expectations in education and in the workplace and among peers. Labeling can trigger tribalism and hostility. When people are unfairly labeled, they end up filling the role others expect of them.

I've met people in person and read blog posts from people who hate all labels. Here's a dude summing up this line of thought:

These are certainly valid drawbacks, but like The Spork of Truth, it has four tines. Hm, no I need something else... Like the Spoon of Truth, it has two edges. The same aspects that make labels problematic also give labels power. And when your label has power, you have power.
I used to feel neutral about labels. Now, with my diagnosis, I've made up my mind. I now celebrate and champion labels. Bring it. More labels for all! Yes, definitely beware of all the pitfalls that come with labeling, and then proceed with label punch in hand, like that one episode of Dexter's Lab.
Dexter and Dee Dee battle one another
for the right to label everything and then
They say, "If you meet one person with Asperger's, you've met just one person with Asperger's." This applies to everyone on the spectrum. We are all very unique individuals and our traits manifest in thousands of different ways – just like the colors in a rainbow. So the label seems perhaps limiting. Yet those of us with autism have more in common with one another than we do with allists (non-autists). Knowing that is useful.

I lived 38 years of my life without a label to accurately describe who I am. As a kid, a psychologist said I was "hyperactive", and in my 20s, I got an ADHD label from a psychiatrist. These labels helped my know myself a little, but were not accurate enough. All my other traits, which I now know were due to Asperger's, were just unique snowflake Luna oddness. Easily distracted, hyperfocused, shy, socially awkward, nerdy, impolite, smart, pedantic, pensive, weird, misunderstood, seemingly self-centered, anxious, difficult, distant... I projected these "personality traits" which, prior to last April, were merely marks of my individuality with no cause. In essence, all of my negative traits were "choices", bad things I did that I didn't understand, that I blamed myself for. Shortcomings with no solution. Without the label, people still perceived me as all those things. But I had no way to talk about it, and no way to understand. I beat myself up for not going out more, not talking at parties, not flirting, not being productive, for being lazy, for being depressed, for being scared, for forgetting birthdays and being inconsiderate and clumsy and absent-minded.

It's not the words that made me view myself this way. The words are just handles attached to concepts. I saw myself this way without words, because I naturally compared myself with others… Other people had it together and I never quite knew why I didn't.

The words didn't make the reality. They only filtered it. And they weren't filtering it very accurately.

The label allowed me to understand why. "Autism" is a label with definitions, entire books and websites and scientific studies devoted to defining what it means. It's a handle I can wrap my fingers around and manipulate. It's connected to a vast network of related thoughts by those who think about and study and share my autism. Now I can google this label and find others talking about it. Anyone affected by autism can share our thoughts and find others like ourselves. Without the label, all this would be impossible.

Moreover, I can tell those around me, "I have Asperger's", and that means something. It's not an excuse, it's a reason. It describes why I'm different. Many times people don't know what it means, or they have misconceptions, and the label itself gives me an opportunity to educate them. Now anyone who wants to understand me better has ahold of that same handle, and I can draw their attention to all the connections attached to the handle.
This is an actual font. Groovy.
Available from Smashing Hub.
That's the power inherent in words, in all words. As a society, we've agreed upon the meaning of these words. Words allow us to think and share our thoughts with one another. In the dystopic novel, 1984, the goal of Big Brother was to eliminate words, reduce the language down to only those necessary for labor. Authorities knew that if no one had words like"Freedom" or "Rebellion", they could never imagine or communicate about those concepts. Orwell called this language Newspeak.

Those who wish to eliminate labels may have good intentions, but their wish expresses a nihilistic cynicism, and the resulting language would stifle thought, discussion, and mutual understanding.

Knowing I have autism helps me understand myself. And it's helped others understand me. Getting personal for a moment, my sister and I have been distant most of our lives. I never quite understood why, and neither did she. A few months ago, when I told her I had Asperger's, and explained to her what that meant to me, it opened whole new doors in our relationship. She revealed that all these years, my behavior confused her and that, among other things, I seemed self-centered. The new label gave us a way to talk about it, and an alternate explanation for my actions. My label gave us a pathway to get closer.

That's the thing. Yes, we are who we are, unique snowflakes. And we act how we act. But without taking on one label, people will give us another. Maybe the label isn't a word. Maybe it's just an image or feeling in their mind. They ascribe reasons and motivations for why we do what we do. People are going to think things about us anyway. Misunderstanding and hate is not the fault of the label. That's an oversimplification. Reality is more complex than that.

Labels give us a starting point to explore those assumptions and identify ways in which individuals differ from the stereotypes -- stereotypes that already exist, even without the labels.

Accurate labeling lets us be more in control of how other see us. That's part of what the coming out movement is. It is owning that label and maybe even proud of it. You think I'm gay? Yes, I'm gay. (Bisexual actually.) It's a label, and it's part of why I'm a unique snowflake, and now you can't rob me of that, because I wield the word for my own ends.

You think I'm weird? Yes, I'm weird. And I'm partly weird because I have Asperger's. Letting everyone know that helps them understand me more, not less. And if they still choose not to understand, well that's their problem. Not the label's problem.

I have embraced labels and now I advocate for them. If you feel mislabeled, then find labels that better describe you, give them a big hug, and offer them to others as replacements. Use them as a starting point for further discussion. Maybe it's hard to find labels for yourself. So invent new ones. The process of thinking about how to describe yourself is an opportunity for greater self-awareness and self-actualization. You are building a language for your own mind to use about itself.

And when you share those labels with others, maybe they'll accept your self-identification, and maybe they won't. But at least you have something to own, a handle to hold on to when the world knocks you around.

Let your labels illuminate you.


  1. I'm in favor of labels as well. It shortens and simplifies what would otherwise be an impossibly lengthy explanation. That's what words do. And a label has more power than the sum of its traits.

    An example much like yours, my mother was well versed in the traits that made up my autism. These traits lead to a very strained relationship for most of my life. But with the label of autism, the way those traits were seen was changed and now we have a much better relationship than before.

    Yes, someone can use a label to negate you, but I suspect that a person who uses labels in that manner would be as likely to negate you in other ways. It's the fault of the person using it, not something intrinsic to the label itself.

  2. I too am for labels but there need to be better understanding in the public about what the different labels mean. For example, if you ask most people in the general public what autism mean, they'll say it a nice way of calling someone a retard. Ironically, people who are truly mentally retarded are accepted in the general public as normal.

    There also need to be better anti-discrimination law ageist people on the spectrum as well. For example, there are laws as well as company policies ageist sexual harassment in the work place but there are no laws or policies ageist autism harassment.

    1. Ok I LOLed at this: "Ironically, people who are truly mentally retarded are accepted in the general public as normal."

      There is one law that does apply. The ADA. (You're in the US, right?) Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to people with autism, and I've known people fortunate enough to have workplaces that respected this. There are many people with Asperger's in the tech sector, and thus, many employers who are willing to offer reasonable accommodations, like quiet work areas. These employers are rewarded with loyal, hardworking, brilliant workers. If I'd known I had Asperger's when I had my day job, I would have had leverage to make changes in my workplace that I never was able to by merely saying, "I prefer it quiet. I concentrate better."

      There are a couple of companies recently that announced they are specifically looking to hire autistic people because they value our strengths. So these changes are coming, albeit slowly. I have to keep reminding myself that by living in Seattle, where Asperger's is very common, it's alot easier for me.

      Which I guess kind of proves the point. In places where people have more exposure to autism, they are more likely to know what it means and to be understanding and kind. I think it can be done without further laws.. just more education about how the existing law, the ADA, can be implemented.

  3. "In essence, all of my negative traits were "choices", bad things I did that I didn't understand, that I blamed myself for. Shortcomings with no solution."

    This pretty much sums up my experience as well. Diagnosis was a wonderful gift I was given. It allowed me to stop blaming myself for all my problems. I was no longer a "bad" person. Flawed maybe yes, but not "bad" and like you said, it's a reason, not an excuse.