Monday, April 11, 2016

Not All Labels Are Created Equal

I wrote this article as part of the A-Z neurodiversity series created by Un-boxed Brain for Autism Acceptance Month. It is listed in that series as "L is for Labels"

The following article contains 238 labels.

The moment you tell me that you "don't like labels" is the moment I know you're being dishonest. If you speak any oral, written, or signed language, you use labels constantly: Child, adult, doctor, musician, gamer, optimist, pet owner, car enthusiast – These are all labels.

If you honestly tried to remove every label from your own speaking patterns, you would immediately run into the problem of infinite regression, as most label words can only be defined with other label words. Rather than "pet owner" you would try to say a person who lives with an animal in the same house, but then realize that person, animal, and house are all labels, and arguably so is the phrase "lives with" as a synonym of roommate.

We use labels for their utility, and out of practical necessity. Without labels, the only nouns in any language would be this, that, and pronouns. We would have zero ability to discuss concepts. You don't say "I don't like labels" when somebody calls you by your name, or occupation, or hobbies. The real meat of the conversation is those labels that are less mundane - more radical - not yet accepted as mainstream.

By "I don't like labels" you really mean "I don't like the label you just used." After fixing the language, the complaint is more relatable. We all have words we don't like; racist or ableist slurs for example. We might not all be on the same page about the details, but I think we can agree that some labels are neutral, like names or ages, some are bad, like slurs, and some are good. Let's start with the bad:

Ableist slurs hinder our ability to communicate.

Dumb, stupid, moronic, idiotic, and- if those first 4 words didn't shock you then this shouldn't either- retarded, are used as slurs against disabled people to insult us directly, and that's obviously harmful. They are also used against non-disabled people, to insult them by comparison to disabled people, which is of course offensive to all disabled people. Yet neither of those applications are what make these words less-than-useless as labels.

Ableist slurs based on "intelligence" end your thought process. If you don't like something, just call it "stupid" and swish your hands together like you're shaking off crumbs. Why don't you like that "stupid" thing? Well, because it’s stupid! The same can be done with "sanity" slurs and with the word lame.

In this scenario, we're not even talking about a person. We're talking about an object (or an emergent property of an object, like a story or a computer program) that has no brain and is thus incapable of having any brain-related characteristic. The word "stupid" thus has nothing to do with a brain; it's just an empty metaphor where you can file away everything in the broad category of "I don't like it." Since intelligence is a vaguely defined social construct invented to justify ableism, this is all equally true when we ARE talking about a person.

The basic utility of a label is to shorten a longer phrase: Rather than carrying around "small battery-powered computers that transmit digitized sound waves across great distances and reinterpret them on the other side", we carry cellphones. Human communication would be incredibly slow and cumbersome without labels to signify larger phrases. The problem with a label like "stupid" is that it fails to represent any phrase other than "I don't like it." Lazy critics may think they are signifying something important by referencing intelligence, when really it signifies nothing. If you get too used to calling things stupid, you learn to rely on it, but take the word away, and you are forced to describe the details of your actual complaints. If you don't care about removing ableist slurs from your vocabulary because they're ableist, remove them because you will become a better communicator without them.

Functioning labels divide our community.

High-functioning, low-functioning, mild, severe, and the nonsensical non-clarification of "Asperger's, not autism" are similar to "intelligence" slurs in the sense that they don't really signify anything. There is no set of characteristics that constitutes any measurable "functioning" or "severity" level.

Language has a tremendous influence on how we think, but that influence does not necessarily require using the language to communicate clearly. In some cases ambiguity may even be where the real power lies. Even if a label has no meaning behind it, the fact that people think it has meaning gives it power.

Functioning labels create categories out of thin air, simply by naming them, without even defining them. The connotations of "high" and "low" create a hierarchy: One label paints a target for prejudice, the other grants a shot at being accepted into the real privilege of the neurotypical label, at the cost of not having any support in doing so.

Meaningless buzzwords unite us toward inaction.

Labels without meaning aren't a new concept. If you're familiar with advertising, then you've surely encountered words like deluxe, gourmet, premium, and world-class. In the realm of advertising, these labels are known as buzzwords. If you've had the unfortunate experience of "autism awareness" groups, then of course you know that "awareness" is a buzzword too.

Awareness would ideally mean what it sounds like, a knowledge and understanding of the subject. In practice "awareness" campaigns, especially the ones about autism, have perverted the label such that it now signifies nothing more than seeing the word more frequently.

The label of "awareness" is a blank slate. It can encompass a variety of endeavors, from messages resembling those of neurodiversity to abusive practices derived from misinformation. Anyone can latch on with their own idea of what they feel "awareness" should mean. The label doesn't inherently mean anything, and yet we see communities come together on the basis of the label, just because a label exists. "Awareness" has the power to unite people, in the joint mission of doing nothing in particular, but doing it together.

Privileged people reject their own labels.

Neurotypical people (along with several other categories including white, straight, and cis) often reject the label of neurotypical. As is true for my pronouncements about slurs and functioning labels, when someone tells you not to use the word neurotypical, that's because they don't want you recognizing neurotypical as a concept.

When asked for an alternative, neurotypicals may offer the word "normal" or something similar, but that perfectly illustrates the problem with not having a label for neurotypical. Normalcy is a tool of oppression. Calling one set of people "normal" presents that set as the only good and healthy way to be, which in turn instantly paints everyone else as weird, alien, bad, and unhealthy.

The other alternative is to avoid labels altogether. Why do we need those words at all? Can't we all be human beings? Why can't we just call everybody people?

We can't just call everybody people.

If you constantly avoid labels, instead referring to everyone as people, then any time you give in and take the easy route, you'll be contrasting a label against "person" thus implying that whoever you're talking about isn't a person.

You can't just do away with human traits by not talking about them. Because there is no universal set of human experiences, desires, or needs, the differences between us matter. In a world where most people speak with their mouths and assume everyone else does too, I need the autism label to explain why typing is better. In a world of sensory assault, where "I don't want to" is not a sufficient excuse, I need the autism label to justify my self-protection.

It would be great if labels like autism weren't necessary. It would be great if ableism didn't exist, but that's one hell of a hypothetical. Ableism is an extreme and far-reaching problem that can't be solved without labeling the specific disabilities of the people being harmed.

Identity labels create communities.

Those who think it wrong to label ourselves autistic are operating under false notion that there is something wrong with being autistic. The autism label may be used to create stigma against us, but it also gives us something to reclaim. Before the label, we only had terms like weird, or abnormal, or worse. With the label we have something to point to for positive identity and pride.

Before the autism label existed, autistic people were disconnected, isolated individuals. We needed the label before we could begin to congregate on the basis of being literally like-minded. We need the label in order to search for resources from people with the same experiences. The autism label enables Autistic community. Uniting ourselves categorically unites us as people.

Bringing autistic people together also led to the creation of other terms, like stimming and special interests, which capture the beauty of autism and Autistic culture. These terms were created out of necessity and out of appreciation for our shared community.

...and it's all thanks to a label.

Image: Me in front of a book shelf, holding a sign which says "I am... A multiply disabled feminist socialist transgender atheist jew ...and I am Autistic. #AcceptAllOfUs"
Along with the labels themselves, the fact that I crammed together the most controversial labels also conveys additional personality information.


  1. You hit it bang on. I get so annoyed when people say that they don't like labels and I shouldn't call myself autistic as it's just a label. I try to explain that it's how I understand who I am and I am now part of an amazing community of other autistic people. It's like saying that someone can't be called Australian or American as it's a label. Labels are part of our society and can be good.

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