Not too long ago, I posted an entry that divided its time semi-equally between the injustice of a vigilantist idea of justice and my agreement with another author about how much the puzzle piece symbol sucks. This, to my pleasant surprise, brought about a visit from its author and some commentary about the symbol issue. In my own reply (I am compulsive about replying to everything, with some exceptions), I promised that I would explore symbols and their meanings a little bit further in a future entry. Or rather, I thanked him for giving me that idea, because to be brutally honest, when you churn out three or four entries a day at peak times, your stock of new ideas does sometimes run a tiny bit dry.
An important thing to note, what anyone designing a logo or a symbol or a flag needs to know right off the bat, is that symbols chosen by the group they are intended to represent tend to be looked upon more favourably by that group than symbols that have been thrust upon them. Nowhere is this more obvious than Autism Speaks’ puzzle piece logo. All over the web, cries of “I am a person, not a puzzle piece” can be heard. As the author of the above-linked journal entry and I have stated, we hate the puzzle piece. I could tell you how many people I have come across on the World Wide Wait who also hate the puzzle piece, but it would be a futile exercise, as I first witnessed people online declaring their hatred of the puzzle piece the best part of a decade ago now, and I lost count within days, if not hours, of that. Now, like a lot of people who have just been told “you are autistic, go crawl in a hole and die somewhere”, I was confused at first about why such hatred existed of the puzzle piece. Then I got my first eyefuls of Autism Speaks’ advertising campaigns, and all confusion was more or less instantly erased.
But I am getting ahead of myself to a degree here. You see, all symbols, flags, or emblems were at some point designed by somebody to invoke certain feelings when looked upon. To the left of this paragraph, you will see one of many renditions available online of the Coca-Cola logo. Coca-Cola, informally known as Coke, has become so entwined with the image of America and American culture (not to mention American cultural imperialism) that enormous neon billboards with the Coca-Cola logo instantly cause the viewer to believe they are looking at a location within America. It was not always this way, but thanks to pervasive media saturation of the logo and the product, the only pretense the world has left of any competition with Coca-Cola is the equally prevalent Pepsi. And both of the companies that make these two bottled cola drinks also own numerous soft drink companies that are kept on the market in order to maintain the illusion that sufficient competition exists. But the germane point here is that the Coca-Cola logo was created by the company with a specific message in mind. Although one would need a time machine to go back and ask that designer what they had intended, the general message in the advertising I saw as a lad was a general promise that drinking this fuzzy, dark-looking drink would make the customer feel good. Similar messages are abound in the advertising for other products made by the Coca-Cola company, such as Fanta. I do not know who designed Fanta’s advertising campaigns when I was a lad, but to say that these adverts gave the impression that the designer was coked out of his gourd would be an understatement.
So when one views the corporate logos for Coca-Cola, Sprite, or Fanta, one can feel a certain sense of good will from the company that controls them. This is in spite of the fact that much like the whole Microsoft versus Apple thing, Coca-Cola would pretty much be a monopoly if it were not for the existence of the Pepsi company. And make no mistake. It might seem like a recent thing that companies have brought together what we call focus groups in order to ask and test whether this or that design sends out the right impression. But commercial entities like Coca-Cola have been doing this since the early twentieth century, if not earlier.
Every so often, without fail, people in big corporations will gather together small but significant groups of people and ask them about different images or designs. The groups vary in size, but lots of a thousand are not unusual. Every participant in these groups will be recorded in terms of their age, sex, race, socio-economic status, and even such things as their political affiliations or family history of chronic illnesses. And every response they give to questions about a new design or logo will be very carefully recorded. The subtle phasing of words like “diet” out of the brand names of sugar-free and/or low-energy-value versions of Coca-Cola and Pepsi products, for example, is not an accident. People attempting to control their weight through dieting (something that never works for reasons I will elaborate on in another writing) and people with diabetes gave feedback concerning the use of the word “diet” in product names. Whilst people with diabetes will rightly assert that the use of the word “diet” makes it easier to identify products that will not make them sick to consume, both groups have likely asserted that plastering the word “diet” in big letters on your product is not the way to go about it.
Also worth thinking about is the (deceptively) simple fact that there is what your logo’s designer thought the logo would mean, and then there is what your logo really means to the people out there in the audience. Public opinion polls often turn out results that cause at least fifty percent of the people who read them to ask where the poll’s conductors found such idiots. But the funny thing is, the people thought of as idiots doubtless think the same of the people who answered differently, or at a polar opposite, to them. And polls in which the possible answers represent two polar extremes have a propensity to produce answers that are 80 to 90 percent wrong. Attached to this paragraph, you may have noticed the vintage “think different” logo used at one time by the Apple corporation. And as insane as it may seem, this is exactly the image that Apple wanted to project to the somnambulant public at one point. That people who typically buy Apple products think differently to the expected norm, goes the logic. But that image has come crashing down under the weight of Apple’s support of Digital Restrictions Management, the increasingly MP3-centric positioning of the iTunes market, and the flat-out refusal of Apple’s computer division to recognise the fact that the public has embraced Blu-ray Disc at a far faster rate than was ever the case with its standard definition cousin. “Think different”, when linked with the Apple corporation as it exists today, is such a misnomer that it is not unreasonable to believe the company dropped the slogan for fear of being taken to court for false advertising.
Public perception may be a weird, fragmented, and flat-out insane thing. But in any occupation where one is concerned with the selling of things, it is like stock prices. And public perception is no more easy to predict than the trajectory of every bullet coming out of an Uzi during a magazine-emptying burst. Whether one likes it or not, that lovely logo you thought might make your entity look so cozy and warm instead may have the effect of making your entity (and by extension, you) look like a complete asshole.
Someone sat in a room, possibly for hours, and designed the puzzle piece from the ground up. They sat there for hours and asked themselves, quite honestly, what autism represented to them, what autism was to them, and how best to represent that in a simple image. But the thing that separates the puzzle piece from things like the ISO symbol or (most) of the symbols used by such charitable organisations as the Diabetes Australia foundation or the Cancer Council is that unlike the latter examples, the person designing the puzzle piece cocked the process up. Instead of asking what being autistic meant to an autistic person, especially an autistic adult, the person doing the designing asked themselves what being autistic meant to them. And such was their selfish, normalistic, ableistic view that they assumed the answer to such questions for the foundation they were representing and thus the people it represented was exactly the same for people like Diabetes America or the myriad of cancer organisations in America. This is a false view of the situation for a number of reasons, but the most important of them is as follows: nobody has ever died as a direct result of being autistic. Oh, sure, people have been murdered by normies for being autistic, but that is an entirely different matter. Cancer, if left untreated for long enough, sentences the patient to a lengthy, often excruciating, and dignity-stealing death. Diabetes can kill as slowly or quickly as it likes. The number of deaths that have been caused by improper response to hypoglycaemia alone likely run into the hundreds or even thousands every year. There has not been a singular death attributed to being autistic that would still have happened if the others involved had not acted stupidly or in a manner contrary to the individual’s interests.
When you push out a logo, flag, or symbol at a group of people and say “here, this represents you”, you had better make very sure that you have chosen well. Autism Speaks did not thrust the puzzle piece upon us because they give two fukks for us. They thrust the puzzle piece upon us because they want us to think of ourselves as second-class citizens. They want us to accept the identity that they are using the puzzle piece to define for us. But as Kruma Steward puts it so well in his article about “the nigga identity” (his words), Autism Speaks does not want us to have a positive image of ourselves. They want us to think of ourselves as broken, as pieces of a person that do not fit a coherent whole. My love of the TRON films aside, the reason I think of the light-beam aesthetic and the ISOs in particular as more symbolic of the autistic is not simply because of the pretty lighting or the manner in which the ISOs in particular represent a level of intelligence that Autism Speaks could not achieve on their best day. No. You see, when you are represented by aesthetics that include such formidable opponents or allies as Rinzler or Quorra, that is a deliberate breaking with “the nigga identity” that Autism Speaks are trying to define as the length and breadth of our self-image. Hence, highlighting your neural pathways and major blood vessels in fluorescent blue-white, setting them over a silhouette of your head and shoulders, and calling that a representation of yourself will chafe Autism Speaks’ collective asshole so thoroughly because it is you (the autistic) defining yourself (what it means to be autistic, and how it shapes your world experience). It also tells the world in no uncertain terms that the cutesied, keyhole-narrow image of yourself that has been thrust on you by the like of Ronald Bass is not acceptable in your eyes.
That, in a nutshell, is why the puzzle piece logo is not, and never will be, acceptable. The fact that people with interests as contrary to our own as the Nazis’ were to those of the Jews, the mentally ill, or a number of other social minority groups, designed it is just the basic level of the problem. The fact that this group deliberately designed it to circumvent our ability to define our own identity as people is just the icing on an incredibly shitty cake.
So the next time you presume to write a page or piece about the world of the autistic and seriously contemplate putting a puzzle piece on it for reasons other than denouncing it, think twice. That you do the latter means you are not qualified to do the former.