In the constant back and forth about the use of so-called “person first” language (that is, “person with autism” or the like), a dangerous gambit or concession emerges. The “person first” camp, with all of their smugness and self-entitled ignorance of the implications, like to tell us that it is up to what the individual prefers. This seems perfectly reasonable at first, in spite of how some of them attempt to use this as a platform from which to bully us into adopting it. But just like “person with blackness” or “person with Hebrew” or “person with Chineseness”, to cite just a few potential examples, are unacceptable and not a matter of preference, neither is “person with autism”. I do not care what you have to say for yourselves, “person first”ers. I could be the only autistic individual in the world who feels this way about your separationistic language. That would only mean I am right, and everyone else is wrong.
In order to understand why, it is important to examine a few things about so-called “person first” language. Since it largely seems to be the same kind of people who think that political correctness and changing the world through language modification are not evil, pernicious things that push “person first” language, it is reasonable to think of “person first” language as an extension of political correctness.
Political correctness was not a grass-roots, organic movement that started with people in the street or in factories deciding that complicated and unintuitive strings of words were a preferable way to communicate. It was a small, undemocratic group within a university or within a group of universities who made up a list of terms without even so much as consulting any of the people the terms were intended to refer to. Hence, we have politically correct terms like “African American” to refer to black Americans who have no recorded ancestors that ever saw Africa. Or in extreme cases of dipshitiness, black people who have never seen either Africa or America.
And in order to understand the beef a lot of people have with political correctness, you have to understand a fundamental point. This point, by the way, is why I get pissed off with the “um-mum-mah, yer dob don!” reaction that politically correct assholes put on when I describe a person who presumes to lecture me about semantics with a word that meets their disapproval whilst being apparently unable to tell that finishing a phrase with “per say” will severely diminish them in my eyes as retarded. You see, when people write, sing, or performance art statements like “words are weapons”, you have no idea how close to and yet so far from the truth they really are. The phrase these people are searching for is “words are tools”.
From the time we start to make noise in an effort to communicate to our parents (or even the nearest adult) that our arse is itching like crazy to the time we start to lose our ability to make complete sense when we really need to, we are making sounds in a deliberate effort to communicate meaning to those around us. This is a critical point that George Orwell made so well in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Take away enough, even any, of the words, and you take away the ability to express ideas. The ability to express ideas, even bad ones or ones as horrifying as the Nazis’ euthanasia program and why they thought it to be a good thing, is sacrosanct. Without the ability to express any and all ideas that pop into the head, no matter how ugly they might be, sentient creatures stagnate.
As an example of this, think of one part of the Stephen King novel It. The character named William Denborough is, like King, an author, and one who has succeeded enough at it that he can pay his bills very easily. One of the people Denborough went to school with (I am not sure which, but I am pretty sure it is the one that commits suicide in response to the news that the antagonist has returned) has a wife who can best be described as rather inarticulate. On the ‘phone to her mother, said wife states that Denborough is not a “real writer” but writes “horrorbooks”, sort of enunciated the way one might say “sexbook”. This, obviously, is a caricature of the people that derided King‘s horror novels as being “not real writing”. But the king hit (not a pun) comes when King states flatly that this woman is not terribly articulate and cannot come up with the very concise word “pornographic” in order to describe how trying to read Denborough‘s work made her feel. This woman is exactly the kind of person the politically correct want to dominate Humanity’s sphere of communication, now and forever, amen.
This is why politically correct terms like “mobility challenged” were turned into perjoratives themselves by what the politically correct units of the world would describe as intolerant people. And why not? When you take something a person “prefers” and slant it in just the right way, it can become just as repulsive to them, if not more so. Want to see a day in which conservative pundits refer to President Barack Obama as the first American President “with blackness”? Well, at present, the so-called “person first” crowd is going exactly the right way about it. You do not create an “alternative” out of thin air and try to force or bully others into using it. Language is like the spice. It has to flow.
One of my favourite standard definition television shows, from an unintentional comedy perspective, was a little science fiction future shock series called Dark Angel. As many will be aware, this is basically the series that got Jessica Alba started on her… shall we say, illustrious, career in front of a camera. Whatever you have to say about Alba‘s performances in front of a camera, however, she did look in constant danger of breaking out and delivering a performance that brought Dark Angel from being an X-Men wannabe to being a worthy thing to stand in the ballpark with the real X-Men films. So what went wrong? In a nutshell, the writing. You see, throughout the series, and especially early on, the middle-aged men writing the scripts wanted to demonstrate how “hip” or “now” they could be by literally drowning the dialogue in slang.
Slang, all linguists will agree, is something that specific groups of individuals use to either simplify their communication or obscure their communication from what they consider to be unfriendly ears. The slang in Dark Angel accomplished neither. Oh sure, the manner in which the slang was spoken made it seem nearly incomprehensible to all concerned, but not only was it used to the point of overcomplicating the speech, every person and their dog was using it without any real regard to why they would want to. Which brings me to a simple point about speech: the intention behind a word, phrase, or sentence is just as important, if not more so, than the word, phrase, or sentence itself.
Now, when you are as linguistically-inclined as I am, you sense different things not just about the words being used, but the manner in which they are being used. And you start to incorporate this yourself into your speech. Whenever you hear me speak the phrase “person with” out loud, you immediately hear so much scorn and derision in my voice that you could be forgiven for thinking phrases like “filthy cripple” or “filthy Jew” were cycling in my head. Actually, you would not be too far off. What I am really thinking in such times is something along the lines of “filthy moron asshole who thinks they can change the world by shackling my tongue”. But that is not so easy to convey in a conversation with such an idiot. Not to mention the plain old fact that it is far from isolated to that.
What is easy to convey, however, is the base feeling. Ask yourself something. How often, in everyday, regular conversation, do you hear someone simply say “I do not like you”? Rarely? Ever? This is because the basic feeling of disliking a person is so easy to convey by subtext or implication that saying it directly is rarely necessary or even desired. A rare occasion where I have seen it spoken directly without it seeming forced in a manner inorganic to the story being told is an exchange a scene between Keanu Reeves and Frank Langella in the good-taste-genocide known as Sweet November. This is also a rare example of when Reeves‘ minimalistic acting style actually suits the scene. Reeves‘ character is an unemployed advertising executive auditioning for a job at the company headed by Frank Langella‘s character. Witnessing Langella‘s character treating in the verbal sense a poor minimum-wage waitress like something stuck to the bottom of his shoe, Reeves‘ character stops the audition right there, flat out telling Langella‘s character something like “I just don’t like you“.
Every time you see me use a parallel like “person with blackness” or “person with Asianness” (or if I am feeling really snotty, “person with yellowness/oliveness”) in text (I am unsure if I have ever spoken it aloud), the unspoken implication in the context I use it in is “person with extreme rudeness” or “yes, you who is trying to tell me what words are acceptable to use in reference to myself, I just do not like you”. Which brings me to what I have been trying to get across for quite some time now. The very second you try to tell me I am a bad person simply because of the word I use, as opposed to when and where I use it, or why, you become a bad person in my eyes.
The word “retarded” can, ironically, be used in context of two X-Men that I know of. In the 2000 film directed by Bryan Singer, we are told that one of these characters has a regenerative capability so great that his age is impossible to determine. For all that they know to the contrary, he could be older than Professor X, who is apparently old enough to have been capable of walking around his home on his own in the closing stages of World War II. The other, we are told in one scene of X-Men: First Class, will look like a woman in her late teens at an age when most women are either hearing or thinking the word “menopause”.
These two characters, in order, are called Wolverine and Mystique. Magneto aside, they are the two I most relate to in the X-Men canon. And the word “retarded” can be used to describe them, if you follow it immediately with the word “ageing”. That is, the process of shedding and growing cells, the process of entropy, the process by which they grow older, more frail, and eventually die, is retarded in them. I do not know about you, but if I were told that my ageing is retarded, I would either be over the fukking moon with joy or deeply fearful, depending on a few factors.
(In a sense that coincides more with how the word was actually intended by the Romans to be used, I have a retarded sense of smell. Things have to be very strong or offensive, smell-wise, for me to know that they are there. Again, this is a good thing. How do you think I was able to live amongst you for so long without a sensory apoplexy, Queenslanders?)
For the really dense assholes out there who really do not understand what I am getting at here, let me lay it on the line for you. (Imagine me saying that the same way Brian Doyle-Murray does in Caddyshack.) When I was five or six years old, and in my early years of schooling, numerous peers from school would, when hearing a peer say something that they thought was “bad” or “forbidden”, would loudly exclaim a string of words. In order to convey how childish it sounded to me then, I will write it out here in a manner that conveys the exact sound it had: “um-mama! yur dob don!”. Although I was not as angry or nasty then as I am now, this jumble of stupid words made me want to punch the speaker in a head-severing manner. And this is exactly how people sound to me when they cry “stop using the r-word!” (I always hear this in my audio-isation mind as “arrrrgh word”) or the like.
Imagine me speaking in the manner Christopher Fairbank does in Batman when his character tells his cohort: Shut up. Seriously, “every word must be on a pillow and giggly and cuddly”-thinking folk, shut. up. Because as I have gone in circles trying to convey to you both here and directly as individuals, you defeat your own cause every time you engage in this kind of behaviour. In fact, if I (and by I, I mean Kronisk) could banish you to your own planet where all the people spoke and thought like you, I would do so with no more contemplation in the matter than it takes me to buy milk.
(Interestingly, that conjunction of words, I would do this or that and think about it less than I think about buying milk, is one I apply to a lot of not-nice behaviours against people I deem to be not using what is betwixt their ears. For instance, with one exception, if I found I could snap my fingers and snuff out every Human being presently in Queensland, I would do so with no more contemplation than it takes me to buy milk.)
In fact, let me lay something further on the line for you, political correctness brigade. Note how in my big expression of hate/disgust, there is not a single word that can be construed as intending to hurt the people described. Unless you count Queenslander(s), which is probably the foulest insult two autistic Parramatta boys could throw at each other. (Yes, I am borrowing Mario Puzo‘s little joke about “policeman” becoming the foulest insult two Sicilians can throw at one another. Eat me.) Yet the concept conveyed in the words in question, so politely and calmly spoken, is one of murder, eradication, and massive inflictions of suffering. This is the point that the political correctness brigade seem to be too retarded in the intellectual or conceptualisation sense to understand. Actually, there are two points to the concept. One, which I have covered in great detail already, is that words are subservient to intentions. Two, which probably deserves further exploration, is that in a method of communication where multiple things must be locked together in variable configurations to convey a meaning, context is King.
Context is King. This goes back to all of the jumping up and down about “person first” crap I have been doing. You see, when you call me a person with diabetes, you do a few things. You use twice as many syllables as you would if you just used the word “diabetic”, for one. You also use about a second more time, nearly three times as much as it would have otherwise taken. Both are extreme inefficiencies in communication. But you also convey, this time correctly, that diabetes is a separate thing to me that came to be part of me through autoimmune failure, and would not be missed in the slightest if it were removed. Reread that last statement a few times, please. It will make what I am going to say next a lot easier to grok.
When you imply through language that autism is a separate entity to me that was introduced to me by nefarious or unwanted means, and is therefore okay to remove in any manner, you are being very offensive. All of us, regardless of our age or bits, have things about us that we dislike enough to think about changing or getting changed. The one person in Queensland whose pain or injury would aggrieve me, for example, is frequently heard or seen to utter expressions of annoyance concerning how short she is. And to this day, I seem to be developing skin cancers or skin lesions so quickly that there would be little left if I had them all removed by currently-available means. But the thing is, whilst the latter is often a serious inconvenience that I would happily see go away, it is not a fundamental part of my person. The former, however, is something that cannot be changed by any real practical means that do not have serious drawbacks, and is really something the person in question has lived with since they were fully grown.
My male parent has two sisters, the younger of which would only just be five feet tall, if that. I am about five-eight and change, one of the tallest members of my extended family, if not the tallest, and her head is beneath my pectorals when she stands right in front of me. But she has a sense of humour about that. I am sure that when she was eighteen or so, she wondered if it would be possible to change. But whilst the old saw that wisdom comes with age is often bullshit, I have come to understand that when you have sufficient intelligence to have insights, age does bring a certain acceptance of what is real and true. You learn to accept what you are and that there are limits to what you can do. Hell, you probably start learning this when you are in your early twenties and hear a man like Matt Schulze so awesomely say that you cannot get anything done in a world without rules. But when you are old enough to have voted against at least three different heads of state, you also develop a sense of how far one has to go to get some things done.
You also adopt a perspective about the things you see as a problem in your life. The last woman that I really had a friendly relationship with would not be any taller than the woman I just spoke of above in reference to Queensland. But the difference with her is that she has seen me either hit my head on things or narrowly miss doing so enough times to know that there are upsides to only being a small fraction above five feet tall. And I repeat for your edification: I am five-eight and change. Yet in some places (especially *cough* Queensland), I frequently either narrowly miss hitting my head on things hanging from ceilings, or do so.
I doubt you would refer to any one of these women I have mentioned as a “person with shortness”. It is a poor economy of verbiage, and that is just for starters. It is also, ironically, guilty of the exact same sin as “person with autism”. Marie, the woman I described above and actually dated (as opposed to just wanting to get to have more conversations with), will never know what it is like to stumble about in an over-stuffed room, trying to avoid getting too much of her person bent in the wrong direction. She will never hit her head on fixtures in rooms where the ceiling is of the standard height (or even in some of the abundant Queenslander houses where they are less than that). Hence, being short enough for me to have to physically pick up to kiss is as much a part of her as having been born in a city that makes Sydney or even New York look like infants by comparison. Oh yeah, and Marie might not be autistic in the sense of meeting all of the diagnostic criteria that psychologists use, but she is not far off it.
Oh yeah, and if you are still thinking that “person first” language is acceptable, go to Marie (if you can find her) and call her a person with wopness, or olivey-ness, (or similar) to her face. I will bring the bucket to mop you up with.
This, in a nutshell, is why when, as in one cartoon I have seen, a person says “please use person first language”, what they are really saying is “hello, I am an asshole who deserves to have their teeth kicked in”. Because when a person does not embrace every little bit of who they are, for good or ill, they are prone to being deceived about same. When you are lost, confused, and broken because you do not have a complete picture of what you are, as is generally the case for undiagnosed autistic adults who are twenty-three years old and have not worked more than a year in their life to that point, you might believe anything people tell you about what you are. When you have learned the truth more than a couple of decades too late and are learning the truths about that truth, on the other hand, you begin to ask questions about it and formulate a new view of the world, along with yourself.
That is a reason why so-called “person first” language is not only bad, but flat-out offensive. Because in those initial stages of recognition, insight, acceptance, and view adjustment, what you hear from others is a very critical factor. If one of my nieces or my nephew was told “you have autism” as opposed to “you are autistic”, I would be very adamant with my sister. Do not ever let the person who said that near them again, not unless they apologise for their offensive language, and understand that they are going to be quite heavily watched to make sure they never use it again. Because unlike all the words we apparently cannot say on the radio, “you have autism” is extremely offensive no matter how, why, where, or when it is used. It is bad enough when a grown man is trying to get his head around the facts and what they mean. Ever sat in front of a computer, looked at what a bunch of people have typed, and thought to yourself something like “those people did not [abuse me] because I was being bad or failing to live up to their expectations, they did it because they were so ignorant that they should be killed”? Imagine how revelations like this must be to a child. Imagine not only how confused a child will be when they try to understand the difference between an inherent characteristic and an external entity, but also when a relative reacts with unbridled anger towards the cause of that confusion.
Look, I could go on for hours about both why “person first” is actually individual last, or why people who become apopleptic at the mere use of a singular and often context-justified word are an intellectual ball and chain to Humanity, but I will stop here for now. We all need to have a good, hard think about these concepts, because disability services and Human rights are going to be hobbled in the forward journey until someone takes them a little more seriously.