Friday, 14 October 2011

Plural nouns and identity

Recently, there was an interesting Twitter conversation about the use of the term 'autistics'.  I have to admit complete ignorance prior to this discussion, in not realising that for many people with autism this is the term of choice.  As co-editor of a journal that insists on person-1st language (e.g., people with autism), I was genuinely shocked that in trying to ensure no one is offended by terminology, we may have managed to do just that by appearing to 'avoid' the term 'autistic' as if it was a taboo.  And I wholeheartedly apologise if anyone has been upset by that - in the UK at least, 'people with autism' is the not only 'recommended' terminology, but is also advocated by many parents who are offended by the term 'autistics'. 

Now firstly, there is some confusion over whether we are saying 'autistic people' or 'autistics' and whether they are interchangeable.  I understand the argument for the former, in that it expresses the fact that autism is not something you 'have' but something you 'are', as has been pointed out to me on Twitter by some autistic people.  But the question was raised as to why the latter might offend people.  This is a puzzling issue.  Is it because of 'subjective social stigma' as one Tweeter suggested?   I think its not quite that.  On reflection I think it has to do with the pragmatic use of (plural) nouns for (groups of ) people in English - I tried to think of examples when we do this and found 3 groups:

1) Occupation, function and role: the most common use seems to be to group people by occupation or task.  So we might say 'teachers' or 'helpers'.  There is also a whole group relating to a role in something else e.g., advocates for; supporters of.  But in all these cases the usage denotes a quality wholly separable from the individual which is what those preferring the term 'autistics' are trying to avoid.

2) Medicine and psychiatry:  It is not uncommon to hear medical texts refer to aphasics, asthmatics, diabetics. 

3) In order to denigrate:  I tried really hard to think of examples where positive attributes were used as nouns (not adjectives) to describe people.  The closest I could get were 'philanthropist' and 'lover' but both of these are usually qualified 'good lover' 'real philanthropist' and they are also usually used in relation to an 'act' of philanthropy or love.  I guess we might want to consider 'babes' or 'cuties' but these do have a slightly patronising tone.  And uses such as 'cook' and 'artist' denote function or occupation unless they are also qualified (he is a good cook; she is a talented artist). Far easier to think of were more negative examples such as 'flirts',  'do-gooders', 'busy-bodies' 'rogues' and 'miseries'.  I don't think we ever say anything in English like  'artistics,' 'clevers', 'beautifuls', 'slims' 'sensitives' 'compassionates' etc . I would be delighted to hear of positive examples of this language use.  One exception might be gender - it seems okay to refer to 'women' and 'men' (although less so for 'females' and 'males') but whilst gender terms can be used as positive or negative, they seem to me more neutral.  Also interesting is that in other languages the use of plural nouns for people's qualities may be more widespread.  My limited knowledge of French, for example, suggests that 'les beaux' and 'les grands' (cf 'powerful people' in Maupassant) are pragmatically ok.

And so, when faced with the term 'autistics' I would argue that many people (myself included) are subconsciously primed for these pragmatic uses of plural nouns in English and that is why it sounds difficult.   I am not autistic, and so some may argue I don't have a voice here.  I certainly applaud those people who are autistic and who are fighting to make terms such as 'autistics' acceptable, but because there is litte or no precedent in English for using plural nouns in this way except for medical or negative purposes, it concerns me that the result will be opposite to that intended.  That is, its use will serve to re-medicalise autism.  And that would be a shame when so many have done so much good work in advocating the strengths and community of autistic people in recent years.

1 comment:

  1. Quite a few of us with Aspergers Syndrome (aka high functioning autism) use the noun "aspie" to refer to ourselves. Many aspies also use the adjective autistic to describe themselves. Some consider the term "high functioning autism" to be offensive because it implies that people with other forms of autism would then be "low functioning".