Friday, December 31, 2010

What You Call People Matters

France's Minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, recently accused the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron of castrating Britain's position in Europe, adding that his approach was "pathetic.”  His use of the word "autism" has caused the most offense in Britain.  In his own words, he said:

Ttriste de voir la Grande-Bretagne, si importante en Europe, se couper du reste de l'UE et disparaître des écrans radar.  Ils n'ont qu'une formule et ne font que la répéter. C'est une forme très bizarre d'autisme

Which my Google Translator, while perhaps not the best, says in English the Minister's comment means:

“Sad to see Great Britain, so important in Europe, cut from the rest of the EU and disappear from radar.  They have a formula and do that again. It's a very weird form of autism.”   

Many in the UK’s Autistic Society are up in arms about the French minister’s use of the word “autism,” perhaps more than with his characterization of Mr.Cameron as repeating the same mistakes as past conservative governments.

One of the consequences of autism’s becoming better known is that the word begins to find its way pejoratively into popular parlance, much as was the word “mental” when my kids were growing up. If a youngster in school wanted to insult another student, he called him “mental.” 

When I was a child, one of the neighbor kids who road the same school bus as me, was something of a trouble maker, taunted me by calling me “four eyes,” which was a pejorative term for anyone who wore glasses.  At first I had no idea what he meant, but once it was explained to me that it was an insult based on the assumption that any child who wore glasses was a goody-two-shoes teacher’s pet, the remark made me upset and led to tussles on the school bus.

Many people, including professionals joke among themselves about being excessively concerned with detail and rigid in their daily routines, by assigning the word “OCD” (obsessive compulsive disorder) to themselves and coworkers. This has, in part, grown out of the popular Monk television series of a detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  It is one thing to use a word when referring to one’s own personal traits, but using any diagnostic term pejoratively (e.g. “She’s spastic”) is bad idea and should be discouraged.  When you consider that around 1 in 150 to 300 children have autism, there is a good chance that someone who hears your comment about someone being "autistic" will take offense at such remark. To them, having autism isn’t a joking matter.

In one of his children's poems Carl Sandburg wrote: “Look out how you use proud words. When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back. They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can't hear you calling. Look out how you use proud words.”

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