Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Power of Words

This post is not about politics per se. So no arguing about republican versus democrat. The beginning story is illustrative of a larger point:

The use and power of words is not just a bete noir for our children. It seems that most people fail to understand or comprehend the danger of what they are writing or saying. I am not talking about bullying. Those that bully know exactly what they are doing. They just don't care. I am talking about how words, when written or spoken, can lead to assumptions and innuendos that do great damage to an individual or group.

Yesterday in an exchange on twitter I challenged a liberal author about his characterization of Jewish-republicans. The way he wrote one particular sentence was to imply that the premiere issue for Jewish-republicans is Obamas' relationship with Israel. Personally that got my hackles up. Not merely because I am a Jewish-American who tends to vote republican, but because it alludes to an antisemitic diatribe that Jews in the US are strangers in this land and truly only care about a foreign nation first and foremost.

Here for more information on fighting prejudice
It is not only what he said but how he said it that lent itself to our exchange. I wrote that if he himself were not Jewish someone could accuse him of antisemitism (and yes I know there are Jewish antisemites. This man is not one of them.) But that words are important.  The actual missing word in his sentence was, a simple preposition, WHILE. If he had written that he would have inculcated himself from derision and deflected the assumption and implication of his words.

If he had simply written, that "while some in the US may  think that Jewish-republicans..." before he went on to discuss a republican Jewish coalition  add about the economy. It would have put a damper on the entire  "prejudiced" picture by decrying this antisemitic posture implied in his initial words.

And as far as I could tell, we did not part friendly but we did not part angrily.  I have actually never met this man and probably never will. But it is so important that we all watch what we say and how we say it, especially in the world of forever, the Internet. It is also why when I see a pundit or blogger using the "Rword" I point out the prejudice and hate associated with that word as well. Most of the time I see no change, but I have also received apologies and a change in the wording of an article or blog-post.

Meanwhile there is a program by the Anti-Defamation League which works to combat lies (i.e. words). Lies have been used to harm and degrade people throughout history. It is the source of genocide. Words ARE mightier than the sword. You should also know, that I am not a big fan of the ADL. But somethings they do are worthwhile. No Place for HateAnti-Bias Education and Resources, Antisemitism (USA, Arab/Muslim world, International)

So what does this have to do with autism...let me tell you:

Words carry meaning. But how you use the words and how you say or write the words have an effect on your day-to-day life as well. CM1 had an issue with one of his new professors this semester. The man had never taught someone on the spectrum before and he took what CM1 had said to him wrong. Well actually he did not take it wrong, he was insulted as he should have been (CM1 was commenting on how the class was mismanaged.)

However, the professor kept his cool and explained to CM1 that there are boundaries between student and professor that should not be crossed. Of course CM1 did not get this little social convention and came home with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

I sat him down and tried to explain to him that he did cross a line. The irony here is that CM1 was annoyed by the word "boundaries," not by the rule. No one had ever used that word with him before he claimed. I had to explain to him that there were always boundaries in his classes: how many questions he could ask, that he had to raise his hand, that he couldn't yell at the professor....etc. But it was the word with which CM1 was struggling.

"Boundaries" for CM1 has an interesting connotation. While for us it denotes typical social attributes that are important so society functions, in some way CM1 felt that these "boundaries" inhibited his education. It took some time for him to come to the realization, as I had tried to teach him, that there have always been boundaries, just with another name.

Yes he did get it eventually. However, we actually put the para back in the classroom to help with the interactions. Truth be told, the professor did not understand CM1 and CM1 did not understand the professor. The para is a very helpful go-between.

It was very interesting because the professor actually came to the para the other day and told him that it would be fine if he didn't stay in class. He understood CM1 better and knew him. He understood that CM1 did not mean to be disrespectful and that the para was not there because CM1 was violent. That was a very interesting admission by the professor. One that I am certain he didn't think made him look a tad foolish.

Now, CM1 likes the para being in class. It does give him a sense of comfort and back-up, as he says. I am not against the para staying either. I know we have only a few more months to help CM1 acclimate to independence before grad school, but this professor really seems to be having issues  with CM1, even though he says he does not. There really is no meanness in the professor, simply an unfamiliarity with autism and what it really happens to be.

I honestly do not blame the professor. I do not blame CM1 either. The professor having no background with special needs probably really didn't know what to expect. Yes he did go to the disability office to get support and figure  things out. Yet I am certain that the catalyst in this situation are the "words" spoken on television and society, which are used to describe people with issues. The "words" used to describe those that are psychotic and kill (like in the movie massacre) do not help others with invisible disabilities in society. And pundits telling the world that the killer had to have aspergers doesn't help either.

Should the professor have dug deeper before drawing any conclusion? Yes of course. But that is not always the real world. People, no matter how smart they  are, tend to go with what is in front of them. A 6 ft tall 200 pound young man who is giving you a hard time and has idiosyncratic movements, can trigger the human emotion of alarm considering what society perceives about spectrum issues. I am glad that the para could return to the class with CM1 and smooth things over for everyone.

Meanwhile we worked with CM1 to help him understand that he was not the boss of the classroom and that the professor can run his class anyway he wanted to. We told CM1 that this was supposed to be an easy class for his senior year. Watch some films, write some papers and graduate. He needs to keep his mouth shut and do as he is told before he gets thrown out of school. We tried to tell CM1 that if he ever spoke to a boss disrespectfully and told the boss that they were illogical or mismanaged their department he would be out of a job and probably never get another one. He could kiss his references good bye.

So far, CM1 seems to be doing better. He is learning who this professor is and what he expects. He is learning to "go with the flow"as it were. It is my understanding that the professor told the disability director that things were better now too.

But once again it all comes down to words. What you say and how you say it. We have tried to explain that to CM1 and will continue. I am hoping it sinks in soon.

Hopefully society will also learn (someday) that how you say something and what you say lends itself to how you are perceived and implies what you think. The power of words is the greatest power known  to humankind. It is why dictators after disarming a population, shut down any avenue of free expression. Words. They can lead to independence, liberty or hate. It is up to us to decide how to wield this power. It is up to us to remember that there are implications in what words we chose to use and how we chose to use them as well. And it is these implications that may have more effect than the straight forward meaning ever could.

The Art of Conversation 
Pragmatic Speech, The Autistic Mind, and Telling Your Professor He is Wrong 
   this wasn't the first time that CM1 sort of, kind of, well maybe angered a professor with his words

Until next time,