Nov 23, 2011 0 Share

Are You in the Loop?

Man covered with ID tags shrugging shoulders.

To what extent do we make ourselves? And how? 

Quite a lot, according to Ian Hacking’s concept of looping. He argues that when we define “human kinds,” such as “teenage mother,” “hero,” “child abuser,” “hard worker,” etc.—as we must: 

  • We draw lines—such as the line between “teenager” and “adult”—which may be necessary boundaries but they can't always be natural. In fact, while we certainly need national borders and every nation has them, they're not always drawn exactly—just ask three American hikers. Boundaries sometimes can be quite arbitrary. 
  • People respond to the ways in which they and other people are defined. If people call cyanide a deadly poison, it won't mind and while people will avoid eating it they won't react emotionally to it. If on the other hand people call Casey Anthony a child murderer, she will respond to that as will many others. 

That may extend to calling people Aspies. At the margins, differentiating between a high-functioning Aspie and an NT who's, say, subtlety-challenged and single-focused, can be a tough call. 

Also, when we recognize Aspies as a distinct type, among other things we're saying that someone may not be an out-and-out “Rain Man”—still a popular stereotype in the U.S.—but may still have a basis for doing some of the same things that others do for less appropriate reasons. 

In other words, we're saying that among those who do things that upset others, the world is not divided between full-fledged autists and just plain jerks. 

Hacking's ideas give us some interesting implications: 

  • Aspies may recognize that despite what we may have assumed all our lives, others—NTs—really do approach everyday interactions very differently from the way we do. Now we have a responsibility to reach out to the world, understand bit by bit how society actually works and accommodate others as best we can. 
  • Parents, teachers, supervisors and others have a new set of tools for dealing with some people—and also new responsibilities. They may not have to decide who is an Aspie and who is just a jerk (or both), but in any case they now have a wider set of options—a double-edged sword. They also need to deal with occasional mistakes—bearing in mind that neither AS nor personality issues can be conclusively determined like, say, tuberculosis or high blood pressure. 
  • In fact, some people can be just plain insensitive and then claim they're Aspies to try to evade the consequences.

  • Worse still, some Aspies can use the label to avoid responsibility. Instead of using this golden opportunity to develop ourselves and get decision-makers to help us instead of unfairly writing us off as jerks, a few of us may abuse it—which gives us all a bad name.

No doubt about it, labels aren't always perfect. But sometimes they’re useful. Now check out your medicine cabinet or supermarket—do you still think labels are bad? That strikes me as...loopy!