The other day, a colleague of mine called me to consult on a case. Her client was a young adult who had been diagnosed with autism. At one point my colleague said, “His black and white thinking is caused by his autism…” I interrupted her and curtly said, “No. His black and white thinking isn’t caused by his autism; his black and white thinking causes his autism.” She seemed confused, so I did my best to explain the damage that can be done by reifying labels. I probably did a lousy job, because her mystification lingered.
I told her that the more she relied on a label (a diagnosis) the less likely she would be to know her client. Although it’s helpful, indeed necessary, when starting out in any field to learn the jargon, and thus have a shorthand for reducing the morass of information into manageable bits, it can also lead us down wrong paths. It is no accident that the more experienced a clinician the less jargon you will hear.
Diagnostic labels obfuscate more than they clarify. Reducing someone’s personality to a group of symptoms may serve to focus on what some have concluded are the most meaningful bits, but by doing so we too easily fail to see the richness and contradictions of those behaviors that lie outside our expectations. If the label we give to the jar with the white powder in it is “flour” then that is what we expect will be in the jar, not the sugar that you put in that jar when you were preoccupied with getting the internet upgraded. It is not necessarily that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy but rather that the therapist actually misses the deeper truths of who is sitting opposite.
Diagnoses are, essentially, metaphors, in the same way Susan Sontag brilliantly described cancer in her seminal essay “Illness as Metaphor.” Metaphors can be compelling ways to describe things, but they are not the same as the things we are describing. You can’t meaningfully say that John is schizophrenic any more than you can put a blanket of air on your bed, shoot an idea, buy a moral compass from the nautical supply shop, or really give me a piece of your mind. As the semanticist Alfred Korzybski famously said, “The map is not the territory.”
Another Hungarian hero– Thomas Szasz, made a career out of professing that psychiatric diagnoses were essentially a form of social manipulation. A psychiatrist himself, Szasz insisted that he was not anti-psychiatry, but anti-coercive psychiatry. He saw psychiatric diagnoses as socially constructed with little to no medical evidence to support them, to be used, perhaps, to remove someone’s freedom (as in the case of hospitalizing a schizophrenic), cast someone aside from society (such as calling homosexuality a disease), or sell drugs that don’t work or cause more harm than good.
Too many wrong roads are driven when we begin to think that the metaphor is the real thing. The depth of personhood, the miraculous complexity and uniqueness of each individual becomes transmogrified into the label we put on the package. Korsybski once dramatically demonstrated this when he took a break from a lecture to eat some biscuits that had been wrapped in white paper. After commenting how much he enjoyed them, he offered some to students in the front row, who enjoyed their taste until Korsybski removed the white paper to reveal that they were dog biscuits. The students became nauseated, and Korsybski said something to the effect that we not only eat food, but we also eat words.
The problem with my colleague stating that her client’s “black and white thinking was caused by his autism” is that “autism” is merely the label on the dog biscuit package. It may or may not have anything to do with what is inside, but instead may have everything to do with what we think is in the package.
When we reify something, we also give it a static quality. We take something that should be a verb and turn it into a noun that just sits around on a shelf waiting for someone to pull it off. And in doing so, we begin to think that there is little we can do with it. If we only referred to John as a noun we would imagine him standing somewhere. But if we said he was “Johnning,” we would imagine all that he does that makes him tick. Saying someone has autism, or depression, or even a virus, leaves us little to do with it, freeze-drying it as it were, and even creates a bit more distance between us and them. If autism, or any diagnosis, was a verb rather than a noun we would be more interested in what it does and how it works, thereby bringing it to life and moving us to engage with it.
Another problem with my well-intended colleague’s comment is the direction of causality. We need to know the territory before we can draw a map, but drawing the map will not create the territory. Does giving someone the label of autism make that person lose the ability to perceive life’s grays, or does the inability to perceive gray cause us to give someone the label of autism? And if it is the latter, then what useful information does that give us?
My colleague fell into a dangerous trap, but although the landscape of our language is littered with those traps, no experienced clinician should fall into them. Confusing the map with the territory is something that ultimately can hurt our clients when the label is a psychiatric diagnosis, and when the labels we serve up are liberals, conservatives, Palestinians, Moslems, Jews, Christians, or even Hungarians, we may succeed only in creating obstacles to understanding each other.
I like your thinking!
Wonderful essay! Fabulous to think of people as verbs, not nouns. (He is “Johnning”.) We are constantly becoming, not fixed in a way of being. Thank you for writing this and sharing.
Ira, I found this very helpful. You beautifully articulated the danger of labels and I, too, loved the idea of thinking of people as verbs, not nouns. Gave me lots to think about.