Today’s word is tautology.
- a needless repetition of an idea in different words or phrases;
- a representation of anything as the cause, condition, or consequence of itself.
In its everyday guise, a tautology can often be mistaken as a significant statement—it usually takes a little thought and insight to recognize such statements as devoid of any substance. A simple example would be: “I’ve researched the matter thoroughly and have come to the conclusion that, without exception, bachelors are not married. What’s more, everyone agrees with me.” This assertion has been gussied up to sound significant, but of course a moment’s consideration exposes the statement as little more than an empty fidgeting with an agreed-upon definition.
But not all tautologies are so easily unmasked:
A: “Autism is a terrible disorder, a horrible disease.”
B: “But my child has autism and she doesn’t seem particularly troubled by it. True, she has some language difficulties she’s working through, and she’s not particularly interested in what the other kids do and say. But she’s smart, sweet, funny, curious—full of delight. She’s going to be just fine.”
A: “Then your child does not have autism. She may be recovering from autism, or she may have some mild variation that is not autism itself. But people with autism, without exception, are severely affected by the condition. That’s what autism is—a terrible disorder, a horrible disease.”
If we are going to systematically exclude from the category of autism all individuals who are doing well, then statements about autism being a disorder or a disease lose all their significance—they become vacuous, tautological. This practice goes a long ways towards explaining why we have gained so little insight into autism over the last sixty years, because we are never going to understand a phenomenon in which we insist on seeing only those individuals who are troubled by it, while willfully ignoring all those who are propelled.