Word count: Should we 86 ‘retarded’?
Words matter. Just look at the recent dust-up over various uses of the word “retarded,” which managed to leave Rahm Emanuel looking like a moronic bully, Sarah Palin like a titanic hypocrite, and the rest of us shaking our heads in confusion over whether we can use this word at all, ever, again.
You probably heard about this whole thing as it happened, but I didn’t know about it until I saw an item in one of my favorite magazines, The Week, which is kind of like My Weekly Reader for grown-ups. Apparently Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, called Democrats balking at President Obama’s health care plan “f—ing retarded.”
Palin, a paragon of political correctness, dontcha know (wink-wink), immediately called for Emanuel’s resignation. Palin, the mother of a Down syndrome child, said Emanuel’s remark is “a slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities.”
Emanuel, to no one’s surprised, declined to resign, but he did call Special Olympics chief Tim Shriver to apologize, according to ABC News, and signed a pledge promising to refrain from derogatory uses of what’s now being called “the R-word.” Meanwhile, less than a week after blasting Emanuel, Palin defended Rush Limbaugh’s use of the word, in exactly the same sense to describe exactly the same people, as “satire.”
Here’s what Limbaugh said, according to Greg Sargent’s Plum Line blog:
“Our political correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards,” Rush said, adding that Rahm’s meeting yesterday with advocates for the mentally handicapped was a “retard summit at the White House.”
That sounds a lot worse to me than what Emanuel said, but who cares? Aside from the entertainment value of politics–which has become a spectator sport, something we can only watch and take a rooting interest in–all this is less pertinent than what it might all mean for the English language, American subsidiary.
Shriver, of the Special Olympics, argued in the Washington Post that the R-word “represents one of the most stubborn and persistent stigmas in history,” and contributes to “cruel discrimination” in schools and the workplace.
Law professor Christopher Fairman, also writing in the Washington Post, basically makes the Lenny Bruce argument: Words are value-free, it’s people who are messed up, banning words is always a bad idea, resulting in more harm than good, blah blah.
But this is manifestly wrong. First, no one is actually talking about “banning” any words. What the cognitive disabilities people want is for the word to be made socially unacceptable, and thereby fall out of use. More to the point, however, is recent history, which shows that altering language can influence social and political attitudes– for the better.
This was borne home to me a few years ago when I briefly took a Spanish class. I was astounded to see Spanish replete with words and phrases that implied masculine superiority and prerogative. In other words, it was just like American English, circa 1960 — before the feminist movement challenged a whole range of common usages, beginning with “Mrs.”
And this has been a good thing, no question. Language is anything but neutral. Layered into our very consciousness, it cannot help but moderate the way we think about ourselves and others — before we even do any actual thinking. If the building blocks of thought — words — are corrupted by hateful connotations, then how can we build sound thinkng with them?
So count me among the PC bunch. On the other hand, as a writer and journalist, I revere words, especially old, pungent words, the ones with the most power and punch, and I believe they should be abandoned only for overwhelming cause. And I’m not sure that’s the case with the word “retarded.”
For example, is American culture being asked to stop using the pejorative word “retard” as it relates to people with cognitive disabilities? Or are we being asked to stop using it colloquially, to connote people we disagree with or disapprove of?
“We aren’t trying to ban a word,” said Kirsten Seckler, of the Special Olympics, “but the pejorative in casual use — especially used by kids in schools and in the classroom — is isolating and it hurts.”
Actually, though, a total social ban, equating the R-word with the N-word, is exactly what she’s demanding. Then, I suppose, only people with cognitive disabilities will be allowed to use the word, the way urban black youth make use of the N-word.
But the parallel between the two words in not valid. “Retarded” has a number of meanings and connotations. “Nigger” only ever meant one thing — African people are less than human — until it was taken up as a defiance word by the very people it had once been used to oppress.
Please write to tell me whether you think we should consign “retarded” to the outer darkness where other perfectly good words (“cripple,” for one) sit bored and unused. Meantime, here’s a hilarious blog from the Politicus.com, and the infamous “F-word” episode of South Park. Some issues are better explored by means of humor.