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Word count: Should we 86 ‘retarded’?

February 26, 2010

Rahm Emanuel: Takes one to know one?

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:

Sarah Plain: Human weathervane

“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.

Rush Limbaugh: Beyond good and evil, like Nietzsche

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.”

Stan Marsh: Our greatest moral philosopher?

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, and the infamous “F-word” episode of South Park. Some issues are better explored by means of humor.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 2:47 pm

    I go with Stan March.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 26, 2010 3:06 pm

    Yeah, me too.

  3. rachel permalink
    February 26, 2010 3:41 pm

    Yes, I agree, Stan is our greatest philosopher. I think this is a tricky subject. For a while there I tried to stop using the world myself but it was kind of impossible when there are so many things and people who are simply retarded in this world. When you relate it to the “N” word and think about how cruel it is to use the “R” word then I think that it really is not a good thing. However, like you pointed out I think that the “N” word is, in reality, something different entirely. Moreover, when I think of the word retarded I don’t think about mentally handicap people in any way.

    On the one hand, I chose to stop using the word gay because it just bothers me. And once again, Stan Marsh and the south park crew changed my mind with the “F-word” episode. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more brilliant, or that makes more sense. (By the way, Chauncey Mabe, what made you finally watch it?).

    I think Sarah Palin is dumb. Obviously. And Republicans have always gotten away with making double standards and contradictions somehow make sense to their followers.

    I think this is a tricky thing. I mean like you said Chauncey Mabe by changing the way we refer to things can change the way we think about them. We no long refer to deaf people as “deaf and dumb” and um, this makes sense to me. It’s just that if I have to stop using the word retarded I don’t know what will replace it. What means retarded as much as retarded?

    Does anyone have an exact match for me?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 26, 2010 9:09 pm

      No, Rachel, you are matchless, not to mention peerless, incomparable and something something.

      You consider these points with depth and care. While I do not want to cause any distressed to the mentally challenged among our citizens, I too can find little harm in the word “retarded.” As you say, had the cognitive disabilities lobby not made a stink about Emanuel’s stupid remark, almost no one would associate it with people who are actually handicapped.

      I can think of no handy word to replace “retarded,” in the event we let it be retired. “Dumb”? Maybe, but then something like the American Association of Mutes will no doubt protest….

    • Tommy permalink
      February 28, 2010 10:59 pm

      Emanual believes Obama’s health care plan to be the logical choice for American’s, so any one opposing that idea would be behind in their thinking. You know, retarded! As in retarded: adjective meaning “slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress”. So how can anyone think of the word retarded and not think of the mentally handicapped. That’s what the word means. Even a mongoloid like me gets that. Emmanuel can call me retarded because I do not agree with the plan the Obama administration has laid out. I’ll be okay. Neither Limbaugh or Palin have much of a sense of humor. The Down Syndrome girl who played Palin’s daughter on Family Guy could figure that one out. I think it is disgusting how Palin uses her daughter’s disability to win favor. I’d have to say the word simple is not an equivalent to retarded. People with disabilities are not less complex than healthy people.

      Oh, and can we ever really bury, you know, 86 a word?

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 1, 2010 2:13 pm

        Well, the N-word has been pretty well 86’d and good riddance. The only people who use it nowadays are unreconstructed racists (and even they are very careful about when and where and to whom), and young urban blacks who have turned it into a defiance word. That, by the way, is very common throughout history. Did you know the word “Christian” was originally a pejorative term used by Romans? Also, the word “queer,” which has been completely rehabilitated by gays –though, like the N-word, it is best left alone by those not part of the in-group…

      • Tommy permalink
        March 1, 2010 4:15 pm

        Sorry, but the hate and stupidity that belong to the word nigger are still walking the earth, well and healthy. The word also lives on in derivations such as wigger, chigger and grigger. So the word and it’s meaning , for better or for worse, has not been 86’ed.

        I no longer use the word gay to describe something that is wrong or stupid in my eyes like I used too. I view homosexuality as a sexual orientation that has little to do with choice. They were born that way, to hate someone over something they have no choice in is simplistic and detrimental to growth. I also began to have gay friends which lead to increased empathy. So progress happens from within and from without. I still use the word queer to describe myself at times and I am a raging heterosexual.

        Any word can be wielded maliciously casting disgust for someone different. I remember being called cracker, a lot… in middle school and being baffled. Even words like poet, artist, hippie, rich etc. etc. etc. can become derogatory depending on the speaker or author’s intent.

        So do not 86 any words, people will either excavate them or invent new ones.

  4. John Karwacki permalink
    February 28, 2010 9:01 am

    Banning words from any media is anathema to me. Let’s burn books while we’re at it! Having said that I try not to be the insensitive lout of days gone by. I think “simple” is a decent match or replacement word for many applications of retarded. I try not to use it because I grew up close to a family with a downs syndrome child and it hurt their feelings. I stopped using gay as an adjective when I grew up enough to have homosexual friends. I don’t use the n word unless I watch Dave Chappelle and thus feel compelled. It’s a big world, lots of words, choose wisely.
    Off topic – a favorite poet passed last week – Lucille Clifton. Read her if you haven’t. She once said, ” Poetry shouldn’t be pretty, it should be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be factual, but it should be true.” RIP Lucille…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 28, 2010 6:53 pm

      Well, as I said, no one wants to ban the word “retard,” or any other word. In fact, you cannot ban words in a free society. There may be rare exceptions for hate speech, but if so they are so rare I don’t know what they are. What you can do, though, is make words socially unacceptable so they fall out of common usage. That’s what the cognitive disabilities lobby is trying to do with “retard.” I wish them the best, but I won’t be disappointed if they fail. Only a creep would use the word “retard” in the presence of a Down syndrome child, or his parents, but it’s just too good a word to be consigned to disuse and abandonment.

      Lucille Clifton, too little known in her time, but her verse will live forever. Here’s a tasty sample:

      “oh antic God”

      by Lucille Clifton
      oh antic God
      return to me
      my mother in her thirties
      leaned across the front porch
      the huge pillow of her breasts
      pressing against the rail
      summoning me in for bed.

      I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.

      I can barely recall her song
      the scent of her hands
      though her wild hair scratches my dreams
      at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
      and now, my mother’s calling,
      her young voice humming my name.

  5. rachel permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:29 am

    Thanks John, I don’t know Lucille Clifton but I will have to investigate. I really like that quote about poetry. And I like the poem you posted, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 1, 2010 2:16 pm

      Lucille Clifton lived in Baltimore and served as Maryland State poet laureate. Maybe I should just give in, and write a blog devoted entirely to her….?

  6. Candice permalink
    March 1, 2010 1:05 pm

    We need to be sensitive to the fact that words carry such import. Everything about the world as we know it is expressed through language. Well, maybe not everything, but close.

    For this reason, I will also fight to the death to perserve our right to free speech. I may not like someone using the N or R word, but I defend their right to express themselves as they see fit. I took up for Imus. I guess I also have to take up for Limbaugh too.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 1, 2010 2:25 pm

      But Imus is an idiot. Besides, no one is saying that Imus or Limbaugh or Emanuel or Palin or anyone else should be muzzled by law. That would be censorship. But there is nothing wrong with shaming them into changing the ways in which they express themselves. Nor is there anything wrong with bringing political, economic or social pressure to bear on them or their employers. Just ask Tony Kornheiser, currently on a two-week involuntary sabbatical for making nasty comments about fellow ESPN sportscaster Hannah Storm’s outfit. Even though everything he said about the outfit is manifestly true. (Take a look, judge for yourself:

      Some things are allowed in a democracy — pressure; some aren’t — censorship.

  7. Candice permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:29 pm

    I saw the outfit and didn’t think it so bad. We’re all entitled to our opinion but not given the freedom to express it openly…..

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 11:42 am

      No, we are given the freedom to express any opinion openly. And everyone else has the freedom to mock us, shun us, and otherwise make us feel like the dweebs they think we are. And while the government cannot (with a few very specific exceptions) tell us what we can or cannot say, our employers can. And of course, they can’t force us to shut up. But they do have the right to suspend our employment. It’s a lovely system of checks and balances, with occasional abuses. Still, it works pretty well. I think Hannah Storm’s outfit was ridiculous, beyond ridiculous. I also think Tony Kornheiser is a nincompoop.

  8. alexis permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:44 pm

    Perhaps I am being insensitive, but I have a really hard time thinking of retard as an extremely derogatory word. I do not think there is any word in the English language that comes anywhere close to the n-word. And to compare retard to the N word makes me think of the people wanting us to stop using the word retard are kind of a joke.

    Oh, and that South Park episode is one of the single most brilliant things I have EVER seen.

    AND how does the right say the things they do with a straight face. Does Palin REALLY believe they were used in different contexts?

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 2, 2010 11:47 am

    Palin doesn’t know her donkey from a hole in the ground. You know it. I know it. The RNC knows it. Even the Tea Baggers know it. Which is why she has no chance of being the 2012 presidential candidate unless, as rightist political commentator George Will wrote last week in the Washington Post, “the party wants to lose at least 44 states.” A recent poll shows 71 percent of Americans — including 52 percent of Republicans — think she is not qualified to be president. It’s kind of scary that 29 percent think she is(!). What are they — er, cognitively impaired?!?

    • Candice permalink
      March 2, 2010 1:49 pm

      What I find ironic about all this is that I still do not feel I have the right to post what I really think in a public forum like this. After all, even if you are self-employed today, remarks you make now can come back to haunt years later in all kinds of situations….

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 3, 2010 2:44 pm

        That’s probably a wise caution, Candice, but still, it’s a matter of self-censorship. You have the right to reckless speech if you so desire. One of the few unalloyed goods about life in the U.S. of A.

  10. Dee Bishoff permalink
    March 2, 2010 1:53 pm

    I tend to disagree with you about the word “retard”. I have a nephew who is mentally challengesd and the word is extremely hurtful to him and members of his family. Due to the mental ability of people like him, it is hard for them to process that you may not mean the word in a derogatory manner. My opinion is that any word which may be hurtful to anyone should be thought over very carefully before using.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 2:51 pm

      Dee, your point is well taken, and I thank you or writing to share the perspective of someone who has been hurt by the use of the word “retard.” We should all be more careful and circumspect in our use of language that can cause harm. Still, I think we must also be very careful about removing words from common usage just because they have this potential. Some balance must be sought between solicitude for the weak, and the free expression of everyone else. Notice I say the balance must be “sought,” not that it must be “found.” Finding it would require more than human perfection. Also, we cannot perfectly protect our children, including handicapped children, from every bruise and hurt. Many cognitively challenged people are, I believe, capable of functioning with a high degree of autonomy in the regular world, but to do so they need to develop the same thickness of skin as the rest of us.

      It’s a problem, I agree.

    • alexis permalink
      March 3, 2010 2:55 pm

      Thanks for writing to share the perspective of someone who has been hurt by casual usage of the word. I agree that care and thought should be exercised before using a word like this, but I also feel like if I worry about insulting someone, I won’t say anything.

  11. Kevin Koehler permalink
    March 7, 2010 8:14 pm

    The word is officially replaced. The replacement is Palined

  12. Dara permalink
    March 9, 2010 4:03 pm

    There are so many serious issues in this world to be concerned over a word. Seriously, think about it – A word, which simply means slow is so horrible. It can be used to describe a cognitively slower person or to describe a slow machine. It is not that dangerous.

    Leave the word alone. If you try to take it away, it will only be a frustrating annoyance to people. It will not stop the ill-use of it by people saying it as negative. Think of how you compared it to the N-word, did that stop the use of the word? Nope! It only turned it into a joke to some and something for white people to fear. So, just think what it will do to the world if we attempt to censor another word from our ever growing vocabulary. Bottom line – if you do not like use a synonym. Thank goodness for the thesaurus!

  13. January 13, 2012 12:05 pm

    As a school teacher and father of a child with Downs Syndrome I have observed far too often the use of the word “retard” or “retarded” as a put down to people with mental disabilities. To say they just need to just get over it is like telling a black person to just get over the word “nigger”. There is no difference! Both are intended to disrespect and hurt others. And please don’t try to tell me how I or my son should feel about this. You can’t possibly know unless you are disabled or have a loved one who is.

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