Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sticks and Stones

Recently Stephen Colbert (I think, or maybe it was Jon Stewart) made the politically incorrect statement that we need the word "retarded." We can't let stupid, self-serving politicians and linguistically hyper-sensitive word-nazis take our most useful adjectives away from us. It just wouldn't be right.

Across the spectrum, actor John C. McGinley, spokesperson for the National Down Syndrome Society said on Huffington Post that using the words "retard" and "retarded" is offensive, hurtful and demeaning to members of the special needs community. It "belittles people with special needs," he believes.

McGinley suggests that the way we know that "retard" is an "instrument of hurt" is that it is never used as a compliment. He neglected to point out that this is also true of the colorful epithets "stupid," "dickwad," "ass-hat," or "crusty batch of nature"--but that doesn't mean there isn't a time and a place to use those words.

He compares the R-word, as he calls it, to nigger, kike and faggot. He says that the second way we know that we shouldn't use it is by asking

would the circumstances allow for substituting the N-word instead? Could the R-word just as easily be replaced by any number of pejorative slurs that would serve the same purpose? The answer to both these hypotheticals is; not in a million years!

This argument contains a logical fallacy: it presumes the conclusion, that "retard" is a pejorative slur in the same way that "nigger" is a pejorative slur. It's not, in the same way that the word "cripple" is not necessarily a pejorative slur. It can be used that way; but its use does not automatically presume aspersion against paraplegics. The word "nigger" is always, by definition and common usage, a slur against black people. The word "retard," on the other hand, has been in common use to mean a person, thing, or behavior that is backward, laughable, stupid, nonsensical or indefensible.

I submit that using the word "retard" about someone who is not mentally challenged but who is merely speaking or behaving in a stupid way, who is willfully ignorant, only disparages the insultee. The meaning and scope of the word should be judged by its context and intent.

About a year ago Jon Stewart used the word "retard" on his show, and a parent of a mentally disabled child wrote in to complain about it. She was articulate and civil; and her comment sparked a discussion that went on for 71 pages, over the course of a month. Another correspondent on the message board, also parenting a mentally disabled child, wrote, "Words are just words: you can choose to be offended, and you can choose to not be offended."

Who's right?

No one except school-age bullies uses the word "retarded" to disparage people with mental disabilities--not even Rush Limbaugh. It's unnecessary and a little bit retarded for Mr. McGinley and others to campaign to have the word excised from our collective vocabulary. It's ridiculous and exploitative for Sarah Palin to call for Rahm Emmanuel's resignation because he used the word--especially when she defends Limbaugh using it in exactly the same way.

The Green Room Bottom Line: some words offend some people; and we should choose our words, and especially our insults, carefully.



J said...

i think this is a fairly balanced assessment, on the whole, but here's the part that still feels squicky to me:

'The word "retard," on the other hand, has been in common use to mean a person, thing, or behavior that is backward, laughable, stupid, nonsensical or indefensible.'

i agree that that is how the word is commonly used, but i also think it is obvious that using that word as an insult is reflective of the fact that people with mental disabilities are viewed as backward, laughable, stupid, and nonsensical. we wouldn't think of "retard" as an insult if we didn't think that people with mental disabilities were backward and laughable.

and do we want to use words that perpetuate the social acceptability of thinking about any group of people as collectively stupid and laughable?

i agree that we should choose our words, especially our insults, wisely. i also think that to some degree at least, the words we use and the way we use them shape and reinforce our world view. they also influence other people's world views. personally, i'd rather use a slightly more vulgar insult than one that is in any way related to any group of people, even if the latter feels like 'le mot just' at the time...

i stopped using "jipped" in college for the same reason (gypped, gypt, referring to gypsies...).

CML said...

what is squicky.

E. Peevie said...

CML--Context clues, baby. Context clues. From the context, I'm guessing that J means something that you squint your eyes at because it's just not right.

And J--I am all in favor of "more vulgar insults" as well. And I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

I disagree that that "it is obvious that ... people with mental disabilities are viewed as backward, laughable...", etc. I don't know anyone who thinks this way, except, as I mentioned, adolescent bullies.

And no, we don't want to use words that perpetuate negative stereotypes, which is why if I use it, I will choose my audience carefully.

And about the word gypped: This is another example of the dynamic nature of language. The word may have started out as a slur against Gypsies, but I'm betting 99% of native English speakers have no idea that that's how it was born. I didn't, until I used it in a blog post, and a reader pointed it out to me.

So I guess I think words like "jew" (as a verb) and nigger are still off-limits because they are still very closely associated with their slur origins; but other slur-originating words have transcended their origins and have attained generic slur status.

Or maybe I'm just really good at rationalizing.