Warning: Contains language that may be offensive to some.
My father’s uncle has Down syndrome. A few years back, he came over to stay with my father for a week in Everett, WA.
My great-uncle is a gregarious fellow. One of the highest-functioning people with Down syndrome that you’ll meet. He talks about the presidents, from Kennedy on (including wanting to write a letter to then-President Bush about over-crowding on the buses in Queens, despite not being able to read or write), loves Elvis (who he saw live and imitates) and will actually insult what you’re saying, in typical Long Island-style with lines such as ‘Nockamamie!’. Hanging out with him was a great deal of fun, as he’s full of personality and life. One of the more interesting people I’ve met.
At one point, my great-uncle, my father and I were in the TV room of my father’s house. I don’t remember the details, but my father must’ve been bothering me about something that seemed quite obvious to me, as I remember yelling at him, with my great-uncle in the room, “I can read! I’m not retarded!”
I immediately felt like I had done something wrong, but it didn’t seem like anyone really noticed. It ate at me for a while after that. I still feel like a jerk for letting it slip in front of my great-uncle.
There are two possible scenarios when using ‘retard’:
1) toward a mentally disabled person
There is a potential societal stigma that has developed for words that, by definition, just mean something along the lines of ‘slower’. In 2010, I think that every intelligent, empathetic person will agree that ‘retard’ is a slur, when used to describe a mentally disabled person.
Perhaps there was a time where it made sense to call someone such as my great-uncle ‘retarded’, but that’s not within the realm of the politically correct now. If there are some people that are not aware of this yet and are otherwise informed people, I haven’t met them. If the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign is addressing these people (that I have never encountered), so be it.
2) toward anyone that does not fit the first description
The second case is considerably more complicated. Certainly, in the case of Rahm Emanuel, it was Scenario #2, when he referred to some fellow Democrats as “fucking retarded”.
Is there something inherently wrong in insulting someone for doing something that is below their supposed mental capacity? If we are to intentionally offend someone in such a case, what words should we use?
Idiot? Imbecile? Moron?
Decades ago, those were the equivalent of “mentally retarded”, but more technical signifying certain ranges of sub-normal IQ levels.
How are these any better? In the end, couldn’t the words used to insult someone of temporary mental failing be used just as easily to describe someone of permanent mental disability? Won’t this always be a problem?
Does this mean that I think it’s OK to use it?
In a public forum, no. Apparently, some people really, really hate the word ‘retard’, seeing it as somehow offensive to people beyond whomever is actually being insulted, since it in the past was commonly used against the mentally disabled.
If you can actively work toward using a word that doesn’t hurt these people, why not? There are other words that can mean relatively the same thing. As to how they really are better? I don’t see it. But in public circles, it seems like it’s a necessary step to avoid controversy and forced apology.
There are some big deficits in the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign.
1) Where’s the line?
In the clip: “An R-word montage” (meant to show how pervasive versions of the word are in the media), they start off with someone using the term “emotionally retarded”.
Why is this not appropriate? Why would “emotionally stunted” be any better? Do we really need to throw out the word in every form? Who is this offensive to? Once again, I do not need how this insults someone other than the person being referenced.
They also cite the Michael Scott character from “The Office”, which, if anything, is making their point, as Michael Scott highlights casual, sweetly-intended insensitivity/offensiveness.
The Tropic Thunder clip is on their side as well, highlighting how Hollywood/actors use the plight of the mentally disabled as fodder for Oscars.
John C. McGinley, Dr. Cox from Scrubs, is one of the main voices for the campaign. In the following video, he details all of the names that his character calls J.D., Zach Braff’s character. Girls’ names. He insults a man by giving him women’s names. That’s appropriate? That doesn’t denigrate women?
I have no problem with Scrubs. I just don’t see where this ends. It doesn’t take a lot of work to find someone who can be offended by anything.
The issue should be about intent and general behavior, not necessarily word choice. If I go around kicking mentally disabled people, that’s an issue. If I insult someone that should know better, but isn’t living up to their intellectual potential, I don’t see how it goes beyond that interaction with that person.
2) The difference between public and private usage
In “ABC’s “The View” discusses the R-word”, Elizabeth Hasselbeck says the issue with Rahm Emanuel is that this demonstrates that the private indicates who you really are. Hard argument to muster, as I imagine that all of us have sides of ourselves that we tone down or remove in public.
Provided a private conversation is not leaked, who is being hurt?
If Rahm Emanuel insults fellow Democrats by calling them ‘retards’, how does this affect how we treat the mentally disabled? Why should anyone be offended other than the insulted, who should feel the sting that was meant?
This is obviously a big enough issue for some people that they have decided to start a national campaign. Perhaps my relative ignorance before reading up on this is exactly why the campaign is necessary. If so, the campaign needs to coalesce better and make a point as to why the word is offensive in the 2nd scenario laid out above.
Assuming there is something wrong with Scenario #2, I am not convinced that a national campaign is what’s going to fix it. This is about interpersonal interaction. If you don’t like a word that you hear people casually using around you, tell them.
Our Group Leader at TEC (a residential summer camp I worked at in 2004 and 2005, in the Pennsylvania Poconos) told the counselors that he didn’t care if we swore, just to not do it around him. And we respected that as best as we could, being teenage and young 20-something guys with a healthy penchant for dirty mouths.
Why do we give words so much power? The straight-up definition of ‘retard(ed)’ makes perfect sense to describe someone who is mentally disabled. Now, it has become insulting. But that pejorative is entirely logical to use if one wants to denigrate someone not working to their mental capacity.
As long as we’re insulting the people that can change, while giving help and compassion to those who can’t, where is the problem?
What am I missing?