The R-Word = ‘Retard(ed)’

Rahm Emanuel (White House Chief of Staff)

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.

Stupid? Dumb?

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?


10 Responses to The R-Word = ‘Retard(ed)’

  1. Jo says:

    Well said Roni!

  2. roniweiss says:

    Thanks. :)

  3. Daniel says:

    Well said Roni. I take special use with the John C. McGinley bit. He seems to proudly refer to a man as a woman? Why is that okay?

    This may sound retarded, but to quote Madonna, “Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. That’s because you think that being a girl is degrading.”

    I find this very true in the case of Scrubs (a show I also like to watch). I don’t take offense to the girl names, and I don’t know anyone that does, but the implication that a male character should be, and is, insulted by being referred to as a girl, is insulting both to gay men and women. I, for one, can certainly relate to being referred to as less-than-a-man in my time growing up gay in my old Kentucky home town.

  4. roniweiss says:

    Thanks, Daniel.

    This is the point, to me. I think anyone that gets uppity about word usage, probably isn’t totally clean themselves.

    I try not to use the term ‘gypped’ anymore, but I’m sure there are people that do.

    There are so many terms that are offensive to someone that are deeply ingrained in our vocabulary.

    In my mind, it’s on the people that are offended to bring to light that it bothers them. Otherwise, how is anyone to know?

    And that being said, to also not be too hard on someone that has been using a word their entire life, not trying to cause offense in a general sense.

  5. 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? — I completely agree. To be politically correct 100% of the time would lead to having a very small vocabulary and no sense of humor what so ever.

    Being someone that has had weight problems her entire life, I’ve constantly been bombarded with all kinds of insults and “suggestions” usually coming from the media and some directly to my face. You can’t get through one horrible Leno monologue or 30 minute local news cast without the mention of a fat person, obesity epidemic etc etc. It is completely acceptable to consider the obese to be inferior, without character or strength of will and slovenly. Does it bother me? Yes. Do I hear it more now that I’m only slightly overweight instead of obese? yes. Do I think that if a person makes a insensitive remark about a fat person they are inherently mean or dishonorable? No.

    As you mentioned, a word or a mentality is learned from society and it is easy to say something without a second thought that can be offensive. It is not the responsibility of a public servant to be perfect and dignified at every moment. It is their responsibility to try and make positive changes and to govern effectively.

  6. roniweiss says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth. :) As you can tell, I agree.

    There is something to be said for someone’s role and whether they are saying something publicly or privately, as well as if there is a pattern.

  7. Theresa says:


    I believe your argument is well-thought out and bears pieces of validity. But, have you ever had to explain to your great uncle why someone uses the r-word as an insult to someone performing below their intellectual capability? This is a term that many individuals with intellectual disabilities know is inherently insulting because of the stigma it carries and the hurtful feelings associated with it – and it will hurt them just as much if they overhear someone else being called that. In the second circumstance you describe, this furthers the belief that the R-word is nothing more than an insult. This affects the lives of the mentally disabled when they overhear it, inevitably get called the term by ignorant individuals, or when they hear that people use it as an insult. It is this second usage that has taken the term from being a purely medical term to one of controversy.

    Furthermore, to allow it in a private setting doesn’t teach anyone about the need to have respect for others. That is the issue at the heart of the R-word campaign; the belief that we have the need to act with compassion and dignity towards others. It’s not enough to advocate that people take it out of public statements – it is akin to private prejudice.

    In response to your other comments regarding what insults are ‘safe,’ perhaps the answer is this – to follow the age-old adage to treat others as we wish to be treated. As a special education teacher and the sister to two mentally disabled brothers, I believe this is the only thing we can ask of ourselves.

  8. roniweiss says:


    Thanks for the response.

    I do not think that saying ‘retard(ed)’ is appropriate in earshot of someone who is intellectually disabled, even if it were referring to someone else without intellectual disabilities. As mentioned in my story, I felt bad when saying it in front of my great-uncle. That being said, if he wasn’t in the room, I wouldn’t have felt any remorse.

    Unfortunately, the argument of treating people how one wants to be treated has failed me on many occasions, as I am OK with being handled without kid gloves in a way that many others are not. If I am behaving below my intellectual capacity, I have no problem if others tell me so, even if it is in an insulting way.

    I understand that the word is a sensitive subject for some of those who deal with the intellectually disabled on a regular basis, but if two people do not and neither is intellectually disabled, I still don’t see how one insulting the other with the word ‘retard’ does society any damage.

    And, once again, I believe that pretty much any word you would use to insult someone who is performing below their mental capacity could also be used as an insult against someone whose natural capacity is lower than the average.


  9. Rob says:

    I have spent years of my life working with the mentally disabled and I 100% agree with you Roni. People who seek to ‘ban words’ are usually celebrity types looking for some good PR and not people who give a damn about actually helping the disabled. It’s just a BS PC way to feel better about ones self without actually doing anything useful that contributes in any meaningful way to bettering the conditions of those supposedly afflicted. You wanna help the mentally disabled? Make them dinner, talk to them about their problems, play a game with them, remove a bobbie pin that they stuck into their urethra (something I have done). If you want to give yourself some undeserved sense of superiority over other people that has everything to do with you and nothing to do with people who might actually people labeled as ‘retarded’ pledge to join a campaign to ban the ‘r-word’.

    /end rant

  10. roniweiss says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rob.

    It’s cool that you’re out there helping people, as opposed to just bitching about what people say/how they say it.

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