Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The R-word

I can't believe that this still needs to be said: Stop using the word retard. Just stop. No excuses. No explanation. Just. Stop.

I was in an argument online yesterday. I know. You can't judge the world based on internet commentary. Still.

It was a rehashing of the story from 2012, when the tediously predictable Ann Coulter made headlines by calling Obama a retard. John Franklin Stephens, an Olympic competitor who has Down Syndrome, penned a beautiful and loving response. The response went viral. Ann Coulter doubled down, ensuring her continued relevancy. I don't know why this story is making the rounds again. The internet is weird.

I get it. People are sick of being told how to speak. People are frustrated by accusations of bigotry. Some worry that whoever controls language, directs the conversation. Some are just tired of being on the defensive. PC vs. anti-PC language wars have been going on for a long time. The list of embattled words is long and diverse.

This word doesn't belong on the battle list. This is not a battle. This one is easy. The word is offensive.

I've had this argument so often I think I could write an automated Beth responder to have the argument for me.

I had not had the argument in years before last night though. I still see the many, many blog posts imploring people to stop, but they sort of felt dated and irrelevant. No one says that anymore, right? Wrong, apparently.

The names are a distraction. It isn't about Obama. It isn't about Ms. Coulter. It isn't about elevating political discourse above schoolyard taunts. It isn't about politics. It isn't even about rudeness.

When you use this word to insult someone, the insult is a comparison. When you use this word to belittle someone, you are belittling a group of people. The word marginalizes this group of people much more effectively than it insults whomever you intended to insult. And it doesn't matter at all if that is what you meant. 

Mentally retarded used to be a medical diagnosis. It used to describe people with various cognitive impairments. Etymologically, it means to slow down or to delay, and it is used in variant forms in music. As a diagnosis, it described a broad category of symptoms. It is not in use as a medical diagnosis anymore. It has been replaced.

Cognitive impairment describes everything from memory loss to learning disabilities. It does not mean stupid. If we are brutally honest, there is an overlap. Both might be used to mean lower than average intelligence. But stupid always has a negative connotation. Stupid is an insult. And cognitive impairment is a broad term, covering impediments to memory, concentration and learning ability. Insisting that they are synonyms is, well, stupid.

This is the hard part, which is not actually hard at all. A diagnosis should not have a negative connotation. That is an uphill battle advocates fight every day. It is really hard to name some things because the things themselves are not socially acceptable. As soon as the thing is named, the new name becomes an insult. Mentally retarded replaced other words which had deteriorated into pejoratives. The first person to do it probably thinks himself very clever. Every time. Bullies always do.

As a society, we don't handle these things well. We don't like to think about mental illnesses or cognitive impairments. There is a stigma. And it needs to go away.

When the world appropriates a diagnosis for use as an insult, the intended target is not the only target. The insult is the comparison. "You fool. You are stupid. You are just like those children with special needs." Wait, what?

Words have meaning, and that is what that one means.

So, no. This is not just another battle over language. This is not one of those times where an argument is directed by evolving language. There is no argument at stake in defending usage of the term. There is just an affirmation of the stigma associated with cognitive impairments and a growing disapproval.

Maybe there is an element of political correctness after all.

If the fact that the word hurts people doesn't dissuade you from using it, social stigma should. We're judging you, you bully.


  1. I remember this word being thrown around so much in my home and at school that I didn't think much of it. Thankfully at some point I thought about it instead of just having it go in one ear and out the other, and it didn't take a lot of pondering to realize that it truly is uncalled for, hurtful, and just wrong to use. Especially for people who say they are pro-life (like me) and believe that every life is precious: we are hypocrites if we use the r-word as an insult. But yeah, I was shocked to see that it is still really mainstream, especially among kids that I taught. I occasionally heard, "That's so gay," but much more often heard, "That's retarded." I quickly came down on both. I also can't stand hearing people use "gay" as an insult or slur. Basically, if we reduce anyone to a label, we're not respecting their dignity as a multidimensional human being. Great post, Beth!

    1. Thank you, Jenny! And I absolutely agree, broadly and specifically.