Banning the use of “retarded” is, well, you know…

By J. DeVoy

A recent Washington Post piece by Christopher Fairman takes up the looming controversy over the word “retard” and all its forms.  For good or for ill, “retard” and all its derivatives have come into such common use that public awareness is needed to stomp out its casual, easily uttered nature.  The question is whether this self-censorship proposed by disability advocacy groups is desirable.

Invariably, negative connotations materialize around whatever new word is used; “idiot” becomes an insult and gives way to “retardation,” which in turn suffers the same fate, leading to “intellectual disability.” This illustrates one of the recurring follies of speech restriction: While there may be another word to use, a negative connotation eventually is found. Offense — both given and taken — is inevitable. (source)

Fairman notes that the negative implications surrounding the word “retarded” simply will coalesce around its successor term.  What he proposes is a reclamation of the word akin to what LGBTQ groups have done with “queer,” and feminists have done with “slut” and colorful terms for reproductive anatomy.  Through reclamation, the affected groups can maintain the word’s legitimate uses, if any, and deprive it of its offensiveness.  What’s the good of calling an ugly person homely if they revel in their asymmetries and poor genes? (See generally, hipsters.)

I’m skeptical of reclamation as an effective strategy for depriving words of meaning.  Marc has previously addressed this issue, noting how much this Orwellian “Newspeak” offends his sense of free expression.  Indeed, this form of forced censorship only reinforces not only the word’s negative meaning, but its power as well.  See for yourself:

So we agree, don’t call anyone with Down’s a “retard.”

But, that doesn’t mean that we need to cleanse the language of all uses of the word. I love the word “retard.” “Retard” is a completely accurate way to describe Marion Barry, Rhonda Storms, George W. Bush, Gail Dines, Larry Craig, Andrea Dworkin, and Kevin Federline.

I understand that the developmentally disabled have a problem gaining the respect they deserve. I feel for them and I wouldn’t stand by as anyone abused or mocked the developmentally disabled. 

This kind of thing gives critical crybaby theorists and every other kind of “victim studies” blowhard a raging boner. But, for those of us who actually contribute anything to society, all it does is get us to a place where the message gets lost in endless quibbling over words.

“Retarded” no longer means “developmentally disabled.” Therefore, the developmentally disabled don’t get to own the word anymore.

Essentially, the word has come into such common usage that it no longer means what it originally did.  In many ways, this resembles a case where a trademark holder has done a poor job policing his or her mark’s use, and must surrender it to the public domain.  Marc does note, though, that the term should never be used disparagingly against someone with a disability.  I agree that it’s best to use the proper term for someone’s condition; I try to avoid using the word “retarded” myself.  Using correct, proper language that makes people feel bad tends to rile the illiterati and their peacenik abettors.

My proposal, taking a page from Ben Bernake, is to inflate “retard” and other offensive terms to the point of worthlessness.  Crude language and the most socially reviled epithets are thrown around casually on and other message boards.  Just like the increasingly worthless few hundred dollars in my bank account, an abundance of anything – a commodity, a product or a word – reduces its value, sometimes drastically.  It would still be uncouth for everyone say “retard” or any other word for the sake of doing so.  But, if everyone is aware of the term, its history, and its slide into the gutter of America’s lexicon, people will stop being so offended by it.

21 Responses to Banning the use of “retarded” is, well, you know…

  1. ScottC says:

    I have to disagree with you guys on this one. I’m as guilty as anyone of calling people “retards” when they act less than intelligently, but I understand why the mentally handicapped or developmentally disabled don’t want people to use the word. Saying you can use it so long as you only use it to refer to people of “normal” mental faculties is similar to people who embarrassingly claim that it is ok to refer to certain low class or criminal white people by the “N” word. It’s disrespectful because the word was used to refer to a class of people and now you are using it as a pejorative.

    • That might be the case, but have you ever heard someone call a white guy a “nigger?” I mean, in a non-ironic way?

      Fact is, “Retard” is what we started using because “imbecile” and “moron” were no longer nice enough. I’m with Lenny Bruce… if you’ve got a problem with a word, use it until it doesn’t mean anything anymore. (A reason why I always say or write “nigger,” and not “n-word”).

  2. Feldman says:

    Kevin Smith addressed this issue better than anyone could..
    Movie Name: Clerks II (2006)

    Randal Graves: Since when did porch monkey suddenly become a racial slur?
    Dante Hicks: When ignorant racists started saying it a hundred years ago!
    Randal Graves: Oh, bullshit! My grandmother used to call me a porch monkey all the time when I was a kid because Id sit on the porch and stare at my neighbors!
    Dante Hicks: Despite the fact that your grandmother might’ve used it as a term of endearment for you, its still a racial slur! It’d be like your grandmother calling you a little kike!
    Randal Graves: Oh, it is not. Plus, my grandmother had nothing but the utmost respect for the Jewish community. When I was a kid she told me to always treat the Jewish kids well, or they’d put the sheni curse on me.
    Dante Hicks: What the fuck, man?
    Randal Graves: What?
    Dante Hicks: Shenis a racial slur, too!
    Randal Graves: Oh, it is not.
    Dante Hicks: Yes, it is!
    Randal Graves: She never called any Jews sheni, she just used to say sheni curse a lot. It was cute!
    Dante Hicks: It wasnt cute! It was racist!
    Randal Graves: I disagree, man, she was just an old timer, thats the way people talked back then! Didnt mean they were racist… But my grandmother did refer to a broken beer bottle once as a nigger knife… You know, come to think of it, my grandmother was kind of a racist.
    Dante Hicks: You think?
    Randal Graves: Well, I-I still don’t think porch monkey should be considered a racial term. I mean, Ive always used it to describe lazy people, not lazy black people! I think if we really tried, we could re-claim porch monkey, and save it.
    Dante Hicks: It cant be saved, Randal! The sole purpose for its creation, the only reason it exists in the first place, is to disparage an entire race! And even if it could be saved, you cant save it because youre not black!
    Randal Graves: Well listen to you! Telling me I cant do something because of the color of my skin! Youre the racist! Im taking it back, you watch!
    [customers enter]
    Randal Graves: Hey, what can I get for you, you little porch monkey?
    Randal Graves: Its cool, Im taking it back.

  3. Halcyon 1L says:

    I draw a different line. When the group can come up to you and tell you to “fuck off” for using a phrase, and have a fair voice in the marketplace of ideas, then the word is fair game. That is not the case now. On this issue, the marketplace of ideas is dysfunctional–people with disabilities are represented only by (often inadequate) proxies.

    Indeed, this is why those who serve as proxies for the voices of people with disabilities can sometimes be overzealous. Because they aren’t representing themselves so much as defending the dignity of others who often can’t speak for themselves, they sometimes do strike on the over-protective side.

    Nevertheless, I still say you’re a douchebag if you use this term as an insult because the denigration is one way street. I mean, people should be able to use the term, legally, just as I should be able to tell you to “fuck off” for doing so. However, it would be really nice if the people so mocked and derided by the term–a group in society that has suffered oppression as long as any ethnic group–could tell you themselves…

    But they can’t. I find this fundamentally unfair, and think significantly less of people who are so flippant about the term.

    I’d like to add that I see the phrase “mental retardation” still used in plenty of official documents–court decisions, governmental policies, and the like. The word still refers to people with disabilities, especially individuals with developmental disabilities. I don’t think it’s accurate to say the meaning of the word has “changed.” The word “retard” is an insult only because it invokes the idea of someone with developmental disabilities, and by using the term as an insult, that status is conflated with something undignified and less than acceptable. That’s lame, and rather cowardly because they can’t fight back in the same way.

  4. jesschristensen says:

    This is one of those times when I feel like the free speech nuts get a little nutty.

    It’s not about “banning” a word. It’s about choosing not to use it because you prefer being a relatively decent person as opposed to a total asshole.

    It’s about this:

    Two mentally challenged guys go into a bar (no, it’s not the beginning of a joke) to watch a game. Perhaps they’re two guys who have gone through years of special schools and special training to live independently and to feel like they have a place in “normal society”. At the other end of the bar are a group of drunk frat boys(theoretically not mentally challenged). The frat boys are joking with one another and rough-housing a little, and calling each other “fucking retards”. Now, the two guys at the bar who just came in to watch the game, who may or may not be able to appreciate the nuances of frat boy humor, have to wonder if they are the ones being made fun of, and even (given the nature of frat boys – or, boys of many varieties) if there is potential danger for them because instinctively (or maybe from experience) they understand how quickly joking or being made fun of can turn into a situation to fear. At a bare minimum, they are once again confronted with the fact that “normal society” views them as something to point and laugh at and that they are not accepted. All because the frat boys (or anyone else who carelessly flings the word around) can’t be bothered to be just a little bit less of an asshole.

    When I hear my free speech brethren whine about this kind of thing it just makes me cringe. No one is telling you CAN’T use the word. They’re simply asking you to choose not to for a variety of really good reasons. Someone asking you to be more thoughtful about what you say, and what words mean and how words affect others, isn’t cramping your style or infringing on your rights–or even censoring you.

    THIS IS HOW THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS IS SUPPOSED TO WORK. People ask you to think differently, and you listen, and you be thoughtful about what they’ve said, and then you make a choice. And, if after all that and after having the opportunity to consider your words you still choose to be a douchebag, there’s nothing PC-hysterical about people telling you that you’re a douchebag. You can choose to be a prick, but then don’t be surprised when others hold you accountable for it.

    The impact of the word “retard” may have lost a lot of its derogatory meaning… except for those who are the object of its historical ridicule and derogation.

    • My criticism of this kind of thing does not come from my free speech organs. I just think that Newspeak is Retarded. I get that they are putting their idea into the marketplace. I think that their idea should be rejected. If that makes me a douche, add it to the list of reasons.

      However, if their idea is accepted, then I want the name of New Guinea changed. Immediately. And I want guinea pigs to be called something else. If you wouldn’t call something a “nigger rat,” you shouldn’t call it a guinea pig… well, that is, if you accept the whole premise of freaking the fuck out about words.

      • jesschristensen says:

        Fair enough. But then I say to you: “douchebag”

        You and I have had this exact debate before. I disagree that the debate doesn’t tickle your free speech bones. But wherever you locate the argument, I think your rejection comes from a “you’re not the boss of me” reaction.

        You might not like the name “New Guinea,” but the name of that country is not a source of ridicule for you or even for an entire population of people. Equating them is juvenile, and smacks of the “you’re not the boss of me” temper tantrum. Which, then gets defended with “but I like using the word ‘retard’ so don’t spoil my fun” or “the word is so over used, it doesn’t mean anything anymore really” — and that’s a cop out.

        Words have meaning. That’s why we protect them so vigorously. There’s simply no way around the fact that saying “you’re retarded” or “that’s retarded” is meant to convey that something is stupid or defective, and that concept is communicated with reference to mentally challenged people as the example of what’s stupid or defective.

        Maybe its “no harm done” if said in the privacy or your own home or if no one overhears you. But, in pretty much any other context, the word will have the force and effect of its understood meaning. Which makes it douchey to say it.

      • Halcyon 1L says:

        I’d just note that *you can* tell people off about the word “guinea pig.” That’s cool. Your idea enters the marketplace of ideas and is largely dismissed even by other ethnic Italians like myself.

        Most people with developmental disabilities, people with “mental retardation,” cannot articulate such an objection.

        • I disagree. People with mental retardation are much more articulate and insightful than many people give them credit for. And… if they want to start a debate on what words I can use, they are welcome, but I’m under no obligation to give them a pass on bullshit just because they might be developmentally disabled.

          • jesschristensen says:

            I guess I just don’t get why its even a conversation. What do you get out of using the word that outweighs the lack of courtesy and kindness to others? (yes, I read your previous post, and I still don’t get what all your fuss is about).

            There’s a third option between the idea that there should be unfettered utterance of every word that’s offensive, and the “speech suppression” of the overly decried “PC-police” — and that third option is that in the marketplace of ideas, enough people will choose not to use a word that it will simply die out as being irrelevant or unneeded. Not because you have to, but because you’ve simply noted that the benefit to you of saying “retard” willy-nilly is outweighed by the human, personal cost to others. Why is that somehow an oppressive choice for you to have to make? Why does that even implicate “political correctness” at all?

            So, what’s the big deal? What, really, have you lost that so precious?

            • No, each individual word itself is not precious (at least not to me). However, in the aggregate, what you wind up with by acquiescing to this kind of thing is — well, what we have today — a veritable industry that survives solely based on the business of “feeling offended.” And, in the end, nothing actually gets done about the problem that might otherwise be constructively addressed.

            • Yeah, that would be nice … and if we could all get together and agree that only the developmentally disabled get this special privilege — to make a word off limits — I might go for it. But then the line grows. Women don’t want you using the word “bitch,” Blacks change their minds every 10 years about what they want to be called, “chinaman” is no longer the preferred nomenclature, and so on … and so on… and then, you can’t use “niggardly,” because some uneducated fuck thinks it means the same thing as “nigger,” and then you’ve got opportunists like Sarah Palin jumping in as if any time you say one of the “forbidden magic offensiveness words,” it means that you somehow lost a point in the game of life.

              So I’m not giving up my words so that a bunch of retards (and by that I do NOT mean the developmentally disabled) can play political football with my English language. If that makes them feel badly, I don’t care. I guess I won’t be getting invited to the special olympics.

  5. jesschristensen says:

    To put it another way, why doesn’t the conversation simply go like this:

    Special Olympics: “Hey y’all, you know, when you use the word ‘retard’ it really makes developmentally disabled people feel badly and like outsiders, and perpetuates negative inferences about us.”

    Everyone Else: “Shit, that sucks. Yea, we see what you’re saying. And, in any case, we got nothin’ against ya, so we definitely don’t want you to feel bad. No problem. We got your back.”

    And… scene.

    And then we all move on to work on the stuff that’s actually hard.

  6. jesschristensen says:

    That last comment of Marc’s go too skinny for me to read… so I’ll respond here…

    I guess my reaction is that that is some seriously whiny bullshit. And, I’ll be honest, its gotten to the point that I’ve got as much patience for the crybabies going on about being oppressed by the PC-police as I do for the liberal arts freshmen feminists whining about how porn is keeping women down. Both positions have become so intractably mired in absurdly absolute positions that there’s nothing even to talk about.

    I can say in all honesty that no one, of any political persuasion, has ever kept me from saying anything I wanted to say at any time I wanted to say it. Ever. And, certainly not the Special Olympics for fuck’s sake. I’m hardly language oppressed, and if I ever claimed to be, people should make serious fun of me. At a minimum.

    If you become as zealous as the people you’re railing against, you’re also likely to become just as irrelevant and annoying in your fake-martyrdom. Why can’t you keep the word “bitch” (I am) but not “retard”? I choose not to use racial epithets not because someone told me not to, but because they serve me absolutely no purpose whatsoever. (BTW – I’m pretty sure that Blacks chose neither “negro” nor “colored” historically speaking).

    Just seems to me that the collective brain power efforts of the writers of this blog and our readers could be much better spent fighting against the extinction of words that, if they disappear, real harm will be done. I seriously doubt that history will mourn the loss of the word “retard” any more than it did the loss of, say, the common use of the word “coolie” to describe Chinese railroad laborers.

    • Of course nobody has ever “kept you” from saying anything. Nevertheless, if you don’t want mold to grow, you gotta wipe the surfaces with bleach. I’m down with not referring to those with developmental disabilities as “retarded.” I’m fine with someone saying “do not call ME that.” Ergo, I have no beef with subscribing to the African-American/Afro-American/Negro/Colored plan… and when they change their preferred nomenclature again in five or six years, I’ll be pleased to call them whatever they want to be called.

      However, the DD want to put the idea out there that we should just purge “retard” from the language. Well, fuck the DD. I don’t even think we should purge “nigger” from the language. (and I absolutely refuse to say “n-word” in lieu of it). That’s not to say that I call black people “niggers,” as I do not — because they seem to collectively not want to be called that. That’s fine by me. However, if I am quoting someone, I’ll use it to quote them.

      So… I’m not giving up “retard” or “retarded.” Tough shit for the DD. I reject their wares in the marketplace of ideas. If I wind up being the only one left, fuck it, maybe I’ll go with the flow. But, for now, I think that the idea is retarded, and I am under no obligation to adopt retarded ideas just because someone says that it offends them.

  7. JLBears says:

    So you think it would be ok if an officer of the law while detaining you (for what ever reason) answers their cell phone or uses their radio and refers to you as a “RETARD” to whom ever is on the other end, and you hear them say it?

    I feel this is very unprossional as an officer of the law to use the word “RETARD” in that context while detaining anyone, let alone loud enough for you to hear it. He could’ve pulled any other words out of the air or better yet: “Hey, let me call you back I’m alittle busy right now” – that would’ve been the most professional thing for the officer to do.
    Please anyone feel free to respond to this, I’m curious as to the responses as this has happened to someone I know.

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