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 4chan.org 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.