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On 'Retard': Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

retarded, westboro baptist church

Seriously, pick a different word.

I’m all over the 1st Amendment. Good stuff, that right to free speech and assembly.

I even agree with the Supreme Court decision to let Fred Phelps and his family of bigots picket funerals. Do I agree with them? No, not even a little. Do I think the Westboro Baptist Church should be arrested for their actions? No, not that either. (I actually wish we’d all start inviting them to our funerals, give them friendly waves and a plate of church lady fried-chicken and hash brown casserole. But that’s something to explore in a different post.)

I’m against laws censoring language (hate speech is an important exception), but I think as individuals we could do more self-regulating — whether or not we’re in front of kids. Because the word “retard”? With every free speech bone in my body, I wish people would just stop saying it.

I’m bringing this up because Wednesday was Spread the Word to End the Word Day, an annual push by people in the organization R-Word to get others to stop using the word and to be more inclusive. Ellen Seidman, a mother who blogs at Love That Max, spent last few days responding to Tweets that included the word “retard” or “retarded.” She doesn’t think people will drop the word immediately based on her replies; she just hopes to raise awareness that those words refer to real people who find the term hurtful. The Tweeters’ reactions are … well … here’s an excerpt:

You’d expect most people to ignore you, which they do. You’d expect some be defensive, as the very act of tweeting at them is confrontational, even though you try to keep your tweets even-handed: Hi. Mom of kids with disabilities here. The word “retard” is demeaning. But still, you will surprised by how people dig in their heels:

Now, I understand the temptation to use the word. “Retard” is such a strong word. Not just the meaning, but the sound itself: two strong syllables, that hard “d” end. Those heavy and rich American “r’s” making it actually feel good in your mouth to say. It’s a stronger way of saying “ridiculous,” right? It’s a more vicious way of calling someone an idiot. It’s powerful.  It’s demeaning. It gets attention. And since the people it describes are thought to be spazzy, perpetually happy and sometimes cross-eyed, it’s funny. As insulting words go,”retard” is a pretty good one.

Ahhh, but it’s not just a word. It refers to a specific group of disadvantaged and misunderstood human beings — a group who, some argue, use the words themselves. Well then! That makes it available to everyone, right?

No, not really. Not really at all.

Just like “fag” and “that’s so gay” and the “n” word, anyone who basks in the privileges granted those who are not gay men, gay women, black — or, in this case, not intellectually disabled — don’t get to use those words. Does it sound unfair? Well, honestly, how much more do straight, white, neurologically typical people want? We win already. We really do! Are we at risk of falling into a linguistic crisis if we give up derogatory terms describing an often obvious and always unchangeable characteristic of, not ourselves, but other people? People who, thanks to prejudice about those characteristics, have suffered deeply as a group?

Go ahead and call me a language cop. Cops make arrests yet I’m letting you off with raised eyebrow and a flinch. I’m not trying to tell you want you can and cannot say. But I would ask heavy users of “retard” and “retarded” to think about why they’re so reliant on the word. What is it about those words in particular that make it their go-to put-down? And why, if I’m striking a nerve, do you feel so compelled to hang on to it?

Is it because even though you’re neuro-typical you’re just not that smart? (Oh, did that hurt?)

Photo: rword.org

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