In the correct context, neither word is bad. Some things are happily fat, like babies or a sandwich or Santa’s belly. And gay? When you’re gay you’re either happy or you’re a homosexual, both of which are just dandy. But too often “fat” and “gay” are used in an outdated or pejorative way, kind of like a weapon to humiliate, isolate or belittle.
In the same way, there’s another word that’s now on my mind: retard.
A website called Sorry Watch posted an open letter to New York Times Ethicist columnist Chuck Klosterman that was written by Kari Wagner-Peck, who frequently blogs about her son who has Downs syndrome.
People with cognitive disabilities — and those who know and love them — are right to take offense to the use of the word “retard,” even if it’s not directed at them. Using it to describe someone or something that’s wrong or ugly or not so bright or less than is an affront to those who struggle with the day-to-day tasks that we do easily and take for granted. Using “retard” is a way to demonstrate your ignorance, not someone else’s lack of intelligence.
“Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word ‘retarded”” (along with all mutations of the word) for the same exact reasons [that people no longer say ‘homo’ or ‘that’s so gay’],” Wagner-Peck wrote to Klosterman on her blog. And then she questions why he thinks it’s OK to used the word “retarded,” citing three examples of when he’s done so in print — as recently as 2010.
“Mr. Klosterman, you appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities. You are not using the word in an ‘I don’t mean it like that way…’ sort of ignorance which I think would be much easier to redress. You are using the word in a ‘Those people are exactly who I am talking about’ way,” Wagner-Peck said
One of the examples she cites is when Klosterman wrote in New York magazine in 2008: “You used to be able to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people. Now, it’s between hipsters and retards. I mean, either that guy in the corner in orange safety pants holding a protest sign and wearing a top hat is mentally disabled or he is the coolest f-ing guy you will ever know.”
Klosterman very well could have acted like a coward and ignored Wagner-Peck’s letter, which was only published on her blog. Instead, however, he showed that he is, in fact, pretty brave and awesome. He wrote her back and said the following:
Dear Ms. Wagner-Peck:
I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.
I should not have used “retard” pejoratively. It was immature, hurtful, and thoughtless. I have no justification for my actions. I realize the books that contain those sentiments were published over 10 years ago, but that is no excuse; I was an adult when I wrote them and I knew what I was doing. I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed. I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I’m truly sorry.
Feel free to re-post this message on your web site. I deserve the criticism I am receiving, and I want other people to know that I realize I was wrong. I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities […]. I have done something bad, so help me do something good.
Again, I apologize — and not just to you and your son, but to anyone else who was hurt by this.
— Chuck Klosterman
“When you use gay’ in a pejorative way, the effect that it has on the gay kid in the room or the kid with gay relatives is that being gay is less than or inferior to. And our bar cannot be that a day that you just get through life or just get through school and you don’t get harassed qualifies as a good day.”
People with cognitive disabilities — and those around them who are perhaps more aware of what’s being said about them — deserve better than to be the poster child of a mean word that’s used to denote anything that’s stupid or thoughtless or less than. Kudos to Klosterman for stepping up and showing people how to demonstrate what sorry looks like. It can be scary to admit wrongdoing, and by doing so, he is living and breathing the change he recognizes he needs to be.
A public unwavering admission of guilt and contrition — not to mention $25,000 for a good cause — is an excellent start. Not everyone can do the latter, but to anyone for whom it applies, the former is the least they can do if they want to positively affect the lives of people who just don’t need any more salt in their wounds.
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