Ellen wrote a post that went viral recently about what happens when you ask people to stop using the words “retarded” and “retard.” She wasn’t over-dramatic or emotional in her quest, but many of the responses were. One of the things that interested me the most was the vast number of people who defended their use of the words–despite being told that it was offensive.
The word retarded started off innocently enough–it’s main function is/was to describe someone with below average intelligence. But somewhere along the line everyone decided they were a doctor and started calling pretty much anything retarded–a friend, a dog, or a store with an obnoxious return policy. As the word became common one thing was clear–it was no compliment. While we can all agree that it would be in poor form to insult someone who had a condition like cancer or muscular dystrophy, but for some reason we think it’s OK to mock those whose disabilities affect the mind. Retarded is no longer a clinical term, but slang for stupid, ridiculous, loser, and worthless.
I do believe getting these words out of your vocabulary is a process. I know I used these terms plenty before I knew that they hurt people. I’m not taking issue with people who don’t know, but I’d like to argue back for a minute with all the people who defend their right to use the words when they’ve been told that they’re hurtful.
Some people cite freedom of speech when they use the word. Fair enough, free speech is a vital part of our democracy and one of the things Americans hold most near and dear. Censorship is bad–I completely agree. But just because you CAN say a word, doesn’t mean you should. I mean, I could wear a string bikini, but I’m not about to do that to the world. The law gives me the right to print naked pictures of myself, refuse medical treatment, and ride in the back of the pick up truck on the interstate. Still, not gonna do it. Choice is also a critical component to our democracy.
Some people claim that we’re eliminating too many words–that soon there will be nothing left. It is estimated that there are a quarter of a million words in the English language. If you are unable to come up with anything besides retard and retarded then I would suggest that maybe you are not in a position to question the intelligence of others. Just a thought.
Then there’s the crowd that claims, “if I’m using the word in the right context, I think it’s fine.” Now, as someone who was actually required to use the term “retarded” on the job, I can assure you can we never once handled it as callously and casually as I hear people using it. We usually abbreviated it when in use around colleagues. I was also aware that I, as a teacher, did not have the right to label someone “retarded”–that was a medical diagnosis required by a doctor. And while this is a valid, medical diagnosis, when someone says they want to buy some “retarded sunglasses” I highly doubt they are contemplating the intellect of that pair of sunglasses. Perhaps you have the best of intentions, but the number of times that word has been hurled across a playground has made it a slur plain and simple.
And since I’m ranting today, let me add a two more things that irk me about the word and its use:
- Retarded is spelled with two d’s and NOT with two t’s. Called something retarded while simultaneously misspelling it is the type of irony that that is best saved for novels.
- Every once a while, a person will get really inventive and in addition using the word retard or retarded, they’ll also slow their speech or bend their wrist in manner usually seen in those with physical disabilities. News flash: a physical disability is not the same as a mental one. I taught many a student labeled “retarded” and most showed absolutely no outward sign of their disability. I know high school science was a long time ago, but they have proven that the mouth and the brain are not the same organ, so please don’t make me question your intelligence while you’re trying to question someone else’s.