How Language Works or Why We Should Keep Using “Retard”

By Cyberquill 05/29/20132 Comments

Arrested Development

Never having been too ravenous a sampler at the prodigious buffet of TV drama and sitcoms, I had been blissfully unaware of a show called “Arrested Development” until recently, when said chucklefest made the entertainment headlines in the runup of its latest season being released on Netflix.

Clicking on some of these headlines, I expected to read editorial diatribes berating the show’s producers for gross insensitivity and urging the entertainment community to evince a bit more compassion when it comes to selecting titles and tag lines for their products.

Yet in lieu of critical finger-wagging, to my surprise I found nothing but unanimous encomia and no accusations of insensitivity whatsoever.

Surely, if instead of “Arrested Development,” this show about a bunch of highly dysfunctional individuals were titled “Retarded Development,” the PC police would have erupted in exasperation, much of it driven by a sincere concern for the feelings of the disabled and their families.

So what might be the difference between “arrested” and “retarded” in the context of personal development? If anything, “arrested” seems worse, as it implies all-out cessation, whereas “retarded” at least denotes progress, albeit of the slower-than-usual kind.

When several words or expressions mean the same (or close to the same) thing, why is it OK to use some but not others? How come we can, be it in jest or in vexation, refer to people or concepts as “hare-brained,” “demented,” “idiotic,” or “developmentally arrested” with relative impunity, but all hell breaks loose when we say “retarded”?

Wrote Jeff Goins in his piece Stop Using Retard:

And when you open your mouth and words like “retard” come out, well, it makes you look dumb. And a bigot. And kind of a jerk. That’s not what you want to be remembered for, right? Make a decision to stop today. Please. This word affects people in ways that hurt far worse that you can imagine. There are so many more beautiful and wonderful-sounding words that could come out of your mouth than that stupid R-word.

More beautiful and wonderful-sounding words like what? Words like “dumb” and “stupid,” both of which Mr Goins merrily conscripts into his service without feeling the need to add any sort of monitory qualification or to put them in quotation marks or to disguise them as the d-word and the s-word in an attempt to blunt their impact, and which he thus appears to present as acceptable alternatives? By what measure are these words not “words like ‘retard[ed]'” such that using them makes Mr Goins himself “look dumb” and “a bigot” and “a jerk” by his own definition? On what evidence do “dumb” and “stupid” bear less potential to affect people in hurtful ways than does “retarded”?

In the wake of the third presidential debate last October, the always subtle Ann Coulter, in a takeoff on Shakespeare’s phrase “meek and gentle with these butchers,” sparked yet another rumpus by tweeting that she highly approved of Mitt Romney’s decision to be “kind and gentle to the retard” (meaning President Obama), whereupon Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens flung his javelin into the fray by composing an open letter to Ann Coulter:

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night. …

Just like the intellectually non-disabled Mr Goins before him, in decrying the use of “retard(ed),” the intellectually disabled Mr Stephens uses the word “dumb” without a trace of detectable compunction, if only for the purpose of pointing out that that’s what he is not—he merely processes information “more slowly” than the rest of us, presumably as opposed to those that have trouble processing information at all; members of this latter group, I suppose, being the ones to whom the term “dumb” rightfully applies, and who therefore wouldn’t be overly hurt by its continued use, as they couldn’t process it anyway; ergo, saying “dumb” poses no problem, for where there’s no (mentally competent) victim, there’s no crime.

However, in common parlance, alas, the words “dumb” and “stupid” are used all the time to signify not only reduced capacity to process information but also reduced mental processing speed, which Mr Stephens purports to suffer from on account of his chromosomal abnormality.

So given that, in practice, “retarded,” “dumb,” “stupid,” “moronic,” “imbecilic,” and its myriad brethren are bandied about interchangeably with scant regard for nuance, what’s the point of pronouncing the former verbum non gratum and then simply substituting any of the latter whenever the need to describe sub-optimal intellectual performance arises?

While we’re at it, shouldn’t we retire all words that connote mental impairment of any kind, be it relating to either speed or depth of comprehension?

Desirable as this may sound, it is also impractical, as even outspoken anti-“retarded” crusaders like Mssrs Goins and Stephens cannot seem to make do without at least some of these words, for how else to explain the crucial distinction between being merely retarded (i.e., slowed) and being stupid? Doing so, of course, implies that stupidity (as distinguished from retardation) does exist, and while pointing this out may not hurt those afflicted with stupidity directly (since they have a diminished capacity to understand what “stupid” means), it may still bring pain to their friends and family members.

To be fair, in his letter to Ann Coulter, Mr Stephens appears to object not so much to the use of “retarded” per se as to the use of “the R-word as an insult.” Perhaps he means that “retarded” ought to be reserved for describing, in a sincere and non-derogatory manner, intelligent individuals like himself that simply “process information more slowly” than other intelligent individuals.

Many years ago, I had a girlfriend that used “retarded” to characterize virtually everyone and everything about whom or which she had nothing positive to say at a given moment. If the sink wouldn’t drain properly, the sink was “retarded.” If she realized she had misplaced her phone, she’d exclaim “I’m such a retard!” Yours truly, of course, was labeled a “retard” fifteen times a day in various contexts, whether she was affectionately teasing or genuinely upset with me.

This girlfriend happened to be a teacher with a background in speech pathology and worked with children that had developmental difficulties in that area, i.e., who were slower than their peers in certain respects. Ironically, these kids were pretty much the only people in the world she never referred to as “retarded.” To her, these kids were just “sweet” and “loving” and “extremely smart in their own kind of way.” In essence, she used “retarded” on everyone except on those to whom it applied literally.

Mr Stephens, by contrast, appears to suggest that the use of “retarded” be limited to describing only those to whom the term applies in the literal sense, and that it not be tossed about willy-nilly as a catch-all.

Or maybe his writing “R-word” in lieu of “retarded” indicates that due to over-usage in kindless ways he’d like the word to be stricken from the English wordhoard altogether—but then what if the word “disabled” were often used flippantly or “as an insult”? Would he be referring to it as “the D-word”?

The way in which human language operates provides the most powerful argument against attempting to ban or restrict the use of specific words, even for the ostensibly commendable purpose of shielding others from hurt.

Just to invoke the parade of horribles, if we stopped using “retard,” at some point the Special Olympics will have to be renamed.

See, people use language in order to convey whatever concepts and connotations they wish to convey, nice ones as well as not so nice ones. As soon as a particular word commonly used to communicate a specific notion or flavor becomes unavailable—perhaps due to an effective campaign to discourage its use—people will simply use a different word to communicate the same thing, and then that new word will gradually replace the old word, including all its potentially unflattering overtones.

Soon, the familiar set of objections will arise with respect to that new way of saying the same.

Therefore, if saying “retarded” becomes a no-no, people might start to replace it with “special,” which, in addition to its traditional definitions, has of late come to mean disabled—hence the name “Special Olympics.”

So if a woman’s lover has difficulty opening her bra clasp, instead of “Oh, you’re being so retarded tonight!” she’ll now say “Oh, you’re being so special tonight!”

Once using “special” in this way has caught on in the general population, “special” will have become the new “retarded,” and the term “Special Olympics” will sound exactly as if today’s Special Olympics were called the “Retarded Olympics”—notice how you cringe at the sound of that!

Needless to say, the name will then have to be changed.

Steven Pinker has christened this very phenomenon the “euphemism treadmill”: if we banish certain words on account of frequent insensitive usage, other words will eventually take their place, we’re back where we started, and the cycle must begin anew.

On a deeper level, of course, the campaign to ban “retard” strives to eliminate the casual, flip, metaphorical, or hyperbolic use of terms that designate disability, period.

A noble endeavor, no doubt, but then we ought to openly advocate banning them all, not just pick on one. It simply won’t do to say that using “retarded” makes you look “dumb,” for that’s no different from saying that using “dumb” makes you look “retarded.”

Or that using “special” makes you look “stupid,” for that matter, or vice versa.

And we also ought to ream out and boycott “Arrested Development,” not shower it with rave reviews.

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  • MosEisley ←

    Oh my God, I totally agree with this!! I just read some really retarded essay where someone concluded that we should say stupid or idiot instead of retard ._. It was shocking but at least it didn’t have any comments at the bottom agreeing with it (like other ridiculously wrong but politically correct posts I’ve read elsewhere). I like yours and I agree with it, I’m glad at least 1 person thinks the same way. I’ve recently been in an argument in which some called me idiot, stupid, etc. and after I said they have aspergers, loads of other jerks showed up and got all moralfag bitching against me xD

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Yeah, I guess “idiot” used to be a medical diagnosis as well.

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