The R Word.
I feel like I’ve seen a huge resurgence lately in social media and out in the smelly old real world. I’ve made the argument against it. I don’t want to spend the time and mental and emotional capital doing so again. I don’t want to, partly because so many others have made a more eloquent and intelligent argument than I can, and they do so without the burden of being a past offender, like me, I’m ashamed to say. But mostly, I don’t wish to argue because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of asking the world to be just a tiny bit better, to do something so easy, so inconsequential to their day-to-day lives that it is perhaps LITERALLY the very least they can do. The only way they can do less is to do nothing at all. I’m exhausted. And I’m depressed. So to those still using that word, go ahead. Say retard.
But understand what that means.
You’re not ignorant of the meaning of the word. You make that clear with your arguments. The word was once an accepted medical term, you point out, as if you’re at home putting leeches on your neck because that’s how they did it back in the day. Why is this such a popular argument? It’s like excusing blatantly horrible racism because that’s the way they did back in Grandpa’s day. Go back far enough and you’ll be hunting with rocks and eating the ticks off your family members. Evolution is supposed to be a one-way process.
There are still accepted uses of the word, you say, such as when you refer to “a plant’s growth being retarded by lack of water”, as if anyone actually uses that word without trying to make a point. According to the Global Language Monitor, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language as of January 1, 2014. (I assume the .8 word is “uh”.) You’ve got choices. Using “retarded” in a specifically non-related way is like using the term “niggardly” to describe someone’s behavior. You know exactly what you’re doing. You’re not being a champion for language. And the point you’re making isn’t the one you probably think. If you’re using the word “retard”, really in just about any context, you’re being judged. Using that word “innocently” is a little like eating the part of the cheese that ISN’T covered with mold. Sure, you can do it. But you look gross in doing so.
Is it fair, taking that word away from you? Don’t you have a right to use whatever word you please? Surely brave patriots gave their lives at Lexington and Bunker Hill so that King George the Third couldn’t keep you from watching reality TV and saying “This show is so retarded.” I don’t have an answer for you, because at this point, the question isn’t about your rights. It’s not. You’re an American; you’ve got the right to say whatever you please. (If you’re not an American, then check your local listings, I guess.) You’ve also got the right to eat that pizza with the hot dogs in the crust or vote for Donald Trump. Being an American means you can do all sorts of horrible things.
But that right doesn’t grant you immunity from the reaction you’ll receive.
If you use that word, either in an unrelated context so you can pull the “aha, but I’m not using it that way, so never you mind”, or as an insult even though “I don’t mean it that way, I just meant something that’s stupid”, then you’re making a choice. You’re choosing to make a whole group of people with intellectual disabilities into the punchline of a joke.
Schuyler understands that word, even though she never heard it at home. She learned it out in the world, in the crucible of the public school system. Schuyler knows that it refers to people like her, and that it is meant not just as an insult, but as pretty much the worst insult. You have no value. You are the template for “stupid”. And you are fair game, because you lack both the inherent ability and the societal cache to fight back effectively.
If you use this word, knowing what you’ve been told by people who live with this every day, you’re not some kind of freedom fighter for free speech. You’re not dabbling in etymology. You’re not a champion fighting against out-of-control political correctness (a term that gets tossed around frequently because it’s harder to make a case for being against common human decency). You’re not being cute, and you’re not being clever. You’re choosing to use a word that you know hurts people, and people for whom your clever justifications are the hardest to understand. Given the vast expanse of word choices in the English language, you’ve chosen this hill to die on, in defense of this one hateful word.
And that’s fine. Just know, as I’m pretty certain you already do, that the price for your heroic stand in defense of this ugly turd of a word is the very real pain you cause others, both those whom you’re using as a template for an insult and the people who love and take care of them. Schuyler. Her friends. Me. And probably lots of people you know and work with or attend church with. People you don’t even realize have loved ones with developmental disabilities, but hear you say it and quietly remark to themselves, “What an asshole.”
One more thing. Someday, after years of throwing this word around carelessly, you may finally understand. You may come to love someone who is very intentionally at the center of that insult, and you’ll finally get it. I promise you, as one who knows, when that day comes, you will despise yourself. And no amount of penance will wash that away.
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