Friday, May 27, 2011

Banning the word "retard"...

It's funny how language changes.  I was born in the early 1970s, which means I'm old enough to have seen the English language change a lot.  When I was a little kid growing up in the South, it wasn't uncommon to hear the word "nigger" directed at black people.  Shoot, I even heard it on television, watching The Jeffersons.  On the other hand, I didn't hear words like "ass", "bitch", or "shit" on television.  Nowadays, I never hear "nigger" anymore.  Instead, people refer to it as the "n-word".  I do, however, hear those other words uttered on television that used to be very taboo.

The other day, I was watching Glee and happened to catch Jane Lynch's and Lauren Potter's PSA about banning the word "retard".  They liken it to the hurtful minority slurs that have since been made taboo and ask us to alter our language so that we don't hurt other peoples' feelings.  There's even a Web site about this.

Well... this may be terribly politically incorrect of me, but I have an issue with people who presume to tell me what words I can or cannot say.   There is nothing wrong with the word "retard".  There is nothing inherently wrong with any word.  As George Carlin used to say, "the words are innocent".  It's the intention behind the words that we should really be concerned about.  

The only reason words become good or bad is because someone gives them that power.  The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote that pretty much sums up my feelings about this issue...

Take, for instance, the word "fag". According to, the word "fag" has several meanings. One meaning of fag is to tire or weary by labor. Another meaning is nautical in origin, referring to fraying or unlayering the end of a rope. Fag is also a slang term for a cigarette. It's not until further down the list that the reader first encounters the potentially offensive meaning of fag, as a shortened version of the word faggot. Aha! But look up the word faggot, and the first definition you'll come across is an alternative spelling of the word fagot, which means a bundle of sticks. The second definition is the potentially offensive term for a male homosexual. The word fag has several meanings, some of them neutral, a couple of them potentially positive, and only one of them potentially offensive. If only one meaning for the word fag is offensive, why should we ban use of the word altogether?

The word "retard" has five definitions. Four out of five of those definitions are neutral. The fourth definition is the slang one, which can be used in a disparaging, hurtful way. But the word started out innocuously enough. It used to be a neutral, official term used to describe people who, for whatever reason, had less than average intelligence. Over the years, the word became a slur, reflecting society's negative attitudes about the condition. Later, some genius decided to substitute the word "special" for "retarded". And suddenly, we had "special education" and "special schools". Look up the word "special", though, and you find that it has at least ten definitions, many of which are positive. Is it a good thing to have less than average intelligence? I guess it depends on your viewpoint. However, even the word "special" has taken on sort of a negative connotation. No one wants to be told that they need "special education", for instance.

It seems to me that it doesn't matter what words one uses to describe a negative condition. Eventually, it will turn into a slur. But the word itself is neutral. It's the intention behind the word that makes it good or bad. And that's what I think we should pay more attention to... not the word, but the attitude that makes people use it in a disparaging way. It doesn't help to try to change language or ban words. What helps is to educate people and encourage them to think before they speak. Because history has shown us that changing words, adding syllables, and coming up with new terms doesn't change the unpleasant condition behind the words. A person who is mentally retarded will still be mentally retarded if we start referring to them as "special", except now we have yet another slur that mean people can add to their verbal arsenal.

Anyway, I can see why Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter don't like to hear the word "retard" used in a disparaging way. I think their efforts would be better served by trying to change attitudes, not by burying language. To their credit, I do think changing attitudes is what they're really trying to do... But, I don't think changing the term for mental retardation to intellectually disabled is going to make the condition any less painful...


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