Saturday, June 28, 2008

The R Word

[Note: this post contains profanity. If you're not comfortable with that, please return another day for a non-blue post. JMO]

I’ve been struggling for the last couple weeks with an incident that happened when I commented in a blog. The author (BA=blog author) was giving a commenter a really lovely, scathing set-down. And I was digging it, until the BA called the commenter a fucktard. Now, I’m all about using the f-word and didn’t object to the profanity. I did however, comment that fucktard was offensive because of it’s obvious association with the word retard.

What followed was an exchange between the BA and an other commenter (OBC) which basically said I was over-reacting, it was okay because they would call someone who was mentally handicapped a retard to their face if they were being an asshole, that their kids sometimes acted retarded, and that they’ve already had this conversation with others who’ve objected to the use of fucktard or edutard.

I’m astonished.

Since the exchange, I’ve tried to craft various responses from a lengthy, pedantic treatise on the words and how they can be linked to retard, explanations about intellectually capacity vs. mental developmental delays, to an open letter to the BA and OBC responding point by point using much sarcasm. I’ve considered not engaging these people, because clearly, they don’t get it. And, of course, I’ll never read their blog again.

But, I think, this is what I want to say about it:

I believe that using retard is offensive. Using its derivatives (fucktard, edutard, etc.), even more so. If elements of communication are tone and context, there are no circumstances in which the use of the ‘tard derivatives are anything but a substitute for the pejorative use of retard.

I don’t think using retard (and let’s just assume I’m also saying ‘and the ‘tard derivatives’ from now on) is clever, or makes your argument against ignorance, or is anything but one of the most heinous hate words. Think about it, if you substituted a racial epitaph, ethnic slur, or derogative comment about sexual orientation, people would think you were the worst kind of bigot. Use retard and everyone accepts it as okay. It’s not.

Retarded should be accurately used to describe the mental and/or physical developmental delays that some children and adults face, either from genetic or medical conditions, or from accidents. Correctly used, it only means that these things are slowed; not necessarily lesser or diminished. It certainly doesn’t mean ignorant or stupid.

Unfortunately, retarded is now equated with the undesirable characteristics of stupidity and ignorance. It is used to demean those who are “normally” developing at the on-going expense of those who are not. Like all hate words, it is used to perpetuate wildly inaccurate stereotypes of a group of people who, even more than any other group, are already marginalized through fear and ignorance. And if you don’t think people fear mental handicaps, then explain why the abortion rate for the prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome is over 90%.

Also unfortunate is that parents, caregivers, professionals, etc. of those with mental and physical delays are unable to use the word correctly without fear of the negative connotation touching their loved one. It denies basic human dignity to a group of people and insults their parents, families, caregivers, professionals who have invested their love, energy, and time to reach their potential, whatever it may be.

Amazingly, those of us given the gift of disability would not change it. The condition (in our case Down syndrome) is the least interesting thing about E. Unfortunately, it will be the most important for many and they will make so many incorrect assumptions about her based on the condition alone. And then many will then use these assumptions as the foundation by which they demean someone else. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable, and I will continue to speak out against it.

In direct response to the BA and the OBC - Ree (from Confessions of a Pioneer Woman) accurately uses the word retarded. Her brother has some developmental delays due to a genetic condition. This, however, doesn’t give you license to use retard in a derogative way. I’ve never read Ree use retarded to imply that Mike is stupid or ignorant, or to demean him. Instead, she shows him for all his humanity - that he’s exasperating, loveable, flawed – as a sibling would, and usually at her own expense. And she writes about her other siblings and shows how they harass each other. It seems that in their family, harassment is just one (of what I would guess as many) expression of love. I’d also speculate that, given Ree and her siblings’ ages, she’s had to put up with a lot of ignorance and insult (intended or otherwise), which is why her use of retarded is not offensive to me.

Your post a couple weeks later about the Religion of Ethical Reciprocity post, your one commandment is to:

Treat others as you wish to be treated. Be unconditional in both love and forgiveness. Practice grace and kindness.

No one wishes to be treated to a label that denigrates a class of people and denies them basic human dignity. Everyone deserves a chance to unconditionally loved, even the mentally handicapped; and when we fail them by using inappropriate language, hopefully someone will come along to help us. Practicing grace and kindness might mean, in this instance, that when more than one person speaks up against the use of a word, that you take a moment to consider what they’re saying instead of going into a defensive mode. Try talking to your early intervention programs (all states have them) or finding out about the Special Olympics in your state. Read or watch the “Retard Speech” by 17 year old Soeren Palumbo, or visit his facebook page – Campaign to Ban "R" Word.

I haven’t decided whether to continue visiting the BA’s page or not. On the one hand, I’m making her response personal when in truth I don’t know her. Part of my astonishment was that given her topic (homeschooling) and some of her personal history, she should be one who intuitively understands this. However, it only shows that we all have, including myself, a ways to go at any given time.


Cate said...

I recently got into a thing about this as well. One argument was that it's not obvious to everyone that fucktard comes from retard. (The suggestion was that it might be from "f'ing bastard" instead.) The other argument was that -tard is just a suffix meaning slow, and it's working its way into accepted usage. Technotard just means someone who's slow at technology. Nothing wrong with that.

I don't buy either argument, and the whole conversation made me so sad and angry that I stopped participating. I's really hard for me to believe that people will continue even after someone points out that it's offensive. Especially when I'm saying "hey, you're insulting my baby, there".

I think this is one of those things where online behavior is different. I hope.

Stephanie said...

I don't buy the "bastard" angle. People find it acceptable to make fun of those who are "slow" and change the meaning to be "dumb" which is not the case. When you call someone a technotard are you making fun of them for being dumb or slow to learn the process? I am sure "technotard" is a jab....and that is the problem.

"retard" has a bad connotation and it shouldn' daughter is mentally retarded NOT dumb! She can learn anything anyone else can but does it at a slower pace because she was born with Down Syndrome. Just because you may not know someone w/ a mental handicap doesn't mean you shouldn't stand up for them. Thats what they need....people who can stand up to it! That is why I choose to be an advocate against the "R" word.
Thank you for your post! I think the world needs to hear this and move on. Can't we find better and more unique ways of insulting each other!

For those who are slow to understanding this concept, its ok, we will just come up with a word to describe you, non offensive of course ;)

Jennifer said...

Yes to both of you. Obviously, we understand using retard is personal and grossly undeserved by our beautiful kids. That's part of what is so upsetting. We've all said things that, as they're coming out of our mouths, wish we could suck the words back in. Either that moment changes us or if someone says, "hey, not cool," our response should be a sincere apology and a behavior change. But when someone says, "hey, not cool," and the response is to defend it? I don't understand. Is your pride worth someone's dignity?

I thought to myself well, when things keep repeating to me, I should probably do a much better job of looking at the issue sooner rather than later because the more force the universe has to take to get me to change my behavior, the worse it is for me. Does that make sense? It's the ultimate in karma. If many people are saying "hey retard (and its derivatives) is a hate word - which I would characterize as a mild intervention), at what point will the BA hear the message karma/the universe/God is trying to send? Disability for a loved one? Accident? Chance encounter?

Then I think, maybe the lesson is for me. This encounter has made me look at how I use language, how fragile it is to claim superiority in one area, how not to be small-minded, and, most importantly, how lacking in creativity some people are when name-calling *grins*.

knitteresq said...

Well said! Unfortunately the R word seems to be getting more and more popular. I call people on it constantly and for the most part people just apologize. I can't believe someone would defend the use of the word after being called on it.