En Retard: Part II

In part I we were introduced to the r-word movement, discovered the nature of slurs, slang and insults, and we also discredited the assertion that words like retard are unacceptable because they are offensive slurs with a history of clinical use. But we left one question unanswered: why is there so much concern about the use of this word in particular? There are at least three possible explanations for this.

The first reason could be the simple randomness of language. The evolution of terminology is often unpredictable and cannot always be explained. For example, there isn’t a logical reason why it’s okay to call a Caucasian person white or a person of African descent black, but it’s not okay to call an Asian person yellow or a Native American red. 

Another possible source for the concern around a specific term could be special interest groups. These organizations champion only a single cause and seek to generate as much support and attention as possible. It could be that there are simply a greater number of groups, or merely more influential groups, dedicated to the eradication of the word retard than most other terms, which leads us to our third and final possible explanation.

Humans have the ability to feel empathy for, and can generate sensitivity on behalf of, a perceived offended party. Our concern for others, especially those we consider vulnerable, allows us to take offense to an insult directed at another person and to a slur with which we have no association. Perhaps the word retard demands greater sensitivity because those with mental disabilities are especially unfit to defend themselves on both the individual and public levels. This would explain the localized sensitivity surrounding some people groups, namely those who were once neglected or persecuted.

Regardless of the cause (or combination of causes), this crusade to banish the word retard  from the face of the Earth is not likely to dissipate any time soon. But is this aim even achievable? And if it is, is this a reasonable and permanent solution to the problem? Fortunately, this is not the first time that a term has been officially replaced due to sensitivity. In fact, several successors to the word retard have already been proposed, implemented and eliminated.

The word retard is derived from the French word, which literally translates “to slow or delay,” and as we already discussed, was a clinical term used to describe a person who was mentally underdeveloped. Now let’s try to understand how the evolution of terms progressed.

Based on what we learned about the nature of insults, people likely started to use the term retard as an insult. After all, what better way to attack someone than to infer that they suffer from a mental disability? Either by intent or natural progression, the term handicapped became an acceptable alternative, but it too was eventually used as a verbal attack. Its decline is partially attributed to its association with disabled Civil War veterans who begged on the street. Although this use of the word is not historically corroborated, the negative associations are quite real.

After handicapped came the terms special needs and disabled, which were considered more pleasant and accurate euphemisms, but special needs has since become unacceptable. In an article by Key Ministry, titled Is ”Special Needs” Acceptable People First Language? the author argues that,”‘Special’ often carries with it the connotation of separate or segregated,” and goes on to claim that children with disabilities, “are desperate to not be seen as different… who would prefer to fail in school as opposed to be seen as different by their peers.”

The term disabled has also been deemed inappropriate by those on the cutting edge of sensitivity because it defines an individual by their condition. This has lead to the creation of the current label, person [living] with a disability. The idea is that by describing those with disabilities as people first, the disability does not become their identity or defining feature. Here are some examples of how this terminology works:

  • Blind person becomes person who is blind or person living with blindness.
  • Obese person becomes person who is obese or person living with obesity.
  • Drug addict becomes person who is addicted to drugs or person living with drug addiction.
  • Mentally disabled person becomes person who has a mental disability or person living with a mental disability.
  • Dead person becomes person who is dead or person who is living with death.

Although attempting to protect the dignity of those with disabilities is a noble cause, it seems as though the revision of terminology is a futile endeavor. Sure, we might generate enough awareness and support to have a governing body pass legislation to change official terminology. And sure, we might get the common person to remove a word from their vocabulary, but in the end, no matter what new words are chosen, they will eventually fall into the mouths of those who care nothing for the troubles of others. This is because – and this is the important part – there is no intrinsic good or evil in a grouping of letters or sounds. Words mean whatever we decide they mean, and by abandoning corrupted words, we’re allowing these insensitive, uneducated individuals to determine their meaning.

Another problem with attempting to change language is that by producing long and technical alternative terminology, we’re asking people to be very deliberate in their descriptions of those with disabilities, which isn’t how we talk about any other group. Old people are not living with old age; they’re old. And blonde people are not living with blonde hair; they’re blonde. By using alternate language for groups such as those with disabilities, we’re acknowledging that they are different and should be treated differently, which only fuels the segregation that many are striving to erase.

So if replacing offensive words is not a reasonable solution, what, if anything, can be done? There are actually three potential solutions to this problem, with the first being the option we just explored.

  1. Banish offensive words and replace them with new ones.
  2. Stop people from insulting each other.
  3. Stop taking offence on behalf of others and stop allowing ourselves to be insulted.

We already discussed how the first solution provides only temporary relief from the issue, so what about the other two? Well the ideal answer is actually the second one, but in order for it to succeed, humanity would have to undergo a massive behavioral shift. As we already mentioned in part I, humans learn to insult one another at an early age, and it’s not always done with malicious intent. Insults play a significant role in comedy, business and politics, and when combined with sarcasm, they can even be used to flatter. As a crucial tool of communication, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the end of insults any time soon.

Recent hate crime legislation attempts to address the issue of crimes specifically targeting certain people groups, and there are those who believe that we should apply these principles to protect groups from slurs. Aside from violating the freedom of expression, attempting to legislate language would be a horribly arduous and complex task. Also, the concept of extending special legal protection for some individuals creates a huge problem in terms of consistency; and we can’t have fairness and equality without consistency. If we’re going to retire or ban every term that offends, then there are thousands of words in need of revision.

The third and final option doesn’t really seem like a good solution. After all, allowing something to happen is seldom a feasible approach to prevention. But in this case, it’s actually the best choice and here’s why:

Because we know that we can’t stop insults and because of inherent negative associations with disabilities, along with many other traits and characteristics, insensitive individuals will continue to attack others using these labels, the only element that we can actually control is ourselves.

As we discussed in part I, in order for an insult to be effective, both the speaker and the audience must understand the negative association with the chosen word or phrase. If we call someone a retard, it’s insulting because both parties understand that being retarded is bad. In the same way, calling someone fat or stupid is slanderous because our society identifies obesity and poverty as undesirable qualities. If someone thought that being fat or stupid were somehow desirable traits, then it would be impossible to attack them with these words.

By allowing ourselves to take offense to, or be insulted by, a label, we’re acknowledging the negative association with that people group. The only way we can thwart the endless onslaught of insults is to refuse to recognize the negativity attached to those words, and by extension, the people groups they represent. We must reclaim the destiny of diction from the hands of those who would use it to hurt, and we must recognize that all members of society are of equal value and deserve equal legal protection and public recognition. If we really believe that the disabled with are people first and we don’t wish to segregate them, then we should afford them every and only every right afforded to others, including the dignity of ridicule.