There is no greater issue facing our world today than human rights. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have excluded, mistreated and marginalized certain people groups, and things are no different today.

We like to think that we’re more evolved, more advanced than those ancient, primitive tribes. The truth, however, is that we practice the same ostracizing and dehumanizing behaviors as our ancestors. Despite the fact that we’ve made great strides in securing human rights for a majority of people, there are still those who remain unprotected by these efforts.

This is not an issue of politics or cost – it’s a matter of conscience. All people deserve to be protected by the same laws and receive both equal opportunity and equal treatment. It is pathetic and shameful that such a vast number of people don’t experience these necessities, especially in a place and time where many of us enjoy unprecedented freedom, wealth and security.

This is why we need to take action. We can no longer afford to ignore those among us who are being excluded from the most critical and basic of human rights. We need to stand up to those who would silence the voices of the disenfranchised and exploited.

We may pay a cost for our actions. After all, this issue is considered irritating or even offensive by those who care nothing for the marginalized. But we must persevere and overcome social stigma. We must make them listen. We must make them see that these people are people too. Now is the time for all of us to join together and declare to the world that we care about one of the following groups:

  • Refugees
  • Immigrants
  • Aboriginals
  • Blacks
  • Whites
  • The unborn
  • Seniors
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Women
  • Men
  • People with mental illness
  • People with physical disabilities
  • Christians
  • Atheists
  • Buddhists
  • Muslims
  • Jews
  • Homosexuals
  • Heterosexuals
  • Transgendered people
  • Domestic violence victims
  • Rape victims
  • Sex trade workers
  • Addicts
  • Overweight people
  • Uneducated people
  • Poor people
  • Homeless people
  • Prisoners

En Retard: Part I

The world is changed. Smoking marijuana is hip, but smoking cigarettes is disgusting. Profanity is simply an expression, but racial slang is bigotry. Today we will be discussing the evolution of language, specifically targeting changes caused by increased sensitivity toward certain terms, namely the word retard.

The website is dedicated to the eradication of the term retard and offers visitors an opportunity to pledge to never use the word again. It also posts stories submitted by those who have been affected by the word. Here’s one from Mia Kraker:

“I was at recess when someone in my class called my friend the r-word. The r-word is extremely hurtful to many people. I am working to stop the r-word and people all over should be, too.”

Now this story definitely isn’t one that sparks faith in humanity, but it’s interesting that the storyteller is expressing dissatisfaction with the perpetrator’s choice in terminology, not the fact that her friend was publicly berated. Here’s another story, submitted by Maggie Scott:

“…in my hallways at school I hear the people call many people many names including the r-word. But why does our world have to be like this? It doesn’t and I’m ready for a change…”

This person is obviously disappointed that her fellow students use derogatory language, as she should be, but she notes that the term retard is only one of “many names” being thrown around. It seems as though Maggie, like Mia, isn’t so much concerned with name-calling or harassment as she is with the use of the word retard, which causes one to wonder why this word is considered especially offensive.

Ellen Seidman, in her article 5 Things People Don’t Get About the Word “Retard”, makes this statement regarding the term, “…The word ‘retarded’ derives from the term ‘mental retardation.’ Years ago, that was a clinical diagnosis used to describe people with intellectual disability. But words evolve and change meaning, as words tend to do, and the words ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have evolved into insults. In 2010, Congress itself replaced ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ in federal health, education and labor laws with the term ‘intellectual disability.’ The word ‘retarded’ has morphed into a slur – why many people are shunning the word.”

Seidman is correct, the word retard was once a clinical term that has since devolved into a slur. However, her assertion that people are shunning the word because it is slur is not accurate, for there are many commonly used slurs that our society tolerates. Before we continue, let’s establish a definition of the term slur and distinguish it from its cousin, slang.

Slang is casual or informal language that denotes familiarity with the mundane and reduces discomfort with the taboo. Here are some examples:

  • Money (coin, cheddar, clams)
  • Sex (shag, get lucky)
  • Murder (whack, hit, waste)
  • Automobile (ride, wheels)
  • Cocaine (blow, nose candy, snow)

While slang and slur sometimes overlap, a slur is an offensive term that describes a people group, such as a race or ethnicity. In other words, slur is slang used to insult others by associating them with a type of person, regardless of whether or not the label is accurate.

Unfortunately, this definition is much more broad than we might think. After all, there is no supreme authority determining what is or is’t offensive, for that depends on the audience. Also, if a slur can target any group of people, then this would include every physical, mental, emotional, religious, genetic or social characteristic by which we might be identified. Here’s a list of some groups whose titles are deemed acceptable slurs:

  • Nationality
    • American (Yankee, redneck)
    • Canadian (Canuck, Newfie)
    • British (limey, redcoat)
    • French (frog)
    • German (kraut)
  • Physical Condition
    • Overweight (fat)
    • Underweight (twig, stick)
    • Young (child, baby, immature)
    • Old
    • Crippled (lame)
    • Athletic (jock)
    • Weak (sissy)
    • Intellectual (nerd)
    • Blind
    • Deaf
    • Mute (dumb)
    • Alocholic (boozer, wino)
    • Drug-addicted (junkie, crackhead)
  • Appearance
    • Ugly
    • Red-haired (ginger)
    • Blonde-haired (dumb blonde)
    • Bald (cue ball)
    • Short (shrimp)
    • Acne (crater-face)
    • Glasses (four-eyes)
  • Mental Condition
    • Unintelligent (stupid, idiot, moron, imbecile)
    • Schizophrenic (crazy, nut, fruitcake)
    • Psychopath (insane, psycho, wacko)
    • Depressed (emo)
  • Social or Economic Status
    • Poor (trailer trash)
    • Wealthy (spoiled, filthy rich)
    • Uneducated (stupid, dunce)
    • Unemployed (deadbeat)
    • Unsuccessful (loser, failure)
  • Profession
    • Police Officer (pig, narc, dick)
    • Lawyer (rat, shyster)
    • Psychologist (shrink)
    • Janitor
    • Prostitute (hooker, hoe)
    • Used Car Salesperson
    • Taxi Driver (cabbie)
    • Carnival Employee (carny)

It’s difficult to determine why terms like redneck and redcoat are acceptable, while redskin is considered unacceptable, or why it’s okay to mock someone for wearing glasses, but not for using a wheelchair. Regardless, it’s obvious that using a label or characteristic to attack others is not in itself enough to incur public rejection. Perhaps, then, it’s the fact that retard was once a clinical term that causes the controversy, but the terms idiot, lame, and crazy were also used to describe medical or psychological conditions and are now considered acceptable.

As Maggie Scott’s story revealed, we use a variety of words to insult one another, so what makes retard uniquely objectionable? To answer this question, we must first understand how and why words become insults.

If we ponder classic insults such as fat, poor, stupid or ugly, we realize that they share something in common, and that is an association with negativity. Implicit-association tests reveal that we all harbor unconscious positive and negative sentiments toward certain people groups. The origin of these associations is not always understood, but it’s not hard to imagine why a person would hold a negative view of ugliness or stupidity. The truth, no matter how we dress it up, is that we don’t want to be fat, poor, stupid, ugly or retarded, and this is the foundation for every insult – a negative association between a term and a condition.

As we grow and interact, we absorb and catalog information, whether we’re aware of it or not. Part of this process involves learning which personality traits, professions and body shapes are undesirable. Parents, teachers, friends, magazines, television and movies all reveal expectations and role models as well as examples of failure and corruption. Even at a young age, children are well aware of the values and qualities that their culture deems unacceptable, and they have firmly established negative associations. This is exemplified by the schoolyard bullying and teasing that most children endure.

So what’s the real problem here? Is it that we say words some consider unacceptable, or is it that we use negative characteristics and labels to attack one another? If we’re going to banish retard from our vocabularies, what do we do about all those other slurs, especially the ones that our society deems acceptable?

In part II we’ll find out why there is so much controversy surrounding the word retard and discuss the effectiveness of the r-word movement’s strategy as well as some alternative solutions.

The Path to Empathy

What do the Lance Armstrong, Michael J. Fox and the Christopher Reeve Foundations have in common? Besides being established by and named after a celebrity, these three organizations were all devoted to eradicating the very condition with which their founder struggled.

These men are (or were) hailed for their contributions to these causes, but is it really heroic to try and cure a condition only after you’re diagnosed with it? Surely these men didn’t create a charity organization in an effort to cure themselves, rather for others in the world struggling with the same condition. But if their motivation was the good of others, then why did they only begin their crusades once they were personally affected? Perhaps human empathy is more of an automated response than a noble pursuit.

Before moving forward, let’s be clear about this subject: these are serious issues that cause real and terrible suffering. Our goal here is merely to explore the peculiar ways in which we react to them.

Supporters of foundations like the ones we mentioned believe that empathy can be spread by generating awareness. These concerned folk band together to form special interest groups, which seek to advance only a single, specific cause. Their objective is to use whatever means necessary to make known the extreme importance of their concern. In addition to snatching up nearly every date on the calendar, they have also exploited the light spectrum as an instrument of awareness. Because color is simple and pervasive it makes an ideal canvas on which to paint one’s message.

The use of color as a medium is most commonly advanced through the display of ribbon-shaped bumper stickers and plastic bracelets. Here’s a chart which identifies few colors and the movements they represent:

Melanoma Gang Prevention Death
Diabetes Asthma Brain Cancer
Peace Brain Injury Bone Cancer Terrorism Poverty Adoptees
Tobacco Colorectal Cancer
Arthritis Victim’s Rights Free Speech Water Quality Water Safety
Drunk Driving Child Abuse Colon Cancer Tobacco Dystonia Education
Prostate Cancer Scleroderma Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome
Epilepsy Cancer
Eating Disorders Stomach Cancer Pulmonary Hypertension
Pancreatic Cancer Testicular Cancer Thyroid Cancer Lupus Alzheimer’s ADD and ADHD
Brain Aneurysm Thrombosis Headaches Cesarean Section Adults with Disabilities
AIDS and HIV Drug Abuse Heart Disease Burn Victims Stroke Drunk Driving
Breast Cancer
Leukemia Hunger Cultural Diversity Animal Rights Self-injury
Support for Troops Suicide Prevention Adoptive Parents Bladder Cancer Spinda Bifida Endometriosis
Childhood Cancer Sport Therapy
Parkinson’s Depression Bipolar Disorder Anxiety Disorders Children with Disabilities
Emphysema Lung Cancer Multiple Sclerosis
Ovarian Cancer Cervical Cancer Uteris Cancer Sexual Assault Tsunami Victims
Pedestrian Safety Lyme Disease The Environment Celiac Disease

There are many more patterns than what are represented above, and many more causes associated with each one. The color purple, for example, can be tied to over thirty distinct movements. In their inability comprehend the scope of such behavior, special interest groups have devalued the meaning of color. They fail to realize that if everything is special then nothing is special. But this doesn’t discourage supporters from proudly donning their ribbons and bracelets.

Although the motives may be genuine, this method of expression does raise questions about the narrow focus of concern. For example, someone wearing a pink bracelet is not only declaring their support for breast cancer victims and research, but their support only for breast cancer victims and research. Are these individuals not also concerned about lung cancer, suicide, sexual assault and child abuse? If someone considered themselves a supportive and caring person, we should expect their arms to project a prismatic array of plastic.

The reason we rarely observe anyone displaying more than one bracelet or ribbon is that humans can only experience legitimate empathy through suffering, either their own or that of someone they love, and chances are that each person is acquainted with only a small number of conditions.

The passion of Armstong, Fox and Reeve is inspiring, but we should remember that their zeal was forged by tragedy and hardship, not a bumper sticker.

Servo Diem

Since the dawn of history we have immortalized the exceptional in art and song. Statues, murals and architecture were more commonly employed in the classical period, while today we use music and facebook pages to commemorate movements and saints. One method which has been used throughout history to honor significant people and events is the holiday. Just look at your calendar and you’ll see days dedicated to wars and kings, countries and queens. Unfortunately, the past decade has seen an alarming growth in the number of marked days.

It all started with the dawn of the special interest group, when a few well-meaning citizens sat down together and decided that their cause was the best one. They discussed how they could create a public symbol for their cause, but statues, paintings and songs weren’t far-reaching and accessible. They wanted to reach the entire world with this symbol, but they didn’t want to actually make something, so they decided to borrow a day from the calendar and call it their own.

This wasn’t a big deal; after all, they only took one day and there was plenty remaining. But other groups caught on, realizing that they could compel others to recognize their movement by creating special interest days. Soon, special interest groups were gobbling up days in a frenzy, until one group had a brilliant and terrible idea: the special interest week.

Today, we have dozens of days, several weeks and even a few months dedicated to special causes, and more are being generated all the time. Just listen to the radio for a few minutes and you’ll hear a promotion for National Wildlife Week or Bike to Work Day. Unfortunately for these groups, they fail to realize what made holidays special in the first place, their scarcity. A calendar with 365 holidays actually has 0 holidays; none of the days are special because all of them are special.

One day we could be observing No Power Hour on Bike to Work Day during National Wildlife Week in Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There’s no question that this needs to stop, but what can we do about it?

August 30th is now Calendar Preservation Day. In order to promote awareness about the dwindling number of unmarked days on our calendar, we will all join together, with one voice, on August 30th and say, “We will no longer recognize special causes on certain days!”