Monday, February 15, 2010

Not the Last Word

I read this op-ed piece with increasing horror and while I admit to being a bit on the laissez-faire side regarding the word "retard," I found Michael Gerson's argument below very persuasive. I still maintain that a little less emphasis on the word and  a lot more emphasis on action is in order (see HERE). By the sound of it, though, life for the tens of thousands of people affected by disabilities in our country isn't going to get any easier any time soon. I believe the more debate on these subjects, the better. Let's continue to discuss, all right? To start, read below and then over at the ever-brilliant Jeneva's website Busily Seeking...Continual Change.

Defending the word 'retard' is not heroic

The media is least attractive when it offers the pretense of fairness to cover a desire for self-serving controversy. “Tonight, the issue is cannibalism. Taking the pro-cannibalism side is Dr. Littleknown Academic, professor of cultural and culinary studies at Unjustifiably Prominent University….” As G.K. Chesterton said, some viewpoints are not just minorities but monstrosities. Giving them equal time accords a legitimacy they entirely lack.
In this spirit, Professor Christopher Fairman of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University takes to The Post today to defend the word “retard” against taboo, censorship and other forms of social repression. He argues that the r-word must be rescued from the terrible fate of the f-word. Even the n-word has “varied and evolving uses.”

There are many intentionally offensive elements of this case. But the most disturbing is a dismissive attitude toward the struggles of the disabled. The comparison between the r-word and the n-word, according to Fairman, is “overblown.” “’Retard,’ however harsh, pales in comparison.”

I’d recommend that Fairman and others who hold this view take a look at
War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black -- one of the most disturbing books about America ever written. It recounts efforts by distinguished scientists, academics, industrialists, health officials and jurists through much of the 20th century to “direct human evolution” by waging war against people with developmental and physical disabilities.

Black points out that early last century, the American Breeders Association -- supported by generous grants from Andrew Carnegie -- created a committee to study “the best practical means for cutting off the defective germ-plasm of the American population.” The panel included doctors, economists and attorneys from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago.

Black continues: “During a number of subsequent conferences, they carefully debated the ‘problem of cutting off the supply of defectives,’ and systemically plotted a bold campaign of ‘purging the blood of the American people of the handicapping and deteriorating influences of these anti-social classes.’ Ten groups were eventually identified as ‘socially unfit’ and targeted for ‘elimination.’” Among those groups, according to Black, were the “feebleminded,” epileptics, the “insane,” the “deformed” and the “deaf.”

Eugenic sterilizations did not end in the United States until the 1970s, endorsed by a decision of the Supreme Court. Citizens with Down syndrome and other genetic challenges are increasingly rare in America, because of prenatal testing and abortion. And as such genetic perfection is pursued, those who lack it are subjected to increased prejudice.

Given this history, the r-word does not seem so innocuous. And defending it does not seem so heroic. Fairman can have his cherished f-word, which merely soils and trivializes the sex act. But defending the r-word is not the protection of free expression; it is the defense of bullies.

There is a long tradition of religious and moral reflection on the words we choose to speak. According to the Hebrew scriptures, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Jesus of Nazareth argued, “It is not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”

There is not an exact correlation between vileness of speech and vileness of character, but there is a rough correlation. Words such as the r-word and the n-word often reveal aggression, contempt and hatred. They are a form of verbal violence. In these cases, what Fairman calls “self-censorship” is really kindness and moral judgment. And what he regards as free expression is just rude, abusive and cruel.

Yes, the meanings of words change over time. Epithets gain and lose currency. Which means that standards of morality, respect and tact must be constantly reapplied in new circumstances -- not that standards should be abandoned entirely.

Yes, government involvement in the censorship of words is dangerous. But what the Special Olympics is proposing – encouraging people to take a personal pledge against the derogatory use of the r-word – is not government censorship, it is social stigma. In this case, such stigma is a sign of moral maturity.

I have signed the pledge at I hope you do as well.
By Michael Gerson  |  February 14, 2010; 11:03 AM ET


  1. Words are powerful. And this power is so often misused. It is so important to slow down, and choose our power carefully; and one may hope, for the good of whom one speaks.

    And I love your photo on the top! Exquisite.


  2. My mother used to say that the only wounds that never quite heal are those opened with one's tongue. Amen to that. Funny, I never used the n-word and I don't use the r-word.
    There is something viscerally repulsive about them and because English is not my native tongue my European background does not allow for many interpretations of the same word or my brains fold and that is the end of my intellectual capacity. Lucky me that I had a built in natural break before I learned how some people have chosen to use them in English. And they should never be spoken anyway.

  3. I've been rather laissez-faire on this issue too, but was grateful for this piece and went right over and signed the pledge.

  4. I just wrote a post on the R word, before visiting here. This is an excellent article. I think its about time that we're all talking about this. Maybe it is actually the first step in making progress in all the work that needs to be done? I certainly hope so. If we break through this maybe we can break through the rest.

  5. words are indeed powerful. I don't feel laissez faire about this at all. I wrote a post about a long time ago (Language Cop). I'll sign the pledge right now.

  6. I'm in the lassez-faire camp as well. For me, the r-word isn't that big of a deal because it doesn't mean what it used to. My daughter is developmentally delayed, but when I hear the word "retarded" it doesn't bother me becaues I know they aren't talking about my girl. But I don't use it because other people are hurt by it, which matters to me. I don't intentionally hurt people, so I don't use words that can do harm.

    However, the debate around the r-word is much bigger than just whether or not to use a word. It's about respect and acknowledgment of people with disabilities. I do support that movement and I'm glad the discussion around the r-word has made people think more about issues that affect people with disabilities.

    This essay really shows how big the discussion is. Thanks for posting it. I have more to think about now.



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