Let’s stop saying ‘retarded’

by on May.03, 2011, under Uncategorized

I think it is time for us to stop saying retarded. By ‘us’, I don’t mean society in general, who seem to be lurching toward that understanding and over whom I have little influence. I mean my own subset of society, typically (but by no means exclusively) white men who fancy themselves efficiently ironic users of language. I mean “efficiently ironic” in the sense that when we use a word, especially a word with a history, we pack into it all of its meanings which are not our intention but which we know hang onto the word. The ship and its voyages too.

So when we call something “retarded” we mean to be funny. At the same time as we say, “That is super fucking stupid,” we are implicitly adding “You know that I know that that’s a bad word and that I shouldn’t say it and since we all know that, I will say it and skip over that part.”

On the ironic reappropriation of the word “retarded”, let me offer two observations.

First, you don’t hear too many efficiently ironic people saying the word “nigger.” Maybe, per Lenny Bruce, you should, but I think he was not quite right to say that “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power.” If we all just went around saying “nigger” for black people and “retarded” for mentally disabled people, it might just fade away, but the problem with the ironic encasement that my type of people favor is that winking at the power of the word retains that power.

Second, you don’t see a lot of mentally disabled people saying the word “retarded.” I’m told that this is mostly because you don’t see a lot of mentally disabled people, period. They don’t have the visibility or access to the public sphere that they did back in the glory days of Life Goes On. I’m told further that plenty of them do in fact get a kick out of calling each other and the mentally able “retarded”, and that sounds pretty awesome. I originally thought that maybe the mentally disabled weren’t as inclined towards ironic reappropriation as, say, the gays, but someone corrected me.

We all establish different comfort levels around this stuff, and we take cues from the people we know. Most of the gay people I know are comfortable with the use of the word “queer” by their straight friends. Somewhat fewer (but not none) are comfortable with the use of the word “faggot”. If you hang out with mentally disabled people and they like to sling the r-word around and they’ve made it clear that they’re comfortable with you doing it, rock on.

All this “I’m told” and “someone corrected me” should make it clear that I don’t have a lot of contact with the mentally disabled. Some of my best friends are x, y, and z, but none are mentally disabled. There was a guy in high school who used to make inspirational speeches to our gym class, and I kind of wanted to ask his sister out because of her thigh-high boots, but otherwise I can’t really speak from close experience about how hurtful it must be to have the r-word in circulation. (R-Word has the basics on this if you would like a refresher.) Perhaps the very common use of a word that implies that a certain set of people are too feeble to participate in society may have some relation to the fact that I meet very few of that set of people, here in society.

In order to make this case to efficiently ironic language-users (“funny guys”), it’s important to acknowledge how seductive the word is. You’re a major league pitcher, about to hurl a fastball of pure contempt. Re, the wind-up. Tar, you spit it out of your mouth and watch as it curdles into a snarl in mid-air. Ded, it lands, an easy, killing blow.

Another way to look at this is that the word is doing all the work for you. As Michael Berube points out, “it’s not as if the English language is hurtin’ for terms of abuse.” (Berube’s son Jamie has Down’s Syndrome. Reading about Jamie is a good way to build empathy about this and also to be totally blown away by how much smarter Jamie is than me, at least on the subject of knowing which songs are John and which are Paul.) Funny guys, raise your game. The r-word is a crutch. As my Reader’s Digest taught me well, it pays to increase your word power! ‘Fucktard’, by the way, is cheating.

More precisely on the point: you are using ‘retarded’ to mean ‘stupid’. And I submit to you that your problem is not with stupid people. As I’ve specified on the subject of politics, your problem is with assholes. (Occasionally I find the word ‘asshole’ too breathy for invective and often too evocative for table talk, and prefer ‘jackass’.) Stupidities from incuriosity, thoughtlessness, intolerance, jingoism and laziness are all jackasseries. Stupidities by the uninformed, the miseducated, the fearful and the lied-to are correctable. To the extent they are not, it is because of the iron grip of asshole ideology.

And that is what we, we blessed with the precious gift of efficiently ironic use of language, must fight.

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3 Comments for this entry

  • tedra

    FWIW, and assuming I’m outside of your target demographic (by reasons of age, gender, and arguably sensibility), I’ll add another reason: to middle-aged over-educated suburban mommies, youngish white men calling things “retarded” sound like privileged twits. Perhaps especially if they’re doing it “ironically.”

  • Twisty Faster

    A superior post, particularly the point about the word doing all the work. Lard knows the Internet has spawned some modern marvels, but it has simultaneously made possible the Era of the Lazy Writer.

    But wait! Some of my best friends are x, y, and z, too! Perhaps we’ve met at a cocktail party or fundraiser?

  • Josh K-sky

    In all honesty, I don’t really hang out with x and z anymore, and only sometimes y.

    (Also: hello, proportionally awesomest commenter group ever. And thank you.)

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