Sticks and stones

Q: Advocacy groups for people with intellectual disabilities are campaigning to end use of the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded.’ What … Continued

Q: Advocacy groups for people with intellectual disabilities are campaigning to end use of the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded.’ What do you think of their initiative?

As a child, I talked about “colored people.” Later they became Negroes, and then black. After a few more word incarnations, an African-American friend told me the correct term was “people of color.” He had no good answer when I asked why an added preposition was preferable to my youthful indiscretion of “colored people.” I also wonder why the fourth letter on my NAACP membership card is rarely stated in full.

But Lenny Bruce, and later George Carlin, eloquently showed that words don’t necessarily have meaning independent of intent. Here’s a story to illustrate that truth.

I once used the word “nigger” in a 1990 televised gubernatorial debate in South Carolina. I was running as an independent candidate to challenge (successfully, as it turned out) the unconstitutional state provision that barred atheists from holding public office. Theo Mitchell, an African-American, was the Democratic candidate, and Carroll Campbell was the Republican. One of the interviewers asked Mitchell if he regretted calling some black preachers “house niggers” for endorsing incumbent Campbell. Mitchell said he wasn’t sorry. I commented that instead of using the pejorative “nigger,” I wish Mitchell had called the preachers political panderers, more accurately describing why he thought they had endorsed Campbell.

A few days ago, I saw an HBO special with Bill Maher in which he used “retarded” along with several words that I’m probably not allowed to use in this column. The R-word was appropriate in its context, since Maher criticized Sarah Palin’s hypocrisy in denouncing Rahm Emanuel and not Rush Limbaugh for using that word. Interestingly, Maher also said “the N-word” in his special, instead of the full word I used in the previous paragraph.

My first memories of “retarded” are similar to my childhood memories of “Negro.” They were intended to be good words replacing bad words. In a college psychology course, I learned how we classified idiots, imbeciles, and morons according to IQ. I even wondered at the time if imbeciles aspired to become morons. Later, these designations were dropped and replaced by the politically correct term “retarded.”

I must confess to being a politically incorrect liberal. My wife, who taught “special education,” once took me to a student prom. I joked beforehand that it would be helpful if each student wore a number indicating IQ, so I would know better how to converse. My wife, who sometimes does not appreciate my humor, called me an idiot. As it turned out, my DQ (dancing quotient) at the prom probably would have placed me alone in that category.

So where do we go from here? I think “mentally retarded” is a good description of a human deficit, but it’s become unacceptable through misuse as a pejorative toward those not mentally retarded. I would like to continue using the term, but only if people would refrain from using it on their spouses or anyone else they’re mad at. That’s what demeans the term.

And if you don’t agree with me, you’re a Neanderthal.

Herb Silverman
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  • WmarkW

    This kind of language policing is part of the ongoing campaign by the liberal intelligentsia to invalidate the opinions of common people by creating a dialect they don’t speak.When John Rocker expressed the legitimate view that illegal immigrants are a threat to public health, his statement was treated as simple racism because he didn’t use the language of a health professional or demographer.Some people have low IQ’s because they were born that way. Requiring the use of the term “intellectually disabled” is a tool to make that a concept most people aren’t supposed to talk about.

  • garoth

    Certainly part of the problem is use. The other problem is whether the term is an apt description. “Retarded” is what I am – I’m walking slowly these days because of a broken ankle. Unless you think of those with intellectual disabilities as “slow,” (another term that is often used to describe them), “retarded” is not an accurate description. Team that up with the pejorative way in which the term is commonly used, and you’d think that perhaps some other words might be better.I feel for those who are caught off-guard by re-labeling. I used the term “gal” in a sermon, referring to “guys and gals,” and got hammered. I certainly didn’t mean anything bad by it – I simply wanted to refer to men and women in a less formal, more personable way than just “men and women,” or “males and females.” And, of course, the female equivalent for “guys” is “gals!” I was told I was a chauvinistic misogynist! (And that was just my wife!)Certainly, we need to have a little sense of humor and not be so easily offended by statements that are not meant to be offensive; and certainly, we also need to be more accurate and sensitive in the words we use. Otherwise we might all turn in to Rush Limbaugh!

  • msraborn

    My younger brother is severely disabled, and my mother has worked for years as an advocate for individuals with disabilities. I can say with certainty that the words “retard,” “retarded,” and even “handicapped” (which is derived from the idea than an individual with a disability must be handy with one’s cap to earn a living) can be devastating in certain situations. One of the best ways to handle speaking about an individual with a disability is to call them specifically that: an individual with a (developmental/intellectual/physical) disability. When you place the disability before the person while speaking, it places the disability before the person in the mind of the hearer. It may sound silly, but it is the difference between being defined by the disability or the disability being only one part of the person. “He is a BOY who is intellectually disabled and has brown hair” vs “a retard with brown hair.” There has been some research to support this, but at the spur of the moment this article is the first that comes to mind for me. It is about the LGBT community, but the intent is still the same. Words have power.

  • keyesd

    Like past medical terms, such as “moron” “imbecile” and “idiot”, the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” have, over the past 70+ years of their use, clearly taken on a pejorative connotation. Having been professionally active in the disability field for over 35 years, getting used to the change in terminology to ‘intellectual developmental disabilities’ or just ‘intellectual disabilities’ has been particularly challenging. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that societal views of people with disabilities are still evolving; and that, however slow, disability professionals are moving away from labeling PEOPLE, in favor of identifying support services that will address each person’s individual needs. I, for one, hope that by identifying & describing the support needs of individuals with disabilities, we may avoid developing future slurs based upon innate mental and physical (remember “Spaz”?) conditions. The negative use of such terms has stolen, and continues to impede, the personal dignity and righteous self-esteem of some of the kindest and most precious people I have known in my life.

  • jonesm2

    Hey, who are you calling a Neanderthal? Seriously, Professor Silverman is certainly correct about the fact that language evolves through use. Words that initially have positive or neutral meanings can develop negative ones over time. The most important thing is the intent of the speaker. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, those who wish to create problems for their political enemies, look for these verbal slip-ups to create a media circus. I guess the most negative thing that you could call me would be a “politician.”

  • beersnob1

    Herb makes his point very well. But, I thought technical use or perhaps just non-pejorative use of the term retarded ended years ago–with it being replaced by mentally handicapped or disabled or challenged. Since the folks who would use retarded in a non-pejorative sense have all of these replacements, can’t those of us who enjoy using it pejoratively go on using it that way? Perhaps eventually the mentally challenged will get around to calling each other “retard”, in effect make the word their own, and make it an impotent insult. That will be a real bummer, because some people are just retards and some things are retarded, and it just feels good to say it. Mentally challenged just doesn’t have that ring to it.

  • fhay26

    I think that any word or phrase to describe a human’s deficiency, whether mental or physical, should not be used within the hearing of the party concerned because of the inferiority effect. The term “mentally handi-capped” can be just as devastating as “retarded”. Some people will never give up the urge for revenge which results in using such terms in a derogatory manner against those with whom they are mad. Personally, I will refrain from the use of any such words except in a professional setting and not where the subject person can hear me.

  • fhay18

    Dr. Silverman’s column is entertaining and informative. It’s too bad we have to screen our use of proper words in order to not offend so many groups or give those in the political arena an opportunity to ridicule an adversary. As children, my generation whispered the word retarded, but my daughter’s generation taunted their peers by using it as a put down.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    msraborn wites:It may sound silly, but it is the difference between being defined by the disability or the disability being only one part of the person. “He is a BOY who is intellectually disabled and has brown hair” vs “a retard with brown hair.” Intellectually disabled is not entirely accurate, either. The population of which we are speaking are often strikingly intuitive and intuition is a function of intellect. However, if this is the label they choose, so be it.In any case, it is preferable to “retard.” Dr. Shriver’s efforts to exclude it from public discourse are to be commended. He, in fact, is to be commended for all the wonderful work he does.Shriver and those who stand with him are attempting to enfranchise a segment of this population that deserves to be enfranchised. Part of that effort is surely to change the way we think of these people and how they think of themselves, to begin a new history.This country has done remarkable things with respect to combating racism against African Americans and some other groups. It has done much to combat sexism and is engaged in ending homophobia, ageism, etc. The rights of the intellectually disabled are no less important than those of any other group. And part of that effort involves language.

  • pelicanwatchcb

    The language is ever-changing and some people (i.e., academics and journalists) may be a little more on the cutting edge of what is hip or politically correct. That doesn’t mean an insurance salesman in Peoria cannot be sincere, respectful and somewhat out of style when uses the word “colored” or “retarded.” Would we question his motives if he were wearing an out-of-fashion tie or shirt? I think we can generally understand a person’s meaning and motives by their behavior and the context of their remarks. Thus Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s use of the word “Negro” to praise Barack Obama marked him as hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch, but no rational or honest persona thought he was a bigot. Likewise, when former GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond by saying that if the segregationist had won the presidency on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, “we wouldn’t have all these problems today,” I think we knew what he meant, too!Context is everything.