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.