Monday, February 15, 2010

R is for Robert, not for "retard"

My stomach has been tied in knots most of the day. In this morning's Washington Post, I spotted an op-ed by Timothy Shriver, the head of the Special Olympics, providing a reasoned and moral response to an op-ed I'd missed in Sunday's Post by Christopher Fairman. Fairman argues that we should not attempt to ban the words and phrases "retard," "mentally retarded," "retarded."

Fairman is trying to stir up objection to the campaign by the Special Olympics to try to eliminate these words "from everyday speech." Fairman mischaracterizes this campaign as an attempt to ban such language and censor people. Fairman's argument is predicated on the following:

1. Discouraging certain word usage (or banning certain words) is a nearly certain path to censorship and concomitant reduction of intellectual and personal freedom.

2. Usage shifts are natural and usage varies over time. We shouldn't seek to control usage because often old words are valuable or accrue new meanings. Furthermore, he appears to argue that, while usage shifts, language is a static system of words that remains immutable and innately valuable. Um, words don't change, just their meanings? Or, words somehow exist as both signifier and signified (for all you literary types out there)--perhaps the "word-hoard" of Beowulf? I gotta get me some of those words written in the funny alphabet back.

(As an example of this second corollary, Fairman argues that, because "retard" and "mentally retarded" were brought into use to displace words like "idiot" and "imbecile," that suggests a rationale for keeping them around. And, yes, I know that we still use "idiot" and "imbecile" as slurs, but those words have histories that pre-date their clinical attachment to people with disabilities. And let's not forget that when "retard" is used as an insult, the first syllable is accented rather than the second, to show, without question, the intent of the speaker and call attention to the word itself.)

As for the first component of Fairman's argument, I don't have much to say because, these days, someone's always out there on a soapbox, wind or rain or dark of night, screaming that somebody somewhere is about to take away ALL of our freedoms (all at once and never piecemeal), leaving us with but the barest crumbs of liberty on our plates. (It's awfully hot in those radio and TV studios, n'est-ce pas?) All I can do is quote Janis Joplin: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" (but you all know that already).

So, thanks for the warning. When you're done screaming, "WOLF!," get back to me.

As for Fairman's second point--the intellectual basis for this perspective on usage lies in Horace's Ars Poetica (that would be dated 20 B.C.):

"Each generation has been allowed, and will be allowed still to issue words that bear the mint-mark of the day. As the forest changes its leaves with each year that runs swiftly by--those that came first drop off--so with words, the elder race dies out; like a young generation, the new ones bloom and thrive. Death claims us and all that belongs to us. [. . .] all the work of man's hands must perish. Think not then that the words he says can keep place and power undecayed. Many a term which has fallen from use shall have a second birth, and those shall fall that are now in high honor, if so usage will it, in whose hands is the arbitrament, the right and rule of speech."

All I left out, people, just so you know, is an extended metaphor about Neptune. Look it up if it's important to you.

So, yes, words can live and die and sometimes resurrect themselves. If so usage will it. Usage is, of course, what we all agree upon--a matter of arbitration amongst us. It's not censorship--it's called reaching consensus, something our political system hasn't focused on since, probably, the days of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan (see, I can be bipartisan).

But that doesn't mean that the words "retard" and "retarded" must live on--"each generation is allowed," right?

And note the weighty, Old Testament-style import here: "Think not then that the words he [man] says can keep place and power undecayed." That's right, folks, the works of man are small indeed, inconsequential, ephemeral as the leaves of grass that fill that field.

If all our efforts come to naught, why invest such energy to hold the fort for the word "retard"? Is that word so deserving of our love and respect? Do we value it above all others? Do our freedoms depend on our ability to call each other bad names? Are soldiers in Iraq fighting for the freedom of a 10 year old to call another kid a retard? Gosh, I hope not.

Myself, I ain't a-going to die to save the proud, venerable word "retard." Its hey-day of appropriate use has come and gone, "the elder race has died out."

I'm going to save my energy to fight for healthcare and education and acceptance for my child, my cousins' children, and all the other kids I know out there who'll be a lot better off if you all would just shut up with your pestilent (and petulant) whining about why the word "retard" really has some kind of dignity.

When you call my child a "retard" or you use the word "retard" to describe others you dislike, you're shoring up bias and prejudice. You're shoring up a medical system that believes it's OK that children go without the treatments they need because they're not worth saving. You're shoring up an educational system that would rather not invest anything in my son, even to help him learn to communicate so people don't abuse him when no one's watching. You're telling everyone you know that you believe people with disabilities are worthless.

In short, you're nothing but a self-serving little bully who'd go whining to his mama at the least little hint of unfairness to himself. And I'd like to see you go without medical treatment, education, or a roof over your head because, hey, if it's OK to say a whole category of people are worthless, then it's OK to start ranking everyone in terms of his or her general worth. And you'd be right down there at the bottom.

And that's what I call appropriate histrionics. And for more appropriate histrionics, you might want to read Michael Gerson, who details the terrifying history of what some in this country are capable of unleashing on people with disabilities.


Elizabeth said...

Thank you for posting this and the link to Gerson's piece. I feel a bit guilty that I haven't been more "up in arms" about this whole thing. I admit that I've rolled my eyes over what I thought was hysteria about a word, and there's something about it that still makes me cringe in discomfort. Perhaps it's seeing everything on Facebook that demeans the whole argument. In any case, I'm not sure what to think, how to feel, but your post and Gerson's impassioned plea resonate with me, prod me from lethargy, shake things up. Thank you for that. I am putting a link,once again, to your post on my own blog.

erika said...

So basically Mr. Fairman describes the linguistic process pejoration and argues that a semantic shift is no good reason to ban a word. Hmm. Then it was a total waste to get rid of the term "mongol idiot" (funny there was no movement to re-embrace that word by the Down syndrome community) and it is unnecessary to avoid the word 'bastard' when referring to a child of an unwed mother? Sure, semantic shift doesn't automatically entail a shift in societal attitude, but it doesn't mean that a word that has gone through pejoration should stay in public usage. The very fact that we need to create newer and newer euphemisms and PC words for the intellectually disabled is evidence of prejudice and discrimination against them. We'll know that disabled people achieved social equality when there won't be a need to replace the word referring to them. On a side note, your writing is brilliant.

NightSwimmer said...

Thank-you so much for telling us about the special Olympics and this whole scenario. I didn't know all of this was going on. Your blog is so informative, thorough in information, and thoughtful. I'm pretty much wowed and grateful. Its like the NPR for special needs parenting. And thanks for the link to the article which I really appreciated, and linked to my post.