Saturday, May 21, 2011

Redux: Furies. Water. Words.

At the end of March, I wrote a post about the use of the word "retard" in Lidia Yuknavitch's memoir, The Chronology of Water. Obviously, the memoir didn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Some readers encouraged me to ask her why she used the language during the online book club discussion with the author (yes, it was for a book club). I did.

At first, I wasn't going to blog about her response, primarily because I thought, mistakenly, that the book club conversation was private. I just realized that it is not a private conversation--in fact, The Rumpus (the literary website that runs the book club) publishes both an edited transcript and a link to the unedited discussion on its site.

Curiously, my initial question is in the edited transcript, but not my follow-up. Who knows why? I was actually surprised that even one of my questions made the edited transcript--my concerns were not shared by any others in the discussion.

Here's what I said, and Lidia's responses, just for your convenience:

Jeneva: I liked a lot about the book, but as a narrative that dealt in part with the reaction of the body & mind to abuse, I found the seemingly casual use of "retard/tard" and later "special ed/needs" very painful--and I wondered if there was a reason for that diction.
Lidia: i know what you mean. it was a hard choice to use that diction. but i wanted to reflect the zeitgeist and emotion of how it felt to be us at that time. and i'm not very convinced by the cultural correcting of language in general. i think language use tells us so much about ourselves. let it ride. even the icky parts.
Jeneva: Thank you for your honesty, but I see the use of those terms more as a power relationship. To be upfront, my son is severely disabled, and there are slurs that seem to be acceptable re: the disabled that are not acceptable when the reference is other racial/ethic groups. It's hard to let it ride when the issue is excluding him as a person. 
Lidia: yes, i know what you mean. i am sorry for the hurt in it. but i have direct experience here too, so i'm speaking from an insider place, not an outsider one. but i KNOW what you mean and i respect what you are saying.

I felt respected for asking the questions, and in the midst of a very freewheeling online discussion in which not everyone's remarks were addressed, mine were addressed twice by the author. I should note that there's a long gap between my first and second question during which many others were talking.

Lidia says she made a hard choice to use the diction as a representation of who she was at various moments in time in the memoir. As a writer, I can see this. And I do not doubt after reading her memoir that she has empathy for other hurt and damaged people. What she means when she says she writes from "an insider place" is that she writes as a former victim of abuse, or at least that's the way I took it--that context is clear from the book.

The other thing I'll note is that, while she wants to use diction representative of a certain period in time, I don't remember the use of other diction bases, such as anti-gay rhetoric, that were also common (and still are common) during the time periods she's writing about. I can't check the book because I de-accessioned it.

I've defended, on this blog, the right of the author to use her own material, noting the difference between ethics and the use of judgment. So we could leave this with my saying that Lidia's text was not unethical, but lacked good judgment. And my response to it should simply be that: to respond.

But there are strands of my response that I cannot quite untangle. While I'm free to respond to these situations, to be angry, and so on, what bothers me most when I put Lidia's remarks in the context of other situations I've been in with respect to Robert's disabilities, is the sense that I get that my response should be silence. She wrote back to me that I should "let it ride."

She wrote that noting that she was "not very convinced about the cultural correcting of language in general." I hate to say this, but that's a pretty politically conservative argument. That language is some sort of monolith that exists in, perhaps, some sort of Platonic ideal state. Something like the idea that the U.S. Constitution represents an ideal that must always be interpreted through an 18th century lens. That we cannot interpret it with 21st century eyes.

As an aside, the Washington Post ran an op-ed about a year ago in which a conservative cultural critic argued that same thing--that he was not convinced about the cultural correcting of language. The author, Christopher Fairman, notes the following:
When [Rahm] Emanuel calls fellow Democrats "retarded" for jeopardizing a legislative plan, the term is a stand-in for "stupid" or "misguided" or "dumb" -- it obviously does not mean that they meet the IQ diagnostic standard for intellectual disability. It is quite another thing to look at a person with Down syndrome and call him or her a "retard." So, if there are readily identifiable alternate meanings, what is the reason for censorship?
This is disingenuous. If Emmanuel only meant to call someone "stupid" he could have used that term. He chose not to do so, because he wanted it to be more hurtful and more emphatic. He wanted to end discussion, so he dropped the R-bomb, the ultimate put-down. The reason he chose to do that was because he wanted to draw a parallel between the people with whom he disagreed and an ugly stereotype about people with disabilities. That's why the word "retard" has power--it suggests that the person to whom you direct the comment is so alien, so other, so very, very stupid, that that person is the equivalent of someone who is cognitively disabled. The ultimate other. The ultimate untouchable.

Robert Rummel-Hudson (another parent of a child with disabilities) makes a similar point on his blog, explaining his reaction to a Facebook comment thread:
I'm sorry, I like you, but you don't get to decide who is offended by a term like "retard". You don't get to decide if that awful word and the associations that accompany it are acceptable in a public discourse, about politics or anything else. You don't get to decide if the families who face that kind of crap EVERY FUCKING DAY need to get over ourselves. You don't get to decide that context makes it okay to use a word that gets thrown around in reference to kids who can't even defend themselves as an insult to anyone. You don't get to decide that my child and tens of thousands like her are acceptable as punchlines. If you don't understand why YOU don't get to make that decision, then I simply don't know what to say. It's not about politics or freedom of speech. It's about being a goddamn decent human being.
Which brings me back to the issue of judgment. This isn't about ethics or morals or freedom of speech. This is about using good judgment. This is about empathy. This is about learning how to be a human being. And learning to see that others are human beings. When you use the word "retard," you reduce another human being to non-human status. You'd better have a really, really good reason for doing that.

I should be able to point this out. People like Rummel-Hudson should be able to point this out. But the response that we face, repeatedly, is to "let it ride." In other words, those who use the insult duck behind the banner of free speech while telling us, the legitimately offended, to shut up. Our proper position in this debate is silence. Because we're word-Nazis, thin-skinned, unhip, uncool--we're caricatures of hysterical women, unable to sort our emotions from reason. Fairman, in his op-ed, makes a case for the retention of all words, permanently, and talks about word "reclamation" without acknowledging that words are also de-accessioned.

The writer in me, as Rummel-Hudson notes also in his post, is reluctant to tell other people what they can do with language. But the writer in me would also like to remind my writer friends that there's a long-standing literary argument that words, in fact, are engaged in the course of 'cultural correction,' or perhaps I might say that culture shapes language. Horace writes in Ars Poetica:
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.
Language flows with the cultural tides. Indeed, it's acceptable for words to fall out of use--usage wills it so. And usage is determined by human interaction. So I argue that, yes, you should stop and listen to me when I say I'm legitimately offended. I'm not silencing you--I only ask that you use good judgment with your speech.

Your response should not be to tell me to be silent.

Let me illustrate that with a story about what it feels like to live, daily, with this kind of menacing insistence on silence.

Last fall I took my kids to a large shopping mall for the afternoon. Robert being with me, we parked in a handicapped spot--one of those spots that had a very wide access alley--so wide, in fact, that when we returned another car was parked in it. If I had had a van with a side ramp, I would not have been able to lower the ramp to get Robert into the vehicle. Which is one of the reasons I bought a van with a rear ramp.

OK. So I could get my son in the vehicle, but I did have to park his wheelchair directly behind this car, which was occupying the access alley, while I opened up my rear ramp. This is not the safest thing in the world, and I was pretty annoyed because when I went into the mall, I'd had the use of the alley and when I returned, it was taken from me.

While I was sorting this out, I noticed that there was a person sitting in the car. I could have just gotten Robert into the van and driven away. But whatever it is that happens inside me in these situations I know I should just stay out of happened once again and I walked down the white line between my van and this other car and the window was down on the driver's side and the woman's back was turned toward me. I never saw her face. But I told her back that she was parked illegally, that this space she was occupying was to allow disabled persons to get safely and easily in and out of their vehicles. That what she was doing was wrong.

She kept her back to me and turned on the ignition. She said nothing. I told her not to back over my child and I put Robert in the van. Still, she said nothing.

You might argue that the woman's silence came from a sense of shame. Perhaps. But I think it comes more from a place of defensiveness, a realization that people like me and my son are standing out there on our own, and no one is really listening to us. So why should she? Silence is one response to the disabled, the sick, the poor, the downtrodden. Silence is a way of isolating us and our concerns, letting us stand out there on our own, exposed and exposing our defenselessness.

What did I do? After I'd locked down Robert's wheelchair, secured his seatbelt, and folded up the ramp, I grabbed one of the orange traffic cones I use to mark, visually, the end of the ramp. To protect it, so to speak.

And, before I put the cone in the back of the van with its mate, I swung it, hard, holding onto the hole at the top, in order to let the base make what I thought would be a satisfying thud against the bumper of the other car. My own ill-tempered response to silence. Instead, the corner at the base of the orange cone hit the other car's tail light and popped a neat hole in it.

The occupants of the other car--by now two people, as one had returned from the mall's back exit (ye olde, I'm-just-going-to-be-here-for-a-minute excuse--didn't seem to notice. I was deeply embarrassed and, actually, horrified at my own behavior. But not enough to apologize to anyone or to accept responsibility for my own behavior.

Childishly, I got in my own car and left. Feeling a bit freaked out, but also feeling, grudgingly, even.

This is what it's like to live with the pressure of silence on a daily basis. Small acts of violence or vandalism should not be a response to it. And I don't know why talking back to people who use the word "retard" feels so much like popping a hole in a tail light. Why I feel apologetic about it after it happens.

An analysis of my behavior is, perhaps, best left to comments.


Heyseed said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. I can only imagine how it must feel. I liked the tail light story, if anyone asks I saw the whole thing and it was an accident.

Dale said...

I saw the whole thing too. Definitely an accident :-)

This is a linguistic question that's quite easy for me: if someone uses the word "retard" like that, I'm no longer in your audience. And I want you to speak up and call it out: I'm glad I know not to read Yuknavitch's book.

It changes word by word and situation by situation, of course. It depends on whether the battle is still on. Some words, I think, have been effectively neutralized -- "nigger," possibly at this point "faggot" -- so that they're actually used in writing to point backwards at the speaker and say: this person is racist, or this person is homophobic. But "retard" hasn't been absorbed that way, and Yuknavitch wasn't trying to use it that way. I don't think she gets a free historical pass.

heatherbenson said...

see i knew this wasnt just us who had these feelings! Since we had our twins 12 years ago weve been trying to change peoples language, i feel like if this is what i want why do i feel bad about it after aswell? We shouldn't even have to be defending this if fricken 2011! i dont know its frustrating and makes me angry and ya pity like do you not know anyone who has a special need of any kind you are the one missing out as for the nbomb ive always been not one to like it or use it but I got a little perspective on Oprah one day she was talking to Jayzee about his book and they were talking about how easily its thrown around she said something to the point of thats the last thing we should be hearing let alone from each other thats what we were called by slave owners and he and the young dont associate it the same way or doesnt have the conantation anymore but isnt this really the same fight?

kimmie said...

(I came over here from Elizabeth's blog. I say that because you don't know me from Adam, and I feel somewhat intrusive on your personal pain, but she is a friend, so based on that I want to leave a comment)

I grew up in the 60's and 70's and the word "retard" was a common (but extreme) putdown. In my mind I never thought it meant stupid or dumb. It was always worse than that. It defined an unchangeable or irreversible differentness and less than me-ness. I believe that it is a word that will never evolve or devolve into another more casual meaning.

My mother never let us say it. She had other words she would never let us say. They are the other words we all hate that say a person has no supposed worth.

I am so very sad that this word is returning to our landscape. More likely, I have been sheltered and it has been here all along.

Please know that I will have a conversation with my children, adding this to the list of forbidden words in our family. And I will explain the pain and grief it truly personifies.

Also, please know, that when it comes time for them to learn to drive a car, I will also teach them to never use a special access parking space or hinder someone who is trying to. I am so sorry you have to put up with that sh*t (another forbidden word in our family, unless you're The Dad)