Political correctness gets a bad rap, because often there are valid points at heart. The epithet ‘retarded’ is a case in point. But a recent Huffington Post piece on the subject shows just how stupidly some people trip over themselves in their haste get themselves—and the rest of the world—on the right side of the PC line.
Unlike the term ‘faggot,’ which was hateful from its outset as an epithet, the origin of ‘retarded’ as applied to the “intellectually disabled” (the currently accepted term) was not meant offensively. The verb ‘retard,’ which dates back to the 15th century, means “to slow or delay,” and so the logic of applying the term to people deemed to have a slower rate of intellectual developmental is more or less neutral (although inaccurate as regards the condition, considering that it is less the rate of development than its upper limit that is central to the label).
While “retarded” persons have been much ridiculed—as traditionally happens with anyone perceived to embody too much otherness—more often than not labeling someone “retarded” was meant simply as a descriptor: Caucasian, American, retarded. Certainly this was the case in the medical community, where “retarded” (“mental retardation,” etc.) was simply a diagnosis.
‘Retarded’ became of a term of offense much in the way ‘gay’ became a term of offense (e.g., “That’s gay” = “That’s dumb [ridiculous, etc.]“) after it became synonymous with homosexuality, with the user targeting the group in question indirectly—often unconsciously and unintentionally—by negatively impugning those who fit into the category. To call a person of “normal” intellectual development “retarded” is to put her down by letting her know that she is lesser. It’s the exact inverse of calling someone “Einstein.” It’s nice to be called “Einstein” (if it’s not meant ironically) because Einstein is superior; it sucks to be called “retarded” because retarded people are inferior.
I grew up using ‘retarded’ this way. Never in my life did I regard the intellectually challenged as lesser. Never once did I insult someone for having any sort of handicap. Doing so was actually anathema to me, and even as a young child I was appalled when I would hear others do such a thing. Nonetheless, in words I impugned the intellectually challenged, just like I unthinkingly impugned those of Polish descent—myself included—when I referred to a foul ball that cleared the backstop as a “Polish home run.” Such is the nature of (mis)acculturation.
Eventually I became deliberate enough in my choice of words to stop using ‘retarded’ in this way, and I am hopeful that ever more persons will do the same. Life is hard enough for most all of us without one’s culture consciously and unconsciously reinforcing the idea that one is innately lesser. Besides, it’s simply good to live and speak mindfully.
No doubt that was the intent of Eleanor Goldberg, editor of the Huffington Post‘s Impact section, when she recently penned a laconic article on the topic of when it’s okay to use the word ‘retarded.’ Her answer: never, in any context. And that is, to use a word I hope couches no etymological traps I’d like to avoid, idiotic.
The centerpiece of Goldberg’s article is a flow chart created by the Military Special Needs Network. And before you jump to the conclusion that the only target is the usage of ‘retarded’ to describe people, the first Yes/No fork on the chart comes at, “Is it describing a person?” Whether you take the Yes or No route here or at any other fork, ultimately you arrive at the same conclusion: “Find a different word.”
“That should about settle it,” writes Goldberg, as if we’ve just been in the presence of logical greatness. But of course the chart is ill conceived, omitting usages of the term that in no way pertain to persons with intellectual disabilities. One’s emotional growth may be retarded by excessive consumption of alcohol. My progress down the street might be retarded by a limp. Your latest musical composition might retard during the bridge.
‘Retarded’ has a meaning—an original meaning—that has nothing to do with people’s intellectual capacity, and therefore there are myriad ways in which none of us should think twice about using it. And while the Military Special Needs Network might get a pass for being too focused on their special cause to be clear-headed about the semantics in play, Goldberg deserves no such consideration. Her trade, after all, is words, and she has a forum where she can make an impact. But instead of using it thoughtfully, she does so without due deliberation, blunting the point of her article by adding fuel to the fire burning in those who recoil at anything that smacks of political correctness. Many people hate the PC world not because of its main thrust, but because of its overreaches.
Goldberg writes, “As is often the case, language evolves, connotations change. And in this particular situation, the word ‘retard’ now carries a pejorative meaning that reinforces painful stereotypes.” But while she is on-course in the first sentence, she goes off the rails in the next. What she fails to grasp is what Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us: language is use. Words—’retard’ and all the rest of them—don’t carry meaning. The misconception that there is something inherent to words is an essentialist hangover. Sans context, words are ambiguous at best, meaningless at worst. If I wear a T-shirt with nothing but the word ‘retard’ printed on its front, you cannot know what I am intending to communicate without asking me.
The irony of Eleanor Goldberg’s making a case against speaking unthinkingly by way of speaking unthinkingly is rich. Surely she means well—she just doesn’t do well in this case. Political correctness gets a bad rap because it is often applied moronically. (Don’t worry: moron comes from the Greek word for “foolish.”) That’s no way to win hearts and minds.
Love and formic acid,