You know I never actually intended for this to be a series of articles, but after the stellar reception of ‘Cunt‘ I couldn’t turn down the chance to one-up myself to ‘Nigger‘. Then someone posts the photo below on facebook, 4chan responds as only 4chan can, and here we are with Offensive July.
This might seem like an oddly low-key conclusion to this series; after breaching pretty much every language taboo the last two weeks, how can ‘retard’ possibly be of any interest? Sure it’s not exactly a pleasant word, but it’s nowhere near as offensive as the other two – people use it all the time, usually completely casually. But that in itself is precisely the problem.
Right off the top of your head, what do you think of when you heard someone say ‘retarded’?
Nothing good I’m guessing. More than likely, you tend to associate it almost exclusively with acts of profound, almost inexplicable stupidity. Specifically, it seems to imply actions so dumb that the people responsible can almost be given up on – there is no redemption for someone who though the situation in question was a good idea. It’s heavy, blunt and above all, final.
Unfortunately, it’s also a word used to describe a series of medical, psychological and developmental conditions – conditions that real people suffer from, (largely) through no fault of their own. People who, let’s be honest, already have the shit end of the stick to start with, and people whom we are now associating with the concept of irredeemable, contemptible stupidity.
Certainly few of the people who use the word (and I have to admit that I am among them on many occasions) actually mean to make this association – it’s just another adjective to us – but that does nothing to change the fact that the association exists. And even if the usage is totally without malice (and you better believe that’s not always the case) how is a person who is suffering from one of these conditions, along with the ever-present discrimination, challenges and suffering that comes with it, meant to feel when they hear the word retard thrown around as an insult?
The very fact that it is used so casually and that the word isn’t even close to as offensive as ‘Nigger’ is an insult in itself – everyone knows that saying the N-word will get you howled down in seconds, but ‘Retard’? Eh, I don’t hear them complaining about it. And besides, what are they going to do about it anyway?
There is no deeper bigotry than the bigotry that everyone thinks is normal.
So on the face of it, ‘Retard’ appears to be a pretty open and shut case of legitimate offensiveness, right? Just like ‘Nigger’ (and unlike ‘Cunt’), it links an entire group of people with an awful stereotype; a stereotype that the word perpetuates and entrenches in turn.
So why am I even writing about it then? Because the unfortunate fact is that ‘Retard’ is not entirely like ‘Nigger’.
‘Nigger’ refers to a time where an entire race was falsely considered sub-human, and strongly implies that that’s the way it should still be. Everything the word stands for is simply and provably false, and it is now largely understood that someone’s race has virtually no bearing on their qualities as a person (of course culture is another matter entirely).
Put simply, ‘Nigger’ is a lie.
‘Retard’ on the other hand, is not.
It’s an unfortunate reality that the conditions that ‘retard’ so bluntly refers to (either intentionally or by association) are actually, factually, bad things. You can demand equality all you want, you can rebrand the situation as ‘differently-abled’, you can even form your own slightly-creepy communities focussed around your condition, but the fact remains – disabilities are bad things. They are things that, in fact, regardless of our attitudes towards them, limit a person’s ability to do stuff.
Blind people can’t navigate places easily. Deaf people are limited in communication. People with one leg can’t run as fast as people with two. And people with conditions that fall under the heading of ‘retarded’ are going to have life a hell of a lot tougher than everyone else, no matter how they are treated.
Even for the truly exceptional individuals that view their disability as challenge, and go on to achieve more than most normal people ever will, there will always be the lingering question; how much more could they have achieved if they weren’t saddled with a disability?
And as a result, the issue tends to go to hell in a handbag.
Did you notice how I used the phrase ‘normal people’ up there? Say that in the wrong place and it’s enough to get you so deep in trouble you’ll never see daylight again. How dare I imply that some people are normal and others are not?! Am I implying that they’re abnormal? That they’re somehow lesser than other people? Less worthy of love and respect? What sort of bigot would say those things? And so on and so forth. Godwin’s Law tends to crop up quite frequently, if you know what I mean.
Unsurprisingly, the sort of people who are inclined to use ‘Retard’ frequently do not react to this sort of backlash in a calm and thoughtful manner. Instead they tend to rally under the banner of ‘free speech’, shriek the battlecry of ‘politically correct nanny-state gone mad!’ and hurl themselves against the foe in flurry of bigotry, false equivalences and strawmen. This is especially true online, as spectators of the recent 4chan v. Tumblr skirmish can attest.
Hopefully, dear reader, you’ll have noticed that these are not the only approaches to the topic.
‘Retard’ clearly does not fit the two categories of offensiveness defined by ‘Cunt’ (totally subjective) and ‘Nigger’ (based on an objective evil). On the one hand it marginalises and insults a group of people who already have it rough. But on the other hand, the basis for these insults are conditions that are factually bad things.
On the one hand we should clearly avoid the word because of the insult it causes. On the other, simply using different words for the same conditions just moves us one step further on the euphemism treadmill, and does nothing to actually improve the underlying situation itself.
So what the hell do we do? Make pretend everything is ok and keep changing our language to keep from offending people? Or give up on trying and say whatever we want, regardless of the effect that might have?
Interestingly, the answer is exactly the same as when it comes to staring at a woman’s breasts: sure you have the right to do it, but just don’t.
Seriously, don’t. Why do you want to? Or need to for that matter? If you’re looking for insults, we’ve got plenty to choose from that don’t come with the heavy side of bigotry (try ‘cunt’ for example!), and if you’re genuinely trying to describe a medical condition then why not use terms that are more specific and therefore more accurate?
Changing the way we speak for the sake of the feelings of other can be galling, and in some situations, totally irrational. But when the words you use reflect and reinforce actual bad things, then the point stands: why wouldn’t you?