Offensive July: The Ethics Of… ‘Retard’

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?


13 thoughts on “Offensive July: The Ethics Of… ‘Retard’

  1. Pingback: Don’t Be A Retard: A Gimpy Monologue | The Musings of a Digital Vagabond

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Allowing YOURSELF to Breed | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The Youth of Today | The Ethics Of

  4. About ‘cunt’, which you consistently defend: I’m in the United States, and it’s safe to say many of your other readers probably are as well. I don’t know how ‘cunt’ is used in Australia, but in the US, it’s pretty much the exact equivalent of ‘nigger’, except for women. Considering that the history of oppression of women is in many ways comparable to that of black people, it makes no sense to say that one is fine but the other isn’t. Either ‘cunt’ and ‘nigger’ are both fine, or they’re both awful. I vote for the latter, for all the reasons you articulated so well in your article on ‘nigger’. Just something to be aware of, since you’re really writing for an international audience including many Americans, whether you intend to or not. Perhaps you should update the relevant articles with a warning?

    • Hi Justin, thanks for the comment! I was actually unaware that ‘cunt’ has been used historically as part of oppressing women. You’re correct that it’s used differently in Australia – more of a general (if extremely potent) insult.

      I do tend to add trigger warnings for highly potent topics (such as rape, abortion, etc) but otherwise I prefer to deal with difficult concepts by objective analysis rather than avoiding the concepts. ‘Nigger’ is a good example; it’s an extremely dangerous topic, but I prefer to discuss it rather than just avoid it.

      • Sorry, let me clarify– when I said “warning”, I didn’t mean a trigger warning or anything like that! As you point out, that would be a bit much. And I certainly don’t think you should avoid discussing any of this. I just meant you should warn your readers within the article(s) that the conclusion you come to (i.e. that use of ‘cunt’ as an insult is ethically fine) doesn’t hold true everywhere. I’m a big fan of your work, and it would be a shame if an American read your otherwise fantastic articles, came away convinced, and then proceeded to go around calling a bunch of female acquaintances ‘cunts’, doing much more damage than he might realize. No need to delete or censor anything you’ve written, I just think the regional discrepancy should be pointed out somewhere so that no one gets the wrong idea. Other than that, please do keep up the excellent work.

      • Oh right! Sorry Justin, didn’t quite pick up on that. Excellent suggestion by the way! Definitely something I’ve overlooked so far, but should include given the (amazingly) diverse readership I get here.
        Thank you also for the compliment! I’m still fairly amazed anyone actually reads my stuff, so wonderful to hear people enjoy it let alone find it compelling!

  5. Sure thing. I’m actually surprised your work hasn’t caught on more widely, and I truly hope it will. You’ve got a style of writing about thorny issues that I don’t tend to see anywhere else. It’s exceedingly rare in the popular blogosphere to find analysis of emotionally charged subjects that genuinely empathizes with all sides of each argument, but you really do seem to manage it–and there is a great, almost Judo-like power in your expository style, with its sneaky sudden flips of perspective. You’re truly on to something with this approach, and I look forward to seeing how it develops from here on out. P.S.– your piece on “the youth of today” brought a smile to my face. A lot of it seemed plucked directly out of my brain, down to the wording. 🙂

    • Ah I’m flattered! Good to hear though since that’s pretty much exactly the approach I’m going for. If you have any ideas on promoting this thing I’d welcome them – I generally post to Facebook and leave it at that

      • I actually do have a bit of experience in promotion, so since you asked, here are my thoughts: off the top of my head, your best bet is to get yourself onto the blogrolls of a few people who write in a similar vein. Alas, I don’t have a blog myself, or I’d certainly add you. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but if you know of any bloggers that explore ethical and political issues in a similar vein, you should contact them and ask for feedback on your work. If they get back to you and have nice things to say, you would then politely suggest the idea of adding each other to your respective blogrolls.

        Another approach that comes to mind, which you could pursue in tandem, is signing up for and participating on forums that deal with related subjects, and linking to this blog in your signature and/or user profile, or working references and links to your work into the substantive content of your forum posts (without crossing the line into blatantly spammy self-promotion, of course). Again, I regret not having good suggestions for specific forums off the top of my head. There’s, but the discourse there often tends to be quite a bit more esoteric and technical than what you’re doing on here. The sociopolitical discussions on certain forums in the “skeptic community” might be a decent fit–there, the James Randi forums at come to mind.

        (One warning, by the way–I don’t know how much experience you have with the social justice activism world, but you’ll need to be prepared for the eventuality of activists and radicals coming across your content, especially if you start promoting it in a venue where such people hang out. Your views line up rather well with theirs, so you’d imagine there would be no cause for concern, but you’ll soon find out that when it comes to activist discourse, there is *always* cause for concern, as the movement tends to involve a lot of infighting precipitated by minor and often non-substantive points of contention. So if activist-y types begin to pay attention to you, you’ll need to be prepared to graciously weather some very strident criticism of what may seem like small nitpicky issues, or even outright uncharitable misinterpretations of your points. This is unavoidable, and the level of vitriol can be a bit of a shock if you’re not prepared for it, but try to remember that these people are ultimately on your side and genuinely mean well.)

        Finally, if you’re willing to part with a modest amount of cash, you might do well to place a couple of ads through Google AdSense. All in all, It’s really going to be a matter of sticking to your promotional efforts and gradually building up momentum until you start to get noticed and linked by the larger content outlets and aggregators, at which point you’ll start to really gain some prominence–provided you can keep generating new material at a regular pace, of course.

        Apologies for the long-windedness! Feel free to e-mail me if you ever want to get in touch in the future. I rarely use the e-mail address I submitted with my previous comments, so on this one I’ve submitted my primary address. Let me know how everything works out.

      • Great advice, thanks Justin! I have made some minor efforts to connect with like-minded bloggers and that’s helped quite a bit! I’ve also entertained the idea of using the ‘The Ethics Of’ brand to comment on relevant new items, facebook discussions, forums, etc, but never committed to it. I think your advice will finally get me acting on that however!

        Yes I’m sadly aware of the infighting the activist movements tend to suffer from. Honestly I’m surprised I haven’t already be targetted!

        Tanks again for your suggestions! By the way, if you have any suggestions for topics to write about I’m always happy to take requests.

  6. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Political Correctness (Gone Mad) | The Ethics Of

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s