Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On Using the Word Retarded

About two weeks ago, the WSJ reported that Rahm Emanuel called some liberal democrats "fucking retarted". Sarah Palin fired back, asking if he has any decency, and a flurry of very interesting posts by liberal bloggers called her out on her hypocrisy, the best examples being Tiger Beatdown and Shapely Prose.

As Sweet Machine stated in Shapely prose "It’s awful to say something is “retarded” because the punch of the word is based on the equation of “disability” and “bad.”. I think she is absolutely right, and that the vast majority of the time when people say something or someone is retarded they are making this equivalence. But, I also think that when people call others out for using the word, or feel uncomfortable about its usage, they are continuing to make this equivalence.

In my ideal world, a person with mental disabilities would not be immediately be assumed to have a lower quality of life or be devalued as an individual in society. This person would just be different, in the same way that shy people differ from outgoing ones. In other words, the value judgment that I think is currently intrinsically married to the concept of people with disabilities would be eliminated.

If you agree that this would be an ideal, then the question becomes how best to bring it about. Obviously, using the word retarded when you really mean bad, low-quality, inferior, or lesser in any way would be counter-productive. But what if you use the word retarded to mean something that is stupid, or "less intelligent than average"? I think the problem with saying that people should not use the word retarded if they mean 'stupid' is that it implies (whether intentional or not) that being less intelligent than average is inherently bad. Taking for granted here that the word retarded has been co-opted from its original meaning of slow growth to be a catch-all for people with mental disabilities, if we weren't making this value judgment, then why would calling something retarded, if you mean stupid, be wrong? Wouldn't it just be the case that some things are less intelligent, on average, than other things, and to state this would be a matter of fact, like pointing out the speaker's tie was green?

This is a difficult concept to wrap one's head around, because there are a lot of people whose value systems are built around the concept that intelligence is a fundamental good and stupidity is its opposite. I'm not sure if this is something that could ever change, but I do think that considering the assumptions that are inherent in what makes you uncomfortable is important. If you don't like people saying something or someone is retarded, why don't you? What exactly is it about the word that makes you uncomfortable? Is it the concept of people with mental disabilities in general?

I'm not suggesting that we should all use the word retarded when we mean stupid or refer to people with mental disabilities as retarded. As I have throughout this post, the language preferred by those with disabilities is 'people first', which I've come to see as a brilliant way of changing the script and in turn altering our perception of those with disabilities. It's outlined beautifully on this website, "Disability is Natural". What I'm saying is sometimes we are uncomfortable about the use of a word because of underlying assumptions we are making about the group we want to defend. And examining these assumptions in ourselves is as important as demanding the word's demise in society.


  1. I think there's a simpler way of looking at this:
    "Retarded" literally means "backward" or "slowed down."
    That's an excellent way to describe the GOP. In fact THEY THEMSELVES self-apply the term "conservative" which has a pretty similar meaning (oriented toward the past.) As a "progressive" I have no problem attaching a value judgment to that way of thinking. It's a fair fight rhetorically.

    "Retarded" on the other hand is a poor way to describe people living with Down's Syndrome or other similar conditions because they are not "behind" on their way to somewhere else, they are simply living their lives with the abilities they have TODAY. So I propose for retarded= keep the negative connotation, surgically detach the meaning "people with learning disabilities." Sound ok?

  2. I definitely agree that it would be great to 'surgically detach' the word retarded from its current meaning of people with mental disabilities, the question is how. I don't think that retarded was really a bad word to describe people with mental disabilities, as it was referring to the delayed mental growth, but it took on a negative connotation because of our negative attitude towards those who were less intelligent than average. I think a great step towards that would be by using it in its original meaning. But because the word's meaning has changed at this point, you'd have to be completely clear in your use, as in "The GOP's plans are retarding the progress of health care initiatives" rather than "The GOP is retarded". You'd have to be really careful about using the word to talk about things you really disagree with, like the GOP, because people would think you meant retarded as in people with mental disabilities.

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  4. Sarah Palin is retarded, and her asking anyone if they have decency is retarted in itself.
    Does anyone realize the amount of money wasted every year supplying the aged people in congress with plastic underpants?
    How can someone in their high 80's on 90's even know what they had for breakfast let alone set policy and law?

  5. The problem with "people with X" style language is that we don't say "people with Spanish nationality" or even "people with African-American heritage". Doing that for people who are less intelligent than average is sending a message of pity.

    I'm not at least in the tradition sense of the word "retarded" but I have Asperger's and whenever I see anything smacking of pity towards me it annoys me. Not offended, just annoyed. My life is going fine, I desire it to be free of hyped up negative emotions. I ignore it when it happens, usually just roll my eyes, but it is annoying. I imagine there are people with Down's Syndrome and other things who feel just as annoyed by these "pity parties".

    Plus over the years it seems like society's perception of people with "mental disabilities" is normalizing. But the reason I say that isn't because of people not using the "r word", they're using it more than ever. When it used to just refer to "mental retardation" people like me will now say we are "part-retarded" or even just "retarded" or "socially retarded"(more accurate) and I have heard people with dyslexia use it too. By less stigmatized groups of people going under the umbrella with those with the condition of "mental retardation"(wordiness here isn't pity it's just that putting only "retarded" after I just explained how it is used differently might be a little confusing). Another indication is the increasingly prominent and approved of positions that characters with mental disabilities have in comedy. Examples: South Park, Futurama, Family Guy

    If I knew someone was literally retarded, IQ testing below 70 I would just see it as what it is. The person's level of skills and knowledge on the subjects tested for is low. I don't think that's automatically something to be pitied or a tragedy. What makes the things on an IQ test such as "mathematics" and "reading" so special that a reduced understanding for them is "pitied" but the inability to play an air guitar is not?

    I would get to know the person as an individual. I would not even make so-called positive assumptions about the person that people make out of pity and that they expect the person won't notice but oftentimes they do. Living with people acting that way towards you your whole often makes you more attuned to it, regardless of which intelligence or skills is low.

    "Pity" has real effects on people's lives. If you teach your child that their problem is "pitiful" they will not have the confidence to try to succeed. If a parent firmly believes their kid will live in at home or in an institution as an adult the kid will have very little chance of anything else. Not that even people in those situations are pitiful. They may still enjoy life, and may have a chance of improving out of there. People assume no cure=will always be a serious problem rather than "with work it can be managed to help the person live a happy life". Personally I think to literally "cure" a person's brain physiology amounts to "mind control".