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.