Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Careless Use of the Word 'Retarded'

'Hate Speech' is defined as speech that attacks or disparages a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, or appearance (the list goes on). The term applies to written as well as oral communication and some forms of behaviors in a public setting. Definitions can extend to patterns of harassment that are hostile or offensive.

For most Americans, hate speech has become unacceptably immoral, at least in public. Of course, not everyone feels this way. So various institutions have developed codes to limit or punish the use of words or phrases deemed to express hatred towards a group of people.

This blog entry is concerned with one particular example of 'hate speech' – insults made by calling someone 'retarded.' Years ago, I heard 'retarded' used as a juvenile barb between high-school students. Now I am hearing it used often by thoughtless adults!

A central aspect of any hate speech discussion is the degree of offense. What is acceptable varies depending on cultural and religious backgrounds and historical context. Some words have, through use, become symbolic of broader hatreds and are proscribed now due to their acquired weight of offense. Others are more or less objectionable depending on context. A joke about an individual (one that hinges on some distinction) can be considered hate speech if it offends someone with a staunch ideological stance.

I have an ideological stance. My younger daughter is retarded. She was born with Down's Syndrome, and although very intelligent, will never be as mentally developed as other 'normal' girls. To use the name of her disability as a slur is very offensive to me.

To be clear, certain words carry such negative connotations that to use them in public is taboo (i.e. 'nigger' or 'fag' or 'hymie'). 'Retarded' is not that kind of word. It has many perfectly good uses including the most common – a diagnostic term for a generalized disorder characterized by significantly impaired mental or physical development. Perhaps the word 'retarded' would be better grouped with expressions like 'gypsy' or 'redneck.' These words can be used in acceptable speech or as an insult by making an analogy to a negative stereotype. In such cases, gross prejudice and general hatred is indirectly implied.

Compare these two sentences:
1) "We don't want that gook moving onto our block."
2) "Man, you're as stingy as a scotsman."
In both cases a decent person would be offended. Both statements are callous and hateful. In the first, the speaker is discriminating directly against a person of Asian heritage. In the second, the speaker is using the word 'scotsman' to insult via a negative stereotype (indirectly). 'Gook' is malicious (and unacceptable) in every case whereas we might use the word 'scotsman' in another context without implying any animosity. 'Retarded' as an insult is almost always used in the second sense, as an analogy. By extension, the speaker is revealing a disdain for all retarded people.

It is the hateful use of words that becomes troublesome, and here lies the real problem. What defines hateful? If two golfing buddies standing on the 18th green jokingly call each other 'retarded,' is that hateful? Perhaps not directly hateful, but it is insensitive, mean-spirited, and a clear display of indirect disrespect towards a whole group of people – good people who have no control over their disability (or race, or gender, or age).

Scholars who study discrimination in society will often explain hateful behavior as being "based in ignorance." They note that in even the most benign situation people tend to respond in two way to others who are different than themselves (that is, people of whom they are ignorant). 1) They laugh and ridicule, or 2) the become angry and hateful. I am sure that the jokes, careless derision, and even contempt exposed by the inappropriate use of the word 'retarded' is fueled by misunderstanding and ignorance about the retarded community.

I will reserve my observations (and admiration) of the retarded people I know, their families, teachers, and caregivers for another blog.

The United States federal government and state governments are broadly forbidden by the First Amendment of the Constitution from restricting speech (subject to a few recognized exceptions). I feel that free speech takes precedence over restrictions meant to limit verbal insults. But good citizenship and human decency trumps free speech when it comes to the use of pejorative labels that disparage and ridicule.

1 comment:

  1. Just makes me think about ways I may unknowingly speak some times.