Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The R Word

There is a big campaign out there about the r-word. I haven't been at the forefront of the movement, although I do support it. I have posted before about how Language is Powerful and about the movie Tropic Thunder.

There's nothing wrong with the actual word, all by itself. "Retard" means to cause to move more slowly or operate at a slower rate. It's very descriptive. But it definitely has become a pejorative term in our society.

If not addressed, underlying prejudices will color any subsequent descriptive terms of choice with an unpleasant, negative association as they too begin to be used as insults. (In much the same way that in my lifetime I've seen a progression of words used to describe groups of people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.) But that doesn't mean that it's OK to keep using outdated terms once they've become passé.

And the word "retarded" has clearly passed that point. The Association for Retarded Citizens has renamed itself The Arc, formally removing the word "retarded" from its description and acknowledging overwhelmingly negative connotations with the word. The American Association on Mental Retardation changed its name a couple of years ago to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. And as for the clinically diagnostic use of the term "mentally retarded," well, that does still exist in the DSM-IV, though that document itself is significantly outdated, and many practitioners, evaluators, educators, and others who deal with people with developmental disabilities are very careful about using the loaded term.

Recently, I was involved in an discussion board thread about "the r word." The problem was that the thread wasn't supposed to be about the term, but the mom writing about her son used it several times.

A shorter copy of the original story was also posted on a blog I read, here. In short, a woman is going through an incredibly frustrating time trying to get her (undiagnosed) son the help he needs. Of a conversation with an evaluator, who has commented that the boy will have a hard time qualifying for a particular service because his cognitive score is normal, the mom writes, I, being pissed off and disinclined to be PC about the whole thing, said “Truly? You only serve r****d children?” To which she replied, “No, no, most of the children we serve are not r*****d at all! It’s just that by the time we get to them, they’ve been so neglected that they’re TESTING as r*****.”

The original post on the discussion board was uncensored, and in response I brought up my discomfort with use of the term in this way. A very interesting discussion ensued. I don't want to keep bumping a thread about a difficult situation for this woman and her family, but I do want to respond to a couple of issues the conversation raises, so I will do so here.

First, I think that calling hurtful language merely "not PC" belittles the complaint.

Second, I don't think that being angry justifies using hurtful language. Most of us slip up and say unpleasant things sometimes, but that doesn't mean that we should get a free pass.

Third, I think an apology that includes a "but" isn't much of an apology. Similarly, saying "I'm sorry for offending you" or even, "I'm sorry that you were hurt by what I said," is different from saying "I'm sorry that I said something hurtful and offensive." Because, in a situation like this, I am not personally hurt. I am not looking for a personal apology. I'm just raising awareness that this sort of language is hurtful and offensive to many in the community of people it describes. And, as such, it is unacceptable.

Fourth is the idea that intent matters, that if the speaker doesn't see a word as negative, then it's not. There's something to that, in that it's possible to be ignorant of changing standards. That's why people who know better should speak up and explain. Once we know better, we can and should be more thoughtful. In this case, however, the "intent" excuse doesn't really fly, if the anecdote is shared to demonstrate the evaluator's inappropriate usage of the term. The mom either knows that it's an inappropriate thing to say, in which case she shouldn't have said it, or she doesn't know, in which case the evaluator's parroting back of the term doesn't raise any red flags.

In this discussion, I was accused of wanting to "ride [my] "r"-word hobbyhorse," and just showing up to "give [the mom] a spanking."

I hope (clear and insightful writer) Kay Olson doesn't mind if I quote her, because I loved her response so much:
Language usage issues always look like they have popped up out of nowhere, but they never really do pop up out of nowhere -- they are there in every conversation until someone does exactly what Sarahlynn did here and make them part of the discussion. Then, predictably, as here, the person gets blasted for going off-topic or missing the point or tone of the conversation. The invisibleness of problematic language until someone has to make a stink to bring awareness to the use of that language is the whole problem.

Language usage issues like this are not a simple matter of "etiquette" and "courtesy," unless, of course, you are completely tuned out to the historical and ongoing oppression and prejudice they contribute to. It's not just "rude" to use the N-word or the C-word, and it would be dismissive to excuse that language as just rudeness and use of something that has "fallen out of fashion."

All that said, I appreciate your apology, [J's Mom], and apologize in return for seeming insensitive to your family's struggles. I hope this clarifies where I am coming from.


Amanda said...

I'm curious - how do you feel about the reclaimation of terms that had been offensive by the groups in question?

Topher said...

I've had conversations about this stuff with friends and more importantly my family. They have the school of thought that "they are just words, and you can choose to let them hurt you." I whole-heartedly disagree, and sometimes say, "Would you like it if someone said you were a [insert appropriate offensive word here]?" The answer is always no, and I always hope progress was made until the next time it comes up...

Orange said...

Can you add this one to your Passionate Posts sidebar? I may want to point people to it in the future.

flatflo said...

I deal with this issue, but with the "g"-word.

1. My sister is in a committed relationship with another woman.
2. Both she and her girlfriend are often house guests in our home when not teaching in NYC.
3. We host gaming almost every Sunday afternoon. (Read: guys somewhat lacking in social skills.)

Not long after we started to host gaming, I mentioned to the guys that I found their exclamations of "That's so g*y!" to be offensive, as my sister is gay, and to use it as a derogatory term was not acceptable in my home. Since that time I've had to curb one of the guys a couple of times. What really infuriated me is when this guy used the term when my sister was in the adjoining room. I still fume thinking about the incident, and would think about kicking him out if he did it again. As my sister flies into town in a week and a half, I think I'll bring up the topic again this weekend with the offender.

Sarahlynn said...

Orange, you betcha!

Topher, I hate stuff like that, and there are certain family members I avoid conversations with about, say, race for example. Friends I can choose not to be around anymore if they are so disrespectful, but family . . . it's a bit trickier. Whenever one of these topics does come up, though, I'm a bit of a pit bull. In lipstick, of course.

Flatflo, yeah, I hate that one, too. That's definitely a case where intent doesn't matter. I don't care if you weren't thinking specifically of someone gay when you said "that's so gay," you were using a word that refers to someone I love, and you were using it as an insult!

Amanda, I don't have any problem with that when it's a movement within a community. For example, I really enjoyed Inga Muscio's Cunt. For me, it really is all about intent, respect, and thoughtful use. There's debate within the African American community about use of the "n" word, but that doesn't make it OK for me to start using it with impunity, you know? I respect a group's right to self-define and to reclaim language as they see fit.

Kay Olson said...

Nicely put. (And you may call me "clear and insightful" anytime you want, really.) What I wrote there was a little bit fueled by always feeling like the person who wanders into a conversation and sidetracks it by mentioning language use -- this time you were doing it instead of me -- yay! Word choice is the leading edge of every civil rights movement, I think, because before people take action of any kind, they talk and reveal their preconceptions and societal prejudices. And the actions that are propelled by some words will be different from the actions propelled by other words. As far as I can tell, that latter mostly comes down to how deliberately inclusive your words (and then actions) are.

Anyway. Here's a post at Shakesville on reclamation that I think is very good.

Reflective said...

I have a co-worker who uses the "r"-word and won't listen to my explanations of why it is offensive. He also uses--as do many people I know in both the education world AND in the disability advocacy (that is, advocacy for people with disabilities) world--the word "SPED." All the time. In my high school, the insult wasn't "you're such a [r]" but simply to call someone a "SPED." As hard as I try, I cannot get him--or anyone else--to stop using it. Grumble.

Sarahlynn said...

Reflective, "sped" was the insult of choice at my (second) high school, too. (I'd never heard it before I moved there at the end of my sophomore year.) Imagine my surprise when I got involved with special education in Ellie's school district and learned that it's actually how the program refers to itself! It's like they've never heard the insult, so I don't mention it.

thistle said...

"Sped" is how the program here refers to itself as well.

Great post.

Sarahlynn said...

Kay, I am very guilty of contributing to that dynamic sometimes. I have occasionally read something and thought, hmm, I wonder what Kay will say about that rather than just speaking up my own damn self.

Thanks, Thistle. :)

Sarahlynn said...

Excellent article at Shakesville!

Stushie said...

It's a mean word. When I was growing up in Scotland, the word "spastic" was used in much the same way.

It's also like churches and Christians who use the word 'Progressive" to describe themselves - they're pigeon-holing those who don't as being regressive. it's insulting.

Jennifer said...

I commend you for raising awareness about language issues. People who are genuinly concerned for others really do benefit from this. You brought it to my attention, and I appreciated it because I hadn't really thought about what I was saying when I used the term "Down's kids". I do not use any language that is hurtful to groups of people and openly share these views and request that people in my home refrain from using hurtful language as well! It bothers me to hear the N word, R word or G word! Awareness is the only answer! Keep it up!!

Sarahlynn said...

Jennifer, to be fair, there are lots of people - even within the DS community - who will say "Down's kids." I prefer person-first language, so I request it here, but I don't think saying "Down's kids" is nearly as harmful as using a descriptive term as an insult. Also, thanks. :)

Stushie, "spastic" is a great example of a word I think a lot of people use without thinking of its meaning and who it might hurt. Thank you!

I disagree about "progressive" being in the same category, though. For one thing, it's not a direct insult, just an implied difference. (Technically, it's only saying something about the speaker, not others who don't fit the label.) Also, I consider myself liberal/progressive but I think of people who are politically more like you as being more "conservative" than regressive, more inclined to want to keep certain things as they are rather than embracing some changes I would like to see. I think it's more of a spectrum than an either/or scenario. But you've given me something to think about.

Stushie said...

Thanks Sarahlynn. BTW, I see myself as being "affirmative," not conservative, as in affirming Christ's teachings and the sacred scriptures.

Sarahlynn said...

"affirming Christ's teachings and the sacred scriptures"

Which implies that those who view things differently do not . . .

RobMonroe said...

I was actually (respectfully) called "very PC" last weekend by the parent of a middle schooler. I guess that my grandparents did something right in raising me because I have never ever been able to be disrespectful to others because of their abilities, race, gender, education, et cetera.

Thanks for posting, because sometimes it's hard to remember to think of others as people instead of as labels, which can so often lead to derrogatory labeling.

flatflo said...

I remember in my church as a kid that "Inclusive Language" was a hot topic. We adopted gender-neutral verbiage in our service where applicable and it while it was a bit jarring the first few times, after a while it just seemed natural. We can probably blame the English language for not having clear neutral pronouns and some antiquated terms like "mankind" but we blame ourselves if we fall back into using them.

I believe part of the push was when we started sponsoring a woman's homeless shelter, where many guests were victims of abuse by men. If all they hear of God is "Father" and Jesus came to save "mankind", would they feel comfortable, invited into the community? Some people do take this too far, but making subtle changes in the words we use is a simple way to open our arms to some of those that need it the most.