Retard: Slur vs. context

The following blog may contain language some readers may find offensive. Since the use and examination of this language is the very foundation of the post, its inclusion is necessary; however, it is in no way used by this blogger with any malice or hate. Reader discretion is advised.

Saw an interesting PSA the other night that may or may not have been seen by most of the viewing public–the content alone would give the FCC the vapors. The basic script was “It’s not OK to call me a….”, and several people were shown to highlight the given slur: a black man for “nigger,” a Hispanic woman (or Latina? That’s another bit of language I need more education on) for “spic,” a young Chinese woman for “chink,” a young white male (that’s the actor that was used) for “fag,” and an elderly white (and presumably Jewish) man for “kike.” From there we go to the set of Glee with actresses Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter. Jane, of course, is widely known even to non-Gleeks as Coach Sue Sylvester; Lauren plays Becky, a young cheerleader who, just as Lauren does in real life, has Down’s Syndrome. It is at this point where Lauren says (paraphrasing), “…and it’s not OK to call me a retard, or joke with your friends about them acting retarded.” The PSA ends with Jane saying a few words about acknowledging the R word as hate speech and eradicating it from our vocabulary.

I am definitely behind the sentiment of the PSA–hate speech is unproductive and unnecessary. Personally I am an avid student of words–spent a lot of my youth actively reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia. I grew up in a house of educators, which naturally meant both were readily available, particular the large, hernia-producing unabridged dictionary often seen in libraries. (An an aside, I find it interesting that unabridged dictionary are so hard to come by with retail book sellers nowadays.) I can’t say that the prospect of being called a nigger warms the cockles of my heart, but I do remember the day in seventh grade where most of sting got taken out of the word. I actually looked up the word in the unabridged dictionary and the definition was for a machine, similar to a cotton gin (I believe). There was no mention of it describing a Black person. (Don’t even get me started on African-American.) One of my classmates said it best: “A nigger is a machine; a machine is a nigger. I am a human being.” Worked for me.

So I find myself at an odd position with this PSA’s slant: while I applaud uplifting people who happen to have mental conditions and challenges and consciously refraining from calling them retards, eliminating “retard” and “retarded” might be a little more problematic. Retard, as a verb, is defined “to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.” By extension, retarded bears a definition of limited, as in stunted of stalled. I remember someone being vilified for saying that they were socially retarded, which befits the above definition: being hindered, impeded or limited with respect to social abilities. Retard is also the root for retardant, which anyone who buy any textiles (specifically children’s clothing) is familiar with that word’s presence on hundreds of labels ensuring resistance to burning, also known as flame-retardant.

So I suppose my point is this: retard carries a negative history with those with intellectual challenges, and the use of the term to insult, demean and degrade is not acceptable. Unfortunately, by its very definition it IS accurate. Through accidents of nature or physical injury, mental capacity is hindered or limited in some manner. It should not be a barricade to progression into a full and balanced life, as evidenced by many people who thrive independently that in past decades may have been institutionalized. However, I suppose it would be difficult to separate the textbook definition of the word from the malicious and ugly intent–hence the movement and the campaign to steer away from it. I guess I’ll continue to combine respect and education with common sense.

Bullying as an epidemic, part 4

As promised, a return to the focus on victim retaliation….

Inspired by an adult survivor of bullying and teasing, Shane Morasco (the bullied teen on One Life To Live I’ve been discussing all of these months) has talked his mom into letting him get a gym membership to strengthen his body (and ultimately his confidence). One of the bullies, a young smartass named Jack Manning whose character has inexplicably shifted from precocious and snarky to just outright mean, finds out from another bullying cohort that Shane is at the gym and decides to go in to further harass Shane. Now I’d like to back this up a little and recount a few things about the fallout that followed the discovery of the bullying, keeping in mind that it is the nature of soap operas to suspend a little disbelief and bend reality to suit their purposes and move plot. So the fact that after being punished by his mother and custodial parent with no cell phone, computer or online account plus being grounded from going anywhere but school and home, how this young man not only has a cell phone in his possession to get a phone call from the friend about Shane but also manages to successfully lie to his mother about going to the library to study (with her knowing exactly the kind of character her son has) just baffles me.  However, the writers had to get him to the gym somehow, so I’ll let it slide….

Prior to the latest confrontation, Shane gets yet another adult peer testimonial from the guy training him, who tells him about growing up a minority in a tough neighborhood and being into art.  He tells Shane that while training to defend himself is admirable, he should focus more on building strength and being able to choose conflict avoidance instead of fighting back.  Though the fighting back scenes are funny and pretty admirable, in my opinion–right on cue Jack comes in and starts teasing Shane about working out and using “baby weights.”  Shane, finally tired of the taunts, gets a good zinger back in on Jack and drops the dumbbell on Jack’s foot.  Now of course, retaliatory violence is not the answer, and as a responsible adult I should  probably not be doing the mental cheers and backflips at Shane’s actions.  But damned if that little pissant didn’t deserve a little catchback.  Even the little cohort laughed at Jack holding his foot and writhing in pain.

Of course this is going to lead to escalating tit for tat behavior, which as a model for real-life applications is not exactly the path we want to take if we want to find a positive and socially relevant avenue to resolve and eradicate the bullying problem.  I’ve even seen a few videos where the bullied kid gets revenge–one particular favorite of mine is when the shorter kid bullies a boy bigger than him in size and weight, then finds himself being bodyslammed onto the concrete. Now while answering a hit with a hit doesn’t solve anything, it was the impetus of many a lifelong friendships between boys (and some girls) of my generation.  Not only did the concrete face plant and embarrassing post-stagger on YouTube not elicit an apology from the smaller boy, he actually had the stones to make a response video indicating how not sorry he was for his behavior. This, I guess, is a textbook example of the contempt concept outlined by Barbara Coloroso (and mentioned in part 3 of this series)–this little pipsqueak feels superiority to fat kids, and thus sees neither the need to be apologetic nor does he see anything wrong with his behavior in the first place. (I realize my phrasing in the last sentence can be seen as inflammatory or insulting–this was intentional on my part.  The phrasing, that is–not the insult. Find and watch the video–it’s an accurate description.)

As predicted, Jack nurses his grudge against Shane along with his foot and devises yet another plan to entrap him–he poses as a teenage girl who is a comic book fan that takes an “interest” in Shane. The intent is to string Shane along and eventually lure him out to an abandoned basement with a fake party invite, hoping Shane will be frightened and cry (and possibly have an asthma attack from the amount of dust and cobwebs present) from being locked inside. The problem is that Shane catches on that the “girl” isn’t real and is Jack trying to trick him, and then Shane’s mother Gigi finds out about it. Gigi, already incensed about the way her kid has been treated, has already refused Jack service at the diner where she works…and now that she knows about this latest stunt she goes off to the “party,” loaded for bear. Of course, in true high-drama soap opera fashion, she gets mistaken (thanks to a raincoat left in the car) for Shane and shoved into a room in the basement, where the kids jam a chair under the doorknob and lock her in. Outside, Jack has a slight twinge of conscience about leaving “Shane” locked up, but his friends talk him into leaving him there longer–one (naturally, a smaller boy) even taunting Jack with the nickname “Gimpy” to squash his compassion and get him to agree. Gigi tries to be resourceful; when efforts to pick the door latch open with a nail file fail and she finds no service on her cell phone, she discovers an old generator in the basement. She starts it up and finds a lamp to connect to it so she can better see how she can get out–not knowing at the time that it poses a serious danger of emitting carbon monoxide, particularly in small, enclosed spaces. And–you guessed it–nobody knows where she went.

I’d like to say this story will end well, but a) because it’s a soap opera and b) because I already read the plot synopsis so I could finish this blog, that is not to be. Storywise, the fallout resulting from this incident will resonate in many other plot circles, but I’m not sure how this will impact the strength of the bullying component. Parts of the story made great pains to emphasize that revenge and retaliation would not solve the situation and could make it worse, yet we have a grown woman admirably but foolishly taking action against the bullies who tormented her son. In a perfect world, we would want our kids to resolve their own conflicts and manage to form better relationships because of it–or barring that, be able to step in with reason and adult authority to guide them to such a solution. But not only does that utopia not exist, adults can operate with the same emotions their kids experience and want to seek retaliatory action. How do we manage to stop vindictive bullying, bolster self-confidence and self-esteem, erase the apathy and contempt that fuels this behavior and protect our kids–all while managing our own senses of self-control? It will be just as interesting to find the answers to these questions as it will be to see exactly how the presentation of this storyline will aid in our search.