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.

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