Recent discussions are a good occasion for me to write this post, which has been on my mind and in scribbled notes on my desk for more than a year. Those discussions surround Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s decision to describe his opponents in a strategy session as “f—— retarded.” Denunciations from the Special Olympics and other organizations were ignored until days ago, when Sarah Palin weighed in with her rebuke. He has subsequently apologized.
Even among conservatives and others who oppose Rahm Emanuel, the consensus is that Sarah Palin’s facebook post was a political maneuver–whether foolish or inspired–and nothing more. According to Ann Althouse, “This is a good place for Palin to posture, but, seriously, I think that anyone who takes this trumped-up offense seriously is… pretty silly.”
I do not believe this is a trumped-up offense or silly. The outrage Sarah Palin expressed was just what I have felt when Al Gore talked about the “extra-chromosome right wing,” and when a cruel but anonymous person coined, “even if you win, you’re still retarded.” I’m not a stickler for people-first language, and I don’t need “Congressional legislation that would remove the word [retarded] from federal law.”
But Gov. Palin’s words ring true to me, because they could easily have been mine. I, too, am a family member of a person with Down syndrome. “Retarded” and similar epithets offend me on at least three levels.
Making Light of a Real Tragedy
First-graders–in the depths of their human depravity and the heights of their childish creativity–call one another babies. This comparison is insulting because the classmate is not, in fact, a baby. The insulted child, and sometimes his mother, is enraged.
But have you noticed who is not enraged? Where are the advocates defending all those insulted babies? Something like, “on behalf of my two-month-old, I am upset to hear him compared to playground weaklings…”
I bet none of you parents have ever made such a response, even in the throes of irrational emotion. I bet there has never been any irrational emotion stirred up by this epithet (unless you are the mother of the insulted six-year-old.) Babyhood is a natural state of affairs, a good one, and a temporary one. No one is grieved because their son or daughter was born as a baby.
Not so with “retarded.” When I hear the word “retarded” bandied about I always react emotionally, though I seldom say anything. On one recent occasion, I was with some dear friends I have known for years. Their nine-year-old called his younger brother whom I will call Daniel, “retarded.” It was said teasingly, without cruelty; he might as well have said “goofball” in context. But my internal reaction was immediate and intense.
“No,” I thought, “Daniel is not retarded, Mary is. Don’t you understand that? Do you know how many hours we’ve put into fighting ‘retarded’ and how hard she’s worked and how far she’s come and all she’s accomplished and all she hasn’t accomplished and how much we love her and that in twenty years we might lose it all? ‘Retarded’ is Mary’s personal cage. She paces it’s perimeter, chafing at her limitations while her family stands outside and tries to break her out. Don’t you make light of our tragedy! Your brother is perfectly fine.”
Just as you would not mock cancer, or the loss of a limb, so you should appreciate the gravity of “retarded.”
Equating Willful Stupidity or Moral Failure with True Disability
Nobody mocks a baby for acting like a baby. It’s not the baby’s fault. But if a six-year-old acts like a baby, his immaturity is mocked because he isn’t one.
Most people would agree that it would be cruel to mock a retarded person for acting retarded. He can’t help it. It isn’t his fault. His incompetence is innocent.
But sometimes people of perfectly normal intelligence do the most ridiculous things. Proverbs calls these people “fools.” It is our human urge to call them out for their willful stupidity. Our drive to berate them as vividly as possible contributes to the euphemism treadmill.
When I hear the word moron (which used to be a technical, clinical term), it does not bother me. I know that moron no longer gives the hearer a mental image of someone with Down syndrome. It means “willfully stupid” or “fool.” “Retarded,” on the other hand, still creates that image of a person with Down syndrome.
The willfully stupid deserve to be castigated. But the truly retarded do not. Those two things should not be equated. When you vividly link my sister’s disability with the flagrant irresponsibility of your enemies, you are dragging her along through their mud.
Vividness is not always bad; it is a tool. It increases the impact of your rebuke. It can help you make the point: “You aren’t using the brains God gave you.” So if you insist on saying, for example, “You are acting like you are retarded [when you're not].” I won’t complain. Much.
This is a good time to mention, it is not about the word. It’s about talking as if the mentally disabled are sub-human.
“Mouthbreather” is another example of that reach for a vivid comparison. Mouth breathing is part of the common cluster of symptoms that come with cognitive disability. Kids with Down syndrome struggle with chronic sinus infections which lead to a cascade of further medical problems. Mouth breathing is part of that cascade which leads to a vicious cycle that we, and other families, have fought for years. A quick search shows that this term is a favorite insult in the comment sections of blogs on both both sides of the political spectrum.
Do you really mean to link this depravity to my sister’s disability as if it’s an obvious thing, as if of course people like Mary are always acting like that?
I linked the post above, even though it is several years old, because it was the first time I had seen this term used in the blogosphere, and it stunned me enough to make it memorable. But I know the author does not intend to dehumanize people with disabilities. Even if I didn’t know disability is a part of his personal life, this post reassures me that he and I are on the same page about those who do dehumanize the disabled. Few people know anything about mouth breathing, and it is all too easy to use a word without knowing where it comes from.
But sometimes there is no accident. Sometimes it’s clear from the context that a person is displaying a vicious disdain, in it’s purest and ugliest form, for the cognitively disabled.
Contextualizing “Retarded” Amidst Obscenities
As always, context is king. In an unguarded moment, Emanuel placed “retarded” beside a vile obscenity, where he thinks it belongs. I’m sure that he holds my sister and people like her in utter contempt.
There is really nothing more to be said.