March 24, 2012

Post-ASB Pt. 1: Mental Retardation, “End the I-Word,” and the Folly of Political Correctness

Warning: The blog post below contains an expectedly unpopular opinion. Feel free to comment.

Hello readers! It has been exactly one week since my Alternative School Break ended, and I must say it was an extremely illuminating experience. I learned a lot over that week, not only about individuals with mental disabilities, but about myself and my values. Before I go into my experiences during the trip, I think it’s of importance that I blog about a problem I had during our pre-service ASB event: “End the ‘R-Word’ Day”.

On Wednesday, March 7, Lafayette’s Best Buddies program co-sponsored “End the ‘R-Word’ Day” with the Landis Center and Kaleidoscope. The event’s description on the Lafayette College Calendar of Events reads as follows:

“Recently, there has been an increase in the use of the word, ‘retard(ed).’ It is commonly used as a derogatory term to mean ‘stupid.’ This event is an opportunity for people to voice their disappointment with the inappropriate use of this term, in hopes to educate people to better understand what they are really saying, in hopes that they will use it less.”

Commendable, no? I certainly think so. Using the word “retarded” in a derogatory way is offensive to many people, in the same manner as the word “gay”.

However, I take issue with one aspect of the event for two reasons: methodology and realism.

In terms of methodology, the speakers in the event made what I believe to be a mistake that detracted from the overall presentation.

I’m speaking of the complete refusal to use the word “retarded”. Event leader Evan Gooberman (who I consider to be a good acquaintance and a man that I have the utmost respect for) was the primary offender in this respect. Throughout his time at the podium, Evan repeatedly substituted “r-word” in place of “retarded,” a choice that granted even more power to the derogatory usage of the term. The word “retarded,” when used correctly, is not offensive–it is a diagnosis of a condition that the health section of The New York Times describes as “below-average general intellectual function, and a lack of the skills necessary for daily living.” Why would a description of an individual’s state of being be considered offensive? By using “r-word” instead of “retarded,” Evan was making the implication that the word itself, as a diagnosis, is offensive and should not be used, an idea that I completely disagree with.

I’ve had this discussion with many people since that day, and one consistent rebuttal is that the word itself is directly correlated to the derogatory term, and instead of “retarded,” “mentally challenged” should be used in its place. To which I have two responses:

1) The terms “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” used to be official terms describing individuals with varying levels of mental retardation. The official designations were changed in the 1960s to “severe,” “moderate,” and “mild” forms of “mental retardation” (respectively). Today, those terms have entered the popular lexicon as terms used to describe foolish people, and we face the same shift with the word “retarded.” Can you imagine a 1960s-era Lafayette protest centered around an “End the ‘I-Word’ Day”? Seems preposterous.

What this proves is that the derogatory use of the word “retard(ed)” will not go away, no matter what we change the official diagnosis to. This is a point backed up by my next rebuttal:

2) People are already starting to use “mentally challenged” in a derogatory way. Namely, the middle schoolers and freshmen in high school. Having a 14-year-old brother means I’m exposed to a lot of stupid things that I’m sure my friends and I did back then, but one thing I found interesting was how they teased each other. Let me give you a situation:

I’m at Walmart with my brother Jacob and his friends shopping for Super Bowl snacks. They’re goofing off as usual, displaying antics that I now find annoying and juvenile but certainly would have found hilarious 5 years ago. For example, Jacob’s friend Matt will at random times let loose a high-pitched shriek, invoking images of pterodactyls. It’s annoying as all hell, but they find it hilarious. After a fit of laughter following a shriek (inside the Walmart, mind you), Jacob’s other friend Mike wiped a tear from his eye and said:

an accurate depiction of high school freshman boys

“Dude, (teehee)…you’re freaking mentally challenged.”

The point of this story being that changing the “politically correct” term DOES NOT remove these connotations, no matter how many times you change them! “Special,” “retarded,” “mentally challenged”…the political correctness is an uphill battle. What’s next? Actually, I think I know. One of my very good friends, who attends Villanova, has a friend who is trying to push the term “differently-abled” to describe people with disabilities.

“Differently-abled.”

It seems like great satire, but I swear to the Lord above that she’s for real.

To summarize, trying to completely “end the R-Word” is a lesson in futility. While you may do so much as to change the official diagnosis to such politically correct terms as “mentally challenged”, it will never be enough to stop people from using it in a derogatory fashion, if only because of what the terms actually mean. We cannot change the fact that these individuals are of subaverage intellectual or physical abilities, and we can’t fully control the middle schooler’s insistence on using these terms in a derogatory fashion.

Don’t misunderstand my intentions in this blog post. I fully respect and encourage the initial intent behind the event, but that particular aspect of “end the R-Word Day” only reinforced the aforementioned ideas for me. I support the idea that we as a community should stop using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion. But being offended by the diagnostic term itself is going a step too far…changing the medical diagnosis itself in an attempt to be more politically correct is a pointless endeavor that will, like the Hydra, be replaced by other terms that will be used in a hurtful and ignorant way.

UPDATE: To further attempt to elucidate my point and to avoid any misreadings/misunderstandings, I would like to repeat the following:

I believe that using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion is hurtful and offensive. However, I believe the problem lies in the context in which people use the word, NOT the word itself. That was the main focus of “End the R-Word Day”–respecting those individuals enough to not use the word retarded in that way, and the event was extraordinary in that respect. This is in no way intended to detract from anything the event accomplished and/or stood for, and I believe that that is clear when you read the article at face value. 

I merely disagree with the notion that the word “retarded” is the source of the problem. To address the problem with derogatory usage of “retarded,” we should confront the people. Not the word.

I know that this opinion will be met with some opposition, and I invite anybody who wants to provide an alternative opinion to comment below. Don’t blow up my Facebook this time.

I hope this blog post has at least encouraged you to keep an open and always-questioning mind about these topics, and I wish everyone the best. Excelsior.

posted in Mick Kowaleski

6 Comments

  1. I understand the point of view that this blog is taking, and it’s a concept that I have also struggled with, but at the end of the day, it is a very negative viewpoint and not at all constructive. The purpose of ‘End the R-word day’ is to bring awareness to our everyday speech. Yes, its particular focus is to end the use the word ‘retarded’ in a negative connotation and as an insult, but the theme of the event can be expanded widely beyond this one issue. I would have hoped that the takeaway message from this event is that words have influence, and speech can be powerful – either positively or negatively. Speech that can degrade an entire group of people just in the way a word or two is used should be analyzed and changed.

    As I’m off-campus this semester, I was not able to attend the event. Therefore, I can’t comment on the methodology of the actual event, but I’d like to address more generally some of the issues brought up in this blog.

    It’s really disheartening that this issue is still seen as one of political correctness. Simply, it’s not. I have no problem with the word being used in its correct sense. I have used it to describe a close family member’s condition many times. It’s when I hear the word being used as an insult, as though ‘retardation’, being ‘intellectually or developmentally challenged’, or any other term one uses, is something shameful and wrong, that I become both angry and disappointed. IT’S ABOUT RESPECT. This does not only apply to the word ‘retarded’. ‘Gay’ was another word cited, and it’s a valid example. It’s grating to hear these terms used in a way that screams, “This group of people is shameful and less worthy than I am!” I don’t live in a utopian fantasy, but I do believe in the Golden Rule. This kind of negative speech works directly against this principle.

    Of course, I understand the history behind other words now in everyday usage – idiot, moron, dumb, etc. I agree that eliminating this type of speech is an uphill battle. It’s an issue with a long history of unsuccessful attempts of change. But its difficulty doesn’t make the fundamental issue any more acceptable. And an attitude of “well, it’s always been this way, so why try to change it?” is sad and contrary to the Lafayette “Cur non?” idea. The thing is, insulting a person based upon their ability or any other factor innate within them is about equivalent to using race as an insult. Our society, after many years of struggle, does not accept that, so why should the other be okay? It will take work, but change is possible. I am a firm believer of that.

    At the end of the day, it’s just about language. It’s stupid to spend so much time debating over it, right? Wrong. As I said at the beginning, language is powerful. Anyone who’s been bullied on the playground or taunted during those terrible middle school years knows the power that words can have. Using the ‘r-word’ or the like is a continuous taunt, coming from all sides. So yes. It’s an uphill battle. Yes, sometimes it can feel futile. But doing nothing against a clear wrong is even more ‘ridiculous’ than trying to induce change. It needs to start somewhere. Why not here?

    says Christina C.
    March 24, 2012 at 8:25 pm
  2. Personally, I feel that the issue at hand is that using the word “retarded” in this manner is extremely offensive, not so much for the people who are derogatorily described as such as for the group of people for whom this term is politically correct. When this word is used in a derogatory manner to insult someone, by definition the speaker considers this word or this condition shameful and beneath the conditions of a normal person. That’s where the problem really lies. Every time this word is used “politically incorrectly”, it is a huge insult to the people who actually are mentally challenged.

    Political correctness will never be 100% achieved, because the meanings and connotations of words are always shifting, as your own example of the words idiot, moron, and imbecile indicated, but does that mean we should give up? By that logic, since racial prejudice and segregation will never completely disappear, were the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and all of the fight for equality we had in the past all in vain? Christina makes a good point here. As a student of Lafayette, whose motto is “Cur Non”, this is not the kind of attitude that we should embrace. At the same time, it is definitely about respect. Even more so, I’d say, than political correctness.

    says Max
    March 25, 2012 at 1:56 pm
  3. Thanks for your comments! However, I think you guys are missing the point of the post. The point was NOT that we shouldn’t stop trying to stop derogatory uses of words like “retarded,” “gay,” etc. Let part of my conclusion speak for itself:

    “I support the idea that we as a community should stop using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion. But being offended by the diagnostic term itself is going a step too far…changing the medical diagnosis itself in an attempt to be more politically correct is a pointless endeavor…”

    So basically, I agree with everything that you’re saying. What I do not support is an attempt to change the diagnostic term from “retarded” to “mentally challenged,” “special,” or “differently abled.” That won’t solve anything.

    This discussion reminds me of something I read a while back. Basically, parents wanted teachers to stop using red ink to grade papers because red pens “can be seen as aggressive.” They called instead for teachers to grade in a more “neutral” color, like purple.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7374218/ns/us_news-education/t/parents-teachers-no-more-red-pencils/

    Hopefully, you see the problem. Red HAS negative connotations because it’s the symbol of failure. When you see a lot of red on a test you just got back, a feeling of dread instantly hits you because it means you got a lot wrong. THAT DOESN’T CHANGE BY SWITCHING COLORS. Students are always going to ascribe negative connotations to the chosen grading color, regardless of whether it’s purple or red. My Spanish professor grades in different colors, and for me, seeing that I got a C+ in purple doesn’t feel any better than seeing that I got a C+ in red.

    Now apply the same principle to the diagnosis of “mental retardation.” Those connotations are always going to be there. What we can do is address the derogatory use of the words, but attacking the words themselves is utterly pointless.

    How we do that is another discussion. I have my opinions (basically, LET IT GO…I’ve thought this out), but I feel like this is enough food for thought, at least for one post.

    says Mick Kowaleski
    March 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm
  4. We have a lot of good comments here, and I respect that everyone has really strong opinions. It’s great that we have an open forum for discussion here. My opinion however is that the author (who is a really great guy) missed the entire point of the “End the R day Rally”. I agree with him that in the medical world trying to stop people from using “retarded” might be futile. What ever. The point is nobody ever argued to the point at the rally. I was the the rally the entire time and the point of the rally, was not to challenge the medical meaning of the word. No one got up and said they were offended when the word was described in a medical instance. Where in the description of the rally, which you stated in your article, does it mention challenging the medical use of the word.

    “Recently, there has been an increase in the use of the word, ‘retard(ed).’ It is commonly used as a derogatory term to mean ‘stupid.’ This event is an opportunity for people to voice their disappointment with the inappropriate use of this term, in hopes to educate people to better understand what they are really saying, in hopes that they will use it less.”

    No where.

    This was an event aimed at EDUCATING people about the meaning of the word and having feelings expressed about it. You say above that “I support the idea that we as a community should stop using the word “retarded” in a derogatory fashion”. Well that was the exact purpose of the rally. Maybe there were hints you somehow picked up on, but if you attended the rally I doubt any one came out saying that we need to get rid of the medical definition. I appreciate that you feel so strongly on this topic, but I do not appreciate you taking an event aimed at stopping the use of a derogatory term (not medical) and using an argument that had nothing to do with the Rally to take away from the rally’s effectiveness (Quote from above, “To summarize, trying to “end the R-Word” is a lesson in futility”) So basically you thought the event was pointless.

    I also have a problem with this statement,

    “(side-note: the speakers at the event claimed that the event was not about political correctness, but about “respect“…I fail to see the accuracy of this point). We cannot change the fact that these individuals are of subaverage intellectual or physical abilities, and we can’t fully control the middle schooler’s insistence on using these terms in a derogatory fashion.”

    You are right, we cannot change the fact that these people have mental disabilities. So are you suggesting that we not give them respect. The talk discussed how we need to respect these people (again something that was emphasized during the rally that you failed to acknowledge). Having respect for people who are “retarded” is completely different from whether or not they have the same amount of intelligence as you do. Respect is something that everyone deserves a chance to have.

    Basically I understand what you are arguing, you just don’t understand that it is disrespectful to look at a positive event that was aimed at helping eliminate a derogatory term. Why you decided to focus on an aspect that was not even present at the event. You simply missed the point of the rally. If you want to discuss political correctness then do it, just don’t do it by attacking an event that was not ment to try to change political correctness, but was just simply trying to raise awareness.

    I believe in your freedom of speech, it just disappoints me that you decided to focus on a great event to express yourself.

    says Matt McKenzie
    March 26, 2012 at 11:08 pm
  5. Please. Please read the blog post. Nowhere do I even claim that that was the intent of the event. Nor do I claim that this wasn’t a great event. Please read the following excerpt, after which I COMMENDED the event:

    “…the speakers in the event made what I believe to be a mistake that detracted from the overall presentation.
    I’m speaking of the complete refusal to use the word ‘retarded’…”

    I used this as a jumping off point, a vehicle for me to address an issue that I take with this whole situation. Not as a way for me to attack the event. I praise it repeatedly, as a matter of fact. If you don’t believe me, or don’t feel like reading the blog post all the way through (again), I can copy and paste several other excerpts.

    NEVER do I claim that retarded individuals don’t deserve respect. NEVER do I attack the event as a whole. I criticized one aspect, and if you can’t make the separation…well, color me disappointed. Apologies for having the gall to criticize a Community Service-centered event…taking issue with parts of a well-intended event is always “disrespectful,” as you put it? To be honest, I feel that that is not true at all, and I’m a bit insulted. I believe that you can take issue with many things, and I’m sorry for pointing out a flaw as I saw it. I regret your disagreement.

    Please don’t make unfounded accusations without evidence.

    says Mick Kowaleski
    March 26, 2012 at 11:25 pm
  6. […] Post-ASB Pt. 1: Mental Retardation, “End the I-Word,” and the Folly of Political Correct… […]

    says Writing Samples | Michael A. Kowaleski
    October 22, 2014 at 12:39 pm
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