Friday, November 8, 2013

Why the R-Word Sucks with guest blogger, Nidhip Mehta

This post is a culmination of spending years trying to convey my feelings.  You can read this year's r-word campaign posts here and here.  I have written at least 427 other posts on the subject over the last 14+ years, but I will spare you those.  This latest post came from hearing about Kat Von D and her lipstick line at Sephora.  Long story short, they collectively decided that naming a lipstick "Celebutard" was a hilarious idea.  

Celebutard - from the Urban Dictionary:  

A famous stupid person. Typically refers to the current crop of vapid celebrities.

Similar, but not exactly the same as Celebutante: 

A person of high society and wealth whose famous just for the fact of being rich and fabulous. A socialite who is "famous for being famous."

It seems that no one spotted the irony of a tattoo artist who is famous for having a reality show and for sleeping with Sandra Bullock's ex calling anyone out for being vapid, or famous for being famous.  But, whatever. You can read more about that here.  

Once the disability community got wind of it, it took about 24 hours of tweeting, sharing and public shaming to get Sephora to stop selling the offensively named shade.  It was a victory, but a hollow one.  I am glad that as a community we were able to mobilize and have our voices heard.  I am troubled by the fact that it's a battle we have to keep waging.  

Here's another great post from a friend, here.

In the midst of the fracas, a good friend of mine, Nidhip, decided to play Devil's advocate.  He posed a few, well thought out questions asking why the r-word is so offensive.  He got quite an eye/ear full from me on the subject. We had a little back and forth with no real resolution, just a lot of anger, hurt and frustration on my side.  Again, I was getting nowhere and with someone who liked me and actually cared about my feelings!  How was I ever going to get the point across to anyone else?  

I went to bed fuming and in the morning I realized that getting upset was getting me exactly nowhere.  To top it all off, I was going to quite possibly lose an old friend in the process.  I did a little soul searching and then I wrote a note to Nidhip that said:  

Hey. good morning! First of all, thanks for getting me so riled up last night, it made me really think about things. Second, sorry about telling you to get off your high horse. I have an equally tall one and don't like to have it pointed out to me. Anyway, I was thinking that this conversation is a good one. I want people to understand where I am coming from, but it is very hard if you are not in the same situation. It's frustrating, to say the least. From the outside, you might see it as a debate over a word (which, in the scheme of things, seems inconsequential) but for me and many others, it's a fight for inclusion, for dignity, for justice and for civil and human rights. The word merely is a reminder of how far we still need to go in these areas.
I'd really like to write some more about it. I know I won't convince everyone, or maybe even you, but I would like to try and engage in healthy debate. As you can tell, debate is not easy for me. Arguing is fine if I don't truly care about the answer, but when I do...oh boy. I am all emotion. I know logically that a word should not hold so much weight, but emotionally, it does, it really does.
I'd like to try and work through this some more. Would you be okay with me putting your questions in a blog post and answering them? Or would you want to write something different? Or go back and forth? I think it could be a really good thing. If you don't want to add anymore, I understand, but if you would allow me to use your questions, I'd be grateful. Think about it.
And being the good guy that he is, he said this:
Hey, first of all, I just want to say I'm sorry again. I know with hindsight, you're thanking me, but I really should've gauged the situation better before opening up something which clearly has an emotional resonance. You're right, I tried to intellectualize something which, at its heart, is emotional. But I honestly think that it helps to do that when you're trying to create awareness or change minds. Which is why I was getting at you for simply saying that it shouldn't happen because it makes people angry. As you know, progressive thinkers like us do a lot of things that make other people angry, but that shouldn't stop us from doing it. Like wanting that anybody can marry anybody else, regardless of what the Bible says. That sure makes a ton of people angry, but I'm gonna go on wanting it.
Anyway, like I said last night, my questions came from a point of inquiry, not argument. I genuinely wanted to hear your point of view and well... I got it, I guess.
Sure, I'd be okay with my questions in your blog... after all, that was my point in bringing it up... to initiate discussion. But I really don't want to get anyone upset, let alone you. You are a great person and I admire you a great deal, but I want to respect your limits and tolerance as well.
And thanks for reaching out to me this morning. I really felt bad about upsetting you and regretted bringing it up. I admire that you're willing to put that aside and engage me again. That says a lot about you.
So, here is Nidhip's query. I will break it into parts in order to address different pieces of the issue; but first, here it is in it's entirety:

Ok, so my question is essentially this:
I sympathize with the feeling of being offended by a word or phrase. Ever since I learned that the R-word is offensive to some (particularly to those who have family members that are intellectually disabled), I stopped using it. I don't even use it when those people are not around, and I try to remind others when they use it. Also, I understand the negative connotation when the word is used to describe someone with Downs Syndrome or autism spectrum. It's really not appropriate, and it's not such a big thing to simply use another word.
What I don't completely understand is when the word is used outside of that context; when the intent has been changed from the original meaning. This happens in language. It happened with the words "moron" or "idiot" or "stupid", which were all used at one point as clinical descriptions of people with intellectual disabilities. These days, no one bats an eye or hesitates to use these words. Heck, even people who have family or friends with intellectual disabilities use these words, which a century ago had the same meaning and connotation as the R-word.
Is it not possible to divorce the word from its meaning? Can the perception of those who use the word be more nuanced? Shouldn't there be a distinction between those who use the word offensively and those who do not mean offense?
I'm not exactly saying that people should simply ignore it when people use the R-word, but that perhaps they should react in accordance with the intent in which the word was used, and not simply react from pure emotion.
I also think that in order to make people better understand why they should not use the R-word, the reason given should be more than "it makes me angry" or "you'll never understand unless it happens to you". I think these don't help the cause, primarily because unless the person involved is a friend or relative, no one really cares whether something they say makes some anonymous person angry. I believe in many things that make people angry, like feeling that gays should be able to marry or that all people should have access to affordable (or free) health care. The fact that this makes some people angry does not bother me in the least; it's a fundamental disagreement. So, I guess that in order to better understand the issue, I'd prefer to see a more intellectual rationalization for not using the word, as opposed to an emotional one.
Of course, what I prefer doesn't always matter. There may not be, after all, an intellectual rationalization. Maybe it should suffice that enough people (whatever that critical mass is) find it offensive. But the intellectual part of me wants to know where to draw the line, because it seems very fuzzy and, to be honest, hypocritical. Especially when I see the words "moron" and "stupid" being used all the time. I don't know, perhaps it simply has to do with the amount time that passes for a word to fully change its meaning. It's difficult to parse, unfortunately.
Again, I want to reiterate that if the word offends people who I like and admire and want to stay friends with, that's good enough for me. But it may not be good enough for everyone.

My response: 

I think there are essentially three parts to this:

  1. Is it not possible to divorce the word from its meaning, in the way idiot and moron have lost their original clinical meanings?
  2. Shouldn't there be a distinction between those who use the word offensively and those who do not mean offense?
  3. Is there a way to intellectually rationalize why it is wrong?

Is it not possible to divorce the word from its meaning, in the way idiot and moron have lost their original clinical meanings?

First, some people are bothered by the words idiot and moron and imbecile because of their historical significance to people with intellectual disabilities. For myself, I feel that those words have evolved to a point that when someone says any one of them, a picture of a kid like mine does not pop into their heads. I haven't seen any offensive memes using a picture of a kid with Down syndrome and the word "idiot"; but I have seen plenty with the word "retard". That makes them different, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe it's the role of social media that makes this word different (for me) from the rest. It certainly plays a part.
Secondly, I don't wish to drag up every old word used in reference to people with i/d. I feel they have run their course, history has moved on and so should we. The difference with "retard" is that it IS in common use these days and because of that, it keeps anyone who could be called "retarded" by a doctor (even though it is going away in the medical field) apart from everyone else. It makes them the "other", not like us, not worth worrying about offending, maybe, not even quite human.
Thirdly, though I could wait for this word to become innocuous, I don't want to. I want to stand up now and say that it matters to me and it matters to my family and many, many families like mine.  Why should my kid, who has been called a retard more times than I can count, have to hear that word in any form (including added "tard" to the end of other words)?  

Shouldn't there be a distinction between those who use the word offensively and those who do not mean offense?
Why should the offender (even if it was not meant to offend) get away with impunity?  I see it as a matter of simple humanity.  Most people don't want to hurt people's feelings, even people they don't know.  I think educating those who truly don't realize that their words are hurtful is important.  It's not about getting angry (Nidhip:  you seem to only see my anger and not my hurt.  I'm wondering why?), though I do get angry about it.  When someone uses the word "retard" and I am in earshot, more often than not, I use it as a teachable moment.  I avoid calling people out in public unless they are being blatantly disrespectful, but I typically pull them aside later on and say something to the effect of "this is a hurtful word, I know you didn't mean it to be, but it is" and nine times out of ten, they are apologetic.  Some (many) still use the word, but at least I have planted the seed.  If they hear my voice in their heads the next time they say it, it might not feel as satisfying and hopefully, they will re-think it.

The reason I brought up being hurt versus being angry is that it is much easier (I think) to dismiss anger than it is to dismiss hurt.  People get angry for all sorts of reasons (as Nidhip brought up) that I don't agree with.  Frankly, I think much of their anger is misplaced.  But hurt?  I don't want to hurt people or be hurt.  Knowing that the r-word can be hurtful should be enough.

While there is a difference between being deliberately hurtful (Hey, Retard!) and being unintentionally hurtful (That's so retarded!), the word still hurts.  It is associated with being bad, stupid, ugly and foolish AND it may be a part of a doctor's report; therefore making it a part of a person with a diagnosis.  Would you want any part of what makes you YOU be a slur? 

Is there a way to intellectually rationalize why it is wrong?

I've said that to disability advocates, this is the N-word. Do we use the N-word in any form?  No.  Because most reasonable people get that any form of it is degrading and wrong.  They wouldn't dream of saying "oh my god, you are such a nigger" to a friend who's acting silly.  But, "you're such a retard"  is fine.  Why?  What is the difference?  

The only difference I see is that blacks have had (and in many cases, still need) their civil rights movement, while the civil rights movement for the disabled is still in it's infancy.  You would be horrified if a school refused to accept a child because they were black today; but every day, schools refuse to accept children who learn differently, many without even giving them the chance to show that they can adapt in a mainstream classroom.

This happens today.  

Yes, kids with i/d learn differently than other kids.  And typical kids learn differently from each other.  With creativity, love and support, everyone wins and everyone learns more.  There is no excuse to leave some kids behind for any reason, whether it is sex (in some parts of the world, girls are still under-educated), race (hello?  American south in the 1960's?), or ability (today, all over the world).

My intellectual rationalization would be that the r-word keeps people with intellectual disabilities separate from the rest of society the same way the n-word kept black people separated from society.  Both words say "you are different, you are not worthy, you are not accepted".  If you look at the history of the civil rights movement, you will see that many of the things that were done to black people are still being done to those with developmental disabilities.  The only real difference is that not many have yet noticed that the disabled, as a group, are calling for their rights as human beings to be recognized.  Like African American, women and gay people before them, people with disabilities are calling for equal treatment.  Eliminating slurs against them must be a part of that movement.


  1. For me, the core issue is that it is OK to use a persons intellect (or perceived lack of) as an insult. When ppl don't like another opinion or think something is "bad", we label it with words that connote stupidity, when often, that is a completely inaccurate description. I don't make fun of people who are good at math if I'm good at math. I don't make fun of short people if I'm tall. It is just wrong. For me the usage of the word shows our ableism. The usageis offensive and the attitude is offensive, IMO. Maybe our children will grow to reclaim that word, and that's their right. But it isn't for me to excuse it now. Now, usage of that word does affirmative harm so I speak against it.

    1. Where as I totally make fun of people who are good at math...because I'm jealous. ;) Thanks, Jisun!

  2. Amy, as you know, I am one of those people who cringes every time I hear "idiot" or "moron" or "imbecile" - especially when it comes from a parent of a child with an I/D. Those words have their roots in how intellectual disability was once clinically described, and so, when it's used today, on some level, it is still a sucker punch to the disabled. In all honesty, too, I've questioned the wisdom of removing "retarded" as a clinical descriptor merely because language and slurs do evolve, and over time, I think that people will continue to use "retard" and "retarded" as casual slurs and insults but they will be able to say the same thing we now say about "idiot," "moron," and "imbecile," and that is: it's not a clinical term anymore, so what's the problem? In ten or twenty years, I have no doubt, too, that people will be slinging around the terms "intellectually disabled" or whatever is now acceptable as a slur (as in, "What, are you intellectually disabled or something? Ha ha ha!").

    I speak out against the use of the r-word as much as anyone else. It gets me riled and it causes me pain. Because it IS a slam against people with disabilities - period. When someone says, "That's so retarded," they can claim that they "didn't mean it like THAT" or that they weren't referring to someone with a disability, but the term, by its usage, means, "That's so useless/ridiculous/stupid/pointless/whatever that it's like an actual retarded person." You just can't argue that fundamental meaning away.

    But, yeah, what it's really about is attitudes and perceptions about people with disabilities. The slurs and insults and marginalization are not going to go away - they'll only continue to evolve - until compassion and acceptance of diversity happens on a global level.

    Although your friend does a good job of trying to intellectualize the argument, I'm having trouble seeing how he really can't see that it's a slur, pure and simple. It's a put-down of people with intellectual disabilities. Any casual use of "retard," "retarded," or any clever made-up word with "tard" tacked onto the end is a means of making a comparison to people with intellectual disabilities. And it's just fucking mean.

  3. I know how you feel about those words, Lisa. I really just don't see them the same. Like I said, I've seen plenty of memes with the word "retard" and none with the words "idiot" or "moron"; it just doesn't feel the same to me. But, I know we are on the same page for the most part. It's time people with disabilities had their civil rights movement. Thanks for commenting!