Actually, my daughter *is* retarded, in the actual sense of the word. But that’s not what it sounds like I said, is it? Be honest. Culturally, we hear the above sentence as a degradation, as if I were saying something negative about my daughter.
Let’s face it: retarded no longer means developmentally delayed. Its meaning has been leached out by decades of schoolkid use as a playground put-down. And now the schoolkids have all grown up into hip 30-somethings, and ‘retarded’ is an arch stab at anyone we feel is beneath us — socially, culturally, mentally. You actually gain a certain nonchalant hipness with each use.
So then, think about what you’re actually saying when you use the word ‘retarded’ in this new context. That to be less intelligent is to be of less worth. Or more specifically, to be like the developmentally delayed is to be inherently degraded.
Which, if you know my daughter, should give you pause.
If ‘retarded’ just ‘slips out’ in your conversation, it’s because you haven’t done the work to excise it from your vocabulary. You *do* have control over what you say. If you mindlessly refer to people and things as retarded when they’re not, it’s because you’ve got a lazy mind.
Stop being lazy. Start being intellectually honest. If you want to degrade someone or something, use more exacting language. Stop referring to other people as if you thought my daughter was worthless.
Unless you *do* think that my daughter is worthless because she’s retarded. Do you?
Update: I want to respond publicly to some of the comments to this post.
1. it’s tough and embarrassing to get called out on this, because it usually slips out on automatic. but don’t avoid ‘retarded’ because you think z or i might hear you. avoid it because it’s wrong to degrade anyone by comparing them to the congenital qualities of another people group.
2. i’m *not* railing against the fluidity of language, which i totally understand. i’m not talking about preserving the meaning of the word ‘retarded.’ i’m talking, at the base level, about a kind of racism.
we aren’t using some sort of entirely new construct when we use this new meaning of ‘retarded.’ we’re explicitly referring to a negative stereotype of the mentally retarded and applying it to the object of our derision as a means of devaluing him or her (the object). and the mentally retarded aren’t deserving of stereotypical derision, in the same way that you aren’t deserving of derision because of the shade of your skin, the severity of your disease, the sound of your voice or the size of your head.
i wouldn’t call that ‘fluidity of language,’ i’d call it being mean. and being mean because you didn’t think about it is in some ways worse than being mean on purpose.
having said that, i agree that this kind of pervasive problem needs grace, the kind of grace that’s held in tension with truth. truth starts with a hard look at what’s really going on, which is kind of what i’m forcing here. but grace covers all. i don’t condemn anyone– no, sometimes i *do* condemn people for this, and get really angry, but then in truth i condemn myself too. and so really, we all need grace to get out of this kind of ingrained habitual bigotry. you. me. let’s get started.