The R Word

The term “mentally retarded” was coined around 1895. Eventually it became the preferred euphemism to refer to people with various developmental and cognitive disabilities. It was used to replace the then-current clinical terms, which had gained wide use in the general culture as pejoratives. Those earlier terms? “Moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.”

Today, “retarded” is joining those terms, and for the same reason, called the euphemism treadmill. We have something that is perceived negatively by the general public, and so we develop terms to describe it. Those terms eventually take on connotations that denote the generally negative feelings, and so we develop new terms which lack those connotations, and the cycle begins anew.

And so we have it that “moron,” once a neutral term, is now a common epithet. “Cripple” gave way to “handicapped” gave way to “disabled” gave way to “differently abled,” as each new euphemism took on the negative connotations that caused the rejection of the previous ones.

I can understand the people on any given side of this issue. There are those clinicians and others trying to develop new terms so as to stay ahead of the pejoration of the previous terms, and that’s fairly necessary in writing academic, judgmentally-neutral papers and reports. There are those who try to reclaim old terms, using them as points of pride or power, which has some limited success. The problem is that words then come to carry two related sets of connotations: when Dan Savage calls one of his writers a “fag,” the result is very different from when a bully does the same thing to a kid on the playground. So the word–at least for a time–becomes taboo for some, or in some contexts, but not always, and that really slows down the “reclaiming,” which is (at least in part) an attempt to strip the word of the oppressive power it has from being taboo. There are those who develop new, more positive euphemisms, which are often subject to even quicker pejoration due to their transparent purpose and their use sardonically–for instance, terms like “handicapable” and the use of the word “special” to refer to those with mental disabilities quickly became dismissively pejorative themselves–to the point where a phrase like “She’s special” can have two very different meanings depending on my tone. This can also create terms with other problems; “African-American” was coined as a euphemism to replace “black,” but the consensus seems to be settling on the latter term, since it is more accurate than the term which suggests that many natural-born citizens are originally from Africa. I suspect this is also a part of why the term “people of color” has experienced some resurgence, probably to replace “ethnic.”

And then there are those who try to bring clinical terms into common use, using them to escape the same pejoration as the clinicians, but ultimately starting the cycle up again.

There are some ways to hinder this, I suppose. The more lengthy and multisyllabic and technical a term is, the harder (I think) it becomes to make it into a pejorative. A current preferred term like “developmentally delayed” is unlikely to become a playground insult, but it may still gather that pejorative baggage. Especially since “retard (v.)” means “to delay.” Using a synonym has the obvious danger of making the terms synonymous.

The problem with all of these positions–developing new euphemisms, reclaiming old ones, etc.–is twofold. First, language is a tricksy thing, evolving in a very similar way to the way organisms do. It’s possible with either to exert some selection pressure, but it’s not entirely clear how language will respond to those pressures. For instance, the term “gay” originally meant “happy” or “carefree,” and gradually adopted sexual connotations (“carefree” turning to “uninhibited.” It became somewhat linked to homosexuality during the life of Oscar Wilde, and became the preferred term by homosexuals during the 20th Century. “Gay” was subtle enough to go under the radar for quite some time, positive, and a better alternative than the more obviously pejorative terms like “queer.” And I’d say it was pretty successfully reclaimed, becoming a point of pride, with the homosexual connotation completely eclipsing the original meaning, and even the more pejorative “sexually uninhibited” connotations of the late 19th century.

But in the hands of schoolchildren, it has become synonymous with “lame” or “stupid,” due to its association with the perceived negative of homosexuality. “Gay” as a term is now on its second cycle of pejoration.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t try to reclaim words or exercise some control over what words mean and how language changes. I would only caution such people that such change is slow and unpredictable at best, and in many cases eventually leads to new problems analogous to the ones that you’re trying to solve.

Which brings us to the second prong of the problem: by exerting influence over language: it’s only addressing a symptom of the real problem. The issue of pejoration will occur and the euphemism treadmill will keep spinning until we correct the root of the problem: the social attitude that holds some people to be generally negative or inferior. The reason that we’ve seen the same thing happen to “retarded” that once happened to “moron” isn’t because the words themselves have some kind of power, it’s because people consciously or unconsciously see the developmentally delayed and disabled as less than people. Until people become so familiarized and accepting of their fellow humans with developmental disorders that they no longer see the difference as negative, the cycle will continue.

Attacking and altering the language we use is a necessary step in these kinds of situations; Richard Dawkins talks about how feminists’ insistence on gender-neutral terminology was a key component of the consciousness-raising aspects of the women’s rights movement. But I think people have a twin tendency to focus on the words more than the attitudes behind them, and to (consciously or unconsciously) blame the problem on the words we use. This ends up making the words taboo, which gives them a power to offend, which only really perpetuates the problem of the connotations which made them taboo in the first place.

In order to combat prejudice, fear, and hate, you can’t stop at correcting the language of the prejudiced, fearful, and hate-filled. That only creates a class of words that are associated with prejudice and starts off a new set of words down the same path. You have to correct the attitudes alongside the language if you want any kind of lasting change.

I’d like to see a world where we don’t ascribe greater power to particular arrangements of letters than others, where we don’t use descriptions of differences between individuals as pejorative terms, and where we all accept each other as equals because of those individual differences. I’d like to buy that world a Coke.

Until then, I suppose we’ll all keep running on this treadmill, naïvely believing that we’re making progress.

Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid, riding in the car with my parents, they were almost always listening to talk radio. And talk radio, as you probably know, is almost always conservative. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh, which didn’t leave much of an impression on me (I remember the theme song and some parodies, and a bit about how left-handed people were breastfed too much, which I later realized must have actually been about left-wingers). I rode with my mom more frequently, so I remember more of the frequent shows. One, the only one I ever actually enjoyed, was Dr. Dean Edell’s show. He’s an actual medical doctor who talks straight and gives good advice and is generally awesome. The other was Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

I listened to a lot of Dr. Laura as a kid. I remember all of the “I am my kid’s mom/dad” calls; I remember all her advice that sometimes seemed reasonable and spot-on and other times seemed ridiculous and reality-challenged. I know that she’s a doctor of physiology, not anything relevant to giving advice, she’s not much of a fan of “shacking up” or divorce (some irony there) or gay people, she generally sides against men (unless she thinks the woman in a situation is somehow impure) and that she’s generally pretty prudish and puritanical for someone who has some topless pictures floating around. Finding the letter to Dr. Laura that circulated around the Internet several years back and was adapted into a West Wing scene was a major step in getting over my homophobia (and, frankly, my religion, since prior to that my main use for the Bible was condemning homosexuality).

So, when Dr. Laura had her latest bigoted flame-out recently, I can’t say I was either surprised or disappointed. In fact, the only potentially surprising thing is that this particular instance was racism instead of homophobia.

For those who have somehow avoided the latest non-story in the news cycle, here’s the scoop: On August 10th, Schlessinger took a call from a black woman named Jade who was offended by racially insensitive comments made by her white husband’s family, which her husband remained silent about. Here’s the full call:
http://cloudfront.mediamatters.org/static/flash/player.swf
So, Schlessinger’s immediate reaction was to suggest that Jade was just being hypersensitive, so she asked for an example. The caller said they had a neighbor who comes over and says things like “how do you black people like doin’ this” and so forth. Schlessinger immediately says that she doesn’t think such comments are racist.

Let me pause here and suggest that “you people” is probably the most bigotry-infused phrase in the English language. It suggests that the person you’re talking to is not an individual, but a member of some larger collective who are all the same–as the rest of this neighbor’s relayed comment suggests he thinks. “You black people” don’t all like the same things or do things the same way, because they’re individuals. The whole edifice of bigotry is built on treating people like they’re not individual people.

Schlessinger continues, suggesting that a lot of black people voted for Barack Obama just because he was half-black, not because of his politics (Dear Dr. Laura: without contradicting yourself, please explain how Obama defeated Alan Keyes in his 2004 Senate race). “It was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise.” She then proceeded to make a “white men can’t jump” joke regarding her black bodyguard, and the caller asked “what about the n-word?” Schlessinger then says that “black guys use the word all the time.” And then Schlessinger, who is not a black guy, says it three times. She trots out the usual racist faux-confusion regarding the word: “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

No, it’s not very confusing. The “n-word” has a lot of baggage, because for so long it was used by white people to disparage black people. It’s a symbol of black oppression. The movement among blacks to use the word themselves has been a reclaiming of that symbol, a way of demonstrating that the word doesn’t have the power to keep them down, that they can rob it of its oppressive connotations. But we are not yet to the point where a white person can throw it around without invoking those negative connotations. White people still have a privileged position, and racism–institutional, personal, casual, and political–still affects blacks. When that’s no longer the case, maybe the term will become harmless enough that white people can just throw it around.

Moreover, that some black people use the word does not suggest that all black people are comfortable with the word being used. Making that assumption is, once again, seeing black people as some kind of hive mind where they all think the same because they all have similar amounts of melanin in their skin. Which is racism.

After a commercial break, Schlessinger continues talking over Jade in order to trot out her false equivalency canard, complain about how racism should be over because we elected a black guy, and to accuse Jade of having a chip on her shoulder. After saying the n-word four more times, she then complains that she can’t finish a sentence, something she’s failed to allow her caller to do repeatedly–note that she hasn’t addressed the original fucking question yet at all, she’s just used the caller as a springboard to complain about how black people can’t just sit down and shut up and be happy that they got one of their own into the White House.

Ah, yes, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where a black guy is President, and that’ll be enough.”

Schlessinger then tells Jade not to take her out of context, not to “NAACP” her (whatever the fuck that means), and hangs up. She then says “if you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

She then goes off on how, if you belong to a minority, people are going to ask you what that minority thinks about things. Being a woman who converted to Judaism, I would think that Schlessinger would have some kind of handle on the problem with that kind of thinking, but about the closest she comes to understanding it is “Of course there isn’t a one-think per se. But in general there’s ‘think.'” Okay, perhaps that’s true with, say, a religion, which has doctrines and dogmas that everyone is supposed to believe–not all Catholics will share the same position on any given issue, but there may indeed be an “official Catholic position” on that issue–but it’s not even slightly true when you’re talking about race or gender or other inborn traits. There is no black dogma. There is no doctrine of womanhood. There is no reason to expect that all, or even a majority, of people in non-religious minorities will think the same thing about any topic. And the assumption that they would is bigotry.

Schlessinger proceeds to say the n-word four more times, then attempts to excuse it by saying that it’s okay because she didn’t call anyone that. She was just using the word as a word, nothing wrong with that at all. I can think of a particular k-word and c-word that I might throw around, and I’m sure someone like Laura Schlessinger would have absolutely no problem with that.

Her rant meanders on into conspiracy mongering and more complaining about how Obama’s election should mean that all black people need to shut up about racism, not in so many words.

So, Schlessinger took a bunch of flak for her remarks and gave a typical notpology the next day. As they did in 2000 after her homophobic screeds, some people suggested boycotting her sponsors, and specifically called for the sponsors to demonstrate whether or not they endorsed her statements. At least one, General Motors, dropped her show in the aftermath. Schlessinger then announced on Larry King’s show a few days later that she was going to quit radio. Her reason?

SCHLESSINGER: The reason is: I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind, and in my heart, what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.

[…]

SCHLESSINGER: You know, when I started in radio, if you said something somebody didn’t agree with and they didn’t like, they argued with you. Now, they try to silence you. They try to wipe out your ability to earn a living and to have your job. They go after affiliates. They send threats to sponsors.

KING: That’s their right, too.

SCHLESSINGER: Yes, but I don’t hatch the right to say what I need to say. My First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don’t want to debate. They want to eliminate.

Ah, yes, her First Amendment rights have been violated, so she’s going to quit. I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and that’s why I know what it says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Also, certain people are entitled to a national radio talk show, and the people have no right to hold those people accountable for their speech.” Those Founding Fathers, always looking ahead.

The First Amendment is pretty damn clear on how it applies. It’s very straightforward, and yet conservatives in particular seem to have a lot of trouble understanding what it means. It says that government isn’t allowed to make laws impinging on free speech. Nowhere in this debacle has government done anything. Schlessinger’s rights remain intact. What she wants, and what she can’t have, is for her speech rights to trump other people’s speech rights. She wants to be able to speak without consequence, but the beautiful brilliance of the First Amendment is that it guarantees everyone the same right to speak freely. Moreover, it gives everyone the right to assemble and speak freely, including speaking to the sponsors of radio talk shows. Schlessinger is entitled to speak her mind; what she is not entitled to is a platform from which to do that. She has that platform only so long as her sponsors continue paying for it. If the sponsors decide that she’s no longer profitable, whether it’s because she’s become irrelevant or because her association with them is bad PR, then it’s well within their right to stop giving her money. And the sponsors wouldn’t know she was bad PR if the public wasn’t relating their bad feelings to them.

So, what Schlessinger really has a problem with is free speech, free assembly, and the free market. Why do conservatives hate our freedoms?

But honestly, I never would have commented on this idiocy if noted Constitutional scholar Sarah Palin hadn’t chimed in:
I tried reading her Facebook essay, but I just couldn't do it.
Volumes could be written about the insensitive idiocy it’d take to use the words “reload” and “shackles” in the context of white-on-black racism. But I’m going to ignore that to hit on the Constitutional point. Activists trying to hold Schlessinger responsible for what she says are not “Constitutional obstructionists,” and at no point in this did Schlessinger’s First Amendment rights cease “2exist.” In fact, given how much exposure she’s had because of this, she’s been able to exercise those rights more often and to a wider audience than she has in about a decade.

Keep in mind that this woman was the Governor of a state for a short time, and was fairly close to being Vice President of the United States. And she doesn’t understand the most basic points of the First Amendment.

But the real irony is in her obvious hypocrisy. After a tiff with David Letterman over some jokes that she found “offensive” and “contribut[ing] to some of the problems we have in society,” she took umbrage with Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. See, Rahm called the plans of a group of liberals “fucking retarded,” and Palin’s youngest son has Down Syndrome. She said that Emanuel’s remarks were “unacceptable” and “heartbreaking” and called for the President to “eliminate” him (presumably by firing, and not firing squad). In fact, in the full quote, Palin even draws a parallel to another kind of situation that we would find appalling:

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, surely if a public figure as famous as a one-time Illinois Congressman and White House Chief of Staff, someone with the combined fame of Danny Davis and Evelyn Lieberman, used the “N-word,” we would all be terribly appalled! Why, we’d probably even ask for them to be fired!

Or not. Instead we’d defend them, call them “powerful” and “effective,” and chastize those who criticize them and call for their termination. Clearly, former Governor Palin’s views have changed on the subject, and that’s understandable. We all change our minds now and again. So I’m sure, Mrs. Palin being a person of consistent, steadfast values, that she would have no problem with people throwing around those terms which she once found “appalling.”

So throw off the shackles, America, and show just how powerful and effective you are in defying the Constitutional obstructionists in our mollycoddled society. Say it loud and proud, knowing that the former Governor of Alaska supports your Constitutionally-secured right to say that Sarah Palin is fucking retarded!