I have recently been through an awful personal moral and ethical crisis over something I ought to have sorted out a good deal earlier in my life. Having been challenged on my use of the word “retarded” as a synonym for “stupid” and having initially defended the use of the word, I have, after much anguished consideration, made a pledge not to use this word ever again.
The noun “retard,” and the adjective “retarded” are certainly common enough in local parlance. Indeed, they are widespread in the language of people in most English-speaking countries, and are especially common in the UK, Australia and the United States. I first came to use these words in high school, along with other unpleasantries such as “spaz”, and at the time thought little of it. It’s fair to say that, as a teenager in a boys’ high school, it was difficult to avoid hearing these words, and there was little discouragement from peers regarding their use.
In retrospect it seems like a habit one ought to have grown out of, especially considering there was no intended animosity towards people with intellectual or physical disabilities. My parents would have whacked me if I’d ever expressed prejudice against such people and my father was particularly tough about the matter as his sister had spent her life in care, having had a severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. My father had been left in charge of her by the untimely death of his parents when he was in his early teens and he was fiercely dedicated to ensuring that she was well looked after.
I used to enjoy visiting Diana in the home where she resided, despite her almost complete inability to communicate verbally. I was quite young at the time and all I remember of her was her love of bananas and how much they excited her whenever they were produced. My father had explained to me that, in effect, her brain had not developed beyond the age of three, though it was, of course, just a layman’s explanation for a young child. It was certainly a confusing and uncomfortable experience for me at that age, but most children are capable of a most unconditional black and white morality, and my attitude towards her, and to people who were equally disadvantaged, was entirely sympathetic.
It thus surprises me when I consider, in retrospect, the disconnect between this emotional response and the use of words such as “spaz” and “retard” in high school and beyond. Our teachers certainly did not condone it, although some were prone to call us half-wits, morons and idiots when riled. I guess I must have understood the link between the words and the people about whom they had originally been used, but their use was so commonplace, I simply came to regard them as another type of insult or derogatory adjective.
When recently challenged on my use of the words “retard” and “retarded”, my response was not exactly co-operative. I argued, as I have in the past, that I bore no malice whatsoever to physically or intellectually disabled people and that in fact the use of the words was perfectly legitimate as they had, in my mind, become detached from their original use. The origin of the word dates back to the term “mental retardation”, which was used in a very general sense to describe people with an Intelligence Quota below 70. It was not initially intended to be a pejorative, but certainly came to be used as such shortly after its deployment to describe a certain type of intellectual disability. Indeed, in some states in the US it is still used in an official capacity, despite widespread opposition to this.
Though I am not here to defend myself, it is worth pointing out that several other very common words, which many people find pejorative, but not particularly offensive to disabled people, had precisely the same origins.
In 19th and early 20th century medicine and psychology, an “idiot” was a person with a very severe mental retardation. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for mental retardation based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to 7 years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years.
These words have lost their medical definition to a very great degree, and have thus been neutralised into mere general insults. The same, no doubt, will ultimately happen with the word “retarded”. Yet, having been told by my significant other that she found the words “retard” and “retarded” offensive, and knowing that they have had a more recent association with intellectual disability, I ought to have given it more consideration. Despite this, in my at times annoyingly obstructive manner, I continued to defend the use of these words as a commonplace, unrelated to disability, partly because I had used them for so long and did not feel them to be necessarily discriminatory or offensive, but also because I have often argued that no word really should be taboo.
Political correctness has long been a hot topic on the left of politics, as well as the right, where opposition to it has been strong. I have always been a strong advocate of non-sexist language, at least since I developed more intellectually and personally in my mid to late twenties, when I first really became aware of the issue through gender studies and Labor party initiatives. I felt quite strongly that non-sexist and non gender specific language, should be used both officially and at a personal level. Indeed, I once had an awful argument with an ex-girlfriend’s father about the matter. In the aftermath of that heated argument, I came away wondering about whether or not one really could restrict the language people used, whether or not this would constitute an appropriate form of legislation, or a too intrusive level of oversight. My attitude became more ambivalent, at a personal level, but not at the official level. I was certainly not about to ditch my opposition to the use of sexist language, yet, to a degree, I began to believe that language ought to be contextual. As a friend once said, “Life is not PC.” As a writer, one ought to be free to use language as one wishes, appropriate to character and context. Of course, if one were to use a word like “retard” in the presence of someone with an intellectual disability, however unwittingly, it would no doubt cause immense offence.
As was rightly pointed out to me recently, however, the use of the word is not appropriate in any context. What I failed to realise, and what I now deeply regret not seeing at the time, is that using a word like “retarded” is not merely wrong contextually, but it is just plain wrong. There are simply too many people in society to whom it might cause offence; too many people who may have been subjected to the word as a form of discrimination against their disability. I was grudgingly willing to concede that I would not use the term in the presence of the lovely person who had upbraided me about it, but I still felt I had a right to use it as I saw fit in other situations.
What now astonishes me, having seen how my ignorance has caused potentially irreparable harm to a beautiful relationship, is that I actually felt the freedom to use these words was worth defending. Some freedoms, certainly, are worth fighting for, and in some countries, where words of opposition and revolution are repressed, there is every reason to fight for semantic freedom. Yet why on earth would anyone choose to defend the use of a word like “retard”? What is the objective?
What I failed to see, probably in part because I’ve heard the word so often in every workplace I’ve ever been in, is that using such a word has the potential to do immense harm to one’s reputation and character. I was blind to this, like a total and utter fool, and in due course, the consequences have been, to say the least, devastating on a personal level. It is not only someone I care very deeply about that I have upset, but I have upset myself over this matter and it has precipitated a personal crisis of great magnitude about what sort of person I actually am.
I have long considered myself to be someone with good ethics, who took the time to find out what was happening to people in the world and try, where possible to inform others. I was never very active politically, but in social circles, particularly during my later years at university, I had a reputation as a firebrand who railed against oppression, discrimination and injustice. I have never been afraid to take people on and have, on one occasion, been thrown out of a party for causing a disturbance when someone started complaining about asylum seekers and proved to be intransigent on the matter. And yet, all the while, there I was using a word like “retard”, giving next to no thought to just how much offence this could potentially cause.
We all make mistakes, and there are things about which we can be very wrong indeed. At times I know I can be arrogant, I can be inflexible, I can be stubborn to the point of stupidity, but I can admit that I was wrong. Sometimes this comes too late, and the damage cannot be undone, but I am willing to put it on the record that I was very very wrong indeed on this matter. There is no context in which it is OK to use a word like “retard” or “retarded”. There is no situation where it is appropriate, unless, of course, one is writing the words of a character in a literary composition of some sort – and even then, it should be discouraged unless one wishes to make that character out to be an intellectually careless or unpleasant person. I, however, have three degrees and should know a hell of a lot better.
I should also like to extend this embargo to the word “gay”. It too is very commonly used, and by no means necessarily in a manner designed to be offensive to gay people. Indeed, I have worked with gay people who have continually said “Oh, that’s so gay.” In retrospect, however, whilst it might be appropriate for gay people to use a word like “gay” in such a sense, just as many African Americans feel comfortable using the word “nigger” with people of their colour, it is not at all appropriate for me to use it. Not only does it send all the wrong signals, suggesting a prejudice I do not hold, but it could, if used before gay people, cause immense offence.
I shall not be using these words in future, and I would encourage others not to do so either. It is careless, potentially offensive, and might cause harm to one’s reputation to do so. I would strongly advise against it and regret any harm that I may have caused in the past through my own carelessness on this front. Sometimes in life, we have to admit that we are wrong. Just because one has shown an ethical correctness in many areas, does not mean one cannot still be ignorant and wrong about others. It is best to listen and learn from those whose arguments show a superior degree of consideration on moral or ethical questions, especially when their argument is not based on a religious principle, but rather sound reason. I cannot dispute that these words are capable of causing offence. Indeed, I did know it already, but failed to correct myself out of the misguided belief that my use of it was inoffensive in its intention. Well, I certainly offended someone, and now I’m paying the price. I hope that I never again allow recalcitrance to get in the way of learning to be a better person.