First published May 17, 2013
"You're so retarded!" "What a retard!" "That's SO retarded."
The words "retard" or "retarded" are dropped on the daily. Whether it's in music, such as the Black Eyed Peas hit song "Let's Get Retarded," in popular films, such as Tropic Thunder where it is used 16 times in one scene alone, or in everyday conservation used to describe a bad test or a silly action, the R-word has evolved from a medical diagnosis to an everyday insult, used without concern to its offensive nature.
The fluidity of the R-word has even surfaced in politics. In America, Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, was quoted calling Democrats "F-ing retards." Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska and mother of a child with Down Syndrome, publicly denounced Emmanuel for doing so. When Rush Limbaugh, conservative radio show host, did it she defended it saying he was just being satirical.
Most people would never dream of openly mocking a person with intellectual disability, that's cruel and they would tell you so. If this is the case, why is it that they don't give a second thought to saying "that's so retarded?"
The first meaning of the R-word
When originally introduced, the terms "mental retardation" or "mentally retarded" were medical terms with a specifically clinical connotation. However, the pejorative forms, "retard" and "retarded" have been used widely in today's society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities.
Additionally, when "retard" and "retarded" are used as synonyms for "dumb" or "stupid" by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.
Cancer as insult?
I can't say that I go to pop music for moral guidance but I agree with Macklemore on this one. I do not think it is acceptable to associate an unchangeable characteristic of a person, part of their identity with something negative. I would assume people would find it offensive if I said "Man, that's so straight" or "That's sooo black" or "What an Asian thing to do."
I also think that using a (former) medical diagnosis as an insult is pretty low. Can you imagine running around calling people cancers? Using something like breast cancer as an insult? No? Why not? No one chooses to have cancer.
Well, I know of no person who made a conscious decision to become intellectually delayed or physically handicapped. No one wakes up one day and says, "I wish I would never live independently, never marry or have children, never find success in a career field of my choice, never know the joy of mastering a desired skillset." No one.
Why would the word "retard" or "retarded" become an insult? How can you insult someone with a diagnosis or situation that was never their choice to begin with? I mean, you wouldn't hurl this to anyone, "Hey! You act like you have Stage 4 terminal breast cancer that has metastasized to your brain!" Right?
No one chooses to be intellectually disabled. Children who are born with medical conditions, babies who are exposed in utero to noxious substances, adults who have experienced traumatic brain injuries from horrible car accidents or rocket propelled grenades in a war zone, what is it about their struggle that brings to mind someone acting "silly" or making a decision that people find laughable?
These folks struggle with every single aspect of their lives, nothing comes easy to these individuals. Their tenacity and perseverance, however, is awe-inspiring. Is that what we mean when we call the driver in front of us a retard? I somehow doubt it.
Words are powerful
Words are very important. You may not think you are offending anyone by using the slang, "that's so retarded," but people suffering from a disability, or those with family or friends who are, may hurt by the use of this flippant phrase.
The power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us.
The Bible speaks of our tongue as a rudder steering a ship (James chapter 3, verses 1–4). With the tongue, we can praise God, teach God's Word and lead lost sinners to Jesus Christ. But with that same tongue we can tell lies that can ruin a reputation or break someone's heart.
The ability to articulate truth is one of the most powerful ways we influence others and yet so often we take this ability for granted. We can use of language for good or ill so let's think more carefully about using the phrase "That's so retarded," and use our language for good.
Mercy Cornish (21) lives in Christchurch and studies at Canterbury University. Mercy has completed a Bachelor of Arts degree studying Media and Communications and Political Science. This year Mercy is undertaking honours in Media and Communications.
Mercy Cornish' previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mercy-cornish.html