Tag Archives: retard

More on offensive words

A well-meaning neanderthal liberal dropped me a note asking whether “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile” were as offensive as “retard.”

Good question — so I thought I’d see if anyone else wanted to weigh in on it.  My gut* says “idiot” and “moron” are OK; “imbecile” is not so OK, but I don’t have any idea why.  My best guess is that “idiot” and “moron” are much farther from their (unfortunate) clinical roots than “retard” is.  But I’m very much open to being called on that.  Honestly, I seem to recall hearing that “hysterical” has its roots in an internal organ that women have but men do not, and should thus be avoided.  In light of the crap I have to read every day, though, I don’t plan to stop saying things are hysterical.  Or maybe I’m just reclaiming words of female disempowerment . . .  bitches!

Ultimately, there is some keeping track to do — I have learned only relatively recently that “gyp” and “welsh” are inappropriate as epithets and have stopped using them.  But it seems to me it’s no more arduous than all the keeping track we have to do if we generally want to be thoughtful people:  who is “Dr.” and who is “Mr.” or “Ms.;” who might have had personal experiences that make certain topics of conversation painful or awkward; whether and which cuss words are appropriate for the context (e.g., court hearing; lunch with in-laws; drinks with co-counsel, in order of increasing profanity).

What do other folks think?

* Update:  A cro-magnon colleague of the aforesaid neanderthal wrote to point out my gut’s total historical ignorance.  None of these three words —  “idiot,” “moron” or “imbecile” — is ok, he writes, because  “back in the day, mental retardation was defined based upon severity as idiot, imbecile and moron.  Those words all define levels of retardation and were even politically incorrect about 40 years ago.”  So was I supposed to do research & shit before blogging?  I skipped that page of the instruction manual!

Seems to me, though, that in current usage, “retard” is meant to compare the target of the epithet to a person with cognitive disabilities, whereas “idiot” and “moron,” at least,  have taken on a more general meaning of “stupid.”

In which I start my new blog by offending everyone

Next time you are tempted to call someone a retard, or a [clever neologism]tard, or even accuse them of riding the short bus, stop and substitute one of the following offensive first-letter-only words: the N one; the S one; or the K, C, or J ones.

I’m actually going to make the argument that calling someone a r****d is worse than calling an African-American a n****r or a Chinese person a c***k.  Because it is not generally people with cognitive disabilities who are being called r****ds.  It’s not just a word of derision for the minority in question.  It is more commonly used to disparage people who are not cognitively disabled.  It’s saying “you are bad because you are like a person with a cognitive disability.”  Like calling white people n*****rs or c****ks:  “you are bad because you are like a black person . . . or a Chinese person.”

And liberals, I’m looking at you.  Mostly I’m looking at you because you’re all I read these days.  I know I know … echo chamber blah blah blah.  But when I want to read illogical ad hominem bullshit, I’ll stick with opposing counsel’s filings — which I have to read anyway.

I’m also looking at you liberals because you’re supposed to know better.  Remember?  We’re the ones who respect everyone.  Everyone.  Not “I’ve learned the words I’m supposed to use for black people and brown people and girl people but it’s just such a drag to have to learn the ones for disabled people.”  Everyone.

So, anecdotes, anyone?  How about the otherwise hilarious Wonkette, which insists on adding the suffix “tard” to turn random words into insults:

This is seriously like deciding that it’s hilarious to insult people by adding “igger” to the end of other words.  Pauliggers.  Libiggers.  Conserviggers.  Palestiniggers.  That last one is just awful on so many levels, eh?  Now, do you get how truly awful Palestinetards is?

I’m predicting a common response.  Maybe I underestimate you, but what I predict is the response above:  it’s just such a drag to keep track of all this!  I just learned to say Negro, when I was told to say Black, then it was Africa-American.  Oriental? Asian?  Ooooo noooooo!  It’s just so confusing!

A while back I had an email exchange with a fairly prominent liberal blogger who had used the word “retarded” as an epithet.  I called him on it — saying it was equivalent to offensive expressions such as “jew him down.”  Here is the rest of the colloquy – quoted at some length because I think it typifies the common reaction, and sets out my views succinctly:

Prominent Liberal Blogger:  “Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep track of all the words that offend some subsection of the population these days.  I’ll watch myself in the future, although I have to admit that I have a hard time equating this to such a plainly offensive expression as ‘jew him down.’”

Me: I hear you, and I confess that I predicted this response.  The “keep track of” argument segregates groups whose rights and feelings are worth worrying about (Blacks; Jews) from those who aren’t really on the radar screen (people with cognitive disabilities).  The term you used is plainly offensive to a large subsection of the population; just one that you don’t really think about.

I really don’t think you can dismiss the issue like that.  It really is hard, and there really are lots of groups who get offended over things.  It’s just impossible for any single person to track it all.  It’s not as if there’s some clear rule for figuring out whether a term is legitimately offensive, after all.
Here in [his location], for example, it’s considered offensive to display the flag of Vietnam.  Big Vietnamese population, you see, and they insist that only the old South Vietnamese flag should ever be displayed publicly.  Is that legitimate? Or is the flag of Vietnam the flag of Vietnam, whether you like it or not?

Me: I would argue that there is a difference between using a term in a disparaging or pejorative manner and a political dispute.  I am firmly of the view, for example, that if you think affirmative action is wrong, or that gays should not be allowed to marry (both positions with which I disagree) or that one political system is or is not legitimate in Vietnam (a position on which I am sadly ignorant) there is nothing offensive about asserting and defending your political views.  I’ll argue anything on the merits.


On the other hand, you used a slang term that refers to a type of person and you used it in a pejorative sense.  You were not (I hope) expressing a negative political or other substantive view about people with cognitive disabilities.  I think common courtesy, rather than political correctness, would suggest that the word not be used that way.

Hell, even in the political context, a bit of forethought and courtesy would not be a bad thing.  If I were going to be a guest in the home of a Vietnamese person, I might look into the matter and not wear, say, a tee shirt with the wrong flag.  I really do think people with different views can speak to one another politely and respectfully.

* [Full disclosure:  Politely, but with occasional, okay fairly common, use of cuss words.]