So, there I was standing on line at Mount Vernon (or was it Monticello?) with Bear and Mrs. Bear, waiting for the tour to begin. Casually, I used the word “retard,” and received some looks from those around me.
“What,” I said, “is that one of the words we are no longer supposed to use?”
“Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” "Yes."
I pondered that a bit there. It seemed a little silly to me that a word I had grown up with was somehow now verboten, couldn’t be used at all, while awkward synonyms for it were okay. Later, in the souvenir shop I was standing by Mrs. Bear when I spotted a father and son who had been sitting on a bench when I uttered the unpopular word.
“Oh, no. Oh, no. Look over there. Please don’t tell me that that kid over there is the one who was sitting on the bench near us when I said ‘retard’.”
“I think so.”
Yes, I had said “retard” right in front of a kid who was a - I'm actually still not sure of the politically correct word – I’m told “special” isn’t right anymore either, maybe “special needs” is still okay, but I still feel strongly that if we are going to have metaphors for improper words, they shouldn't be multiple words, so I’m going to leave it as “r____d” for at least this post.
Worse, his father (I presume) was with him and it probably was more hurtful to him than to his son. I got the same feeling you'd get if you'd asked Mr. Jones how his son was and he replied, “Why Johnnie’s dead.” My apparent lack of vocabulary no doubt gave them a good reason to think me the lowest of idiots (wait – can you even say idiots anymore? If you can, why? How is “idiot” or “cretin” any less insulting than “r____d”? I’m going to get ahead of the curb and just write “i___t” before I get in trouble.) Anyway, even if I didn’t know that “r___d” was a politically incorrect word, I did know not to say it in front of someone who is, you know, r______d.
So, I felt kind of bad for Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, for getting in trouble for calling liberals in congress “f*cking r____ds” when they were being difficult over health care. First, I'm glad to see we've at least grown up enough that he didn't get in trouble for the expletive. And, not that anyone really thought he meant that they were literally r____ed, just that they were acting like i___ts by insisting on controversial provisions in a bill he wanted to see passed.
Not that I like Emanuel that much, as he was hired to be the tough guy for the administration based on an agressive type of partisanship of which I don’t think too highly. But, this is silly. Even Rush Limbaugh defended him, but probably because he likes to call opponents “r____ds” too.
Still, it gets increasingly difficult in this day and age to avoid the mind field of politically incorrect words. I’m not even talking about the dreaded “N” word, a word I have become so uncomfortable with that I can’t even write it here without feeling funny. Now, I admit that it is a word that I used to use only in the telling of jokes. I always found ethnic humor funny. I used a lot of slurs in jokes, including for my own ethnic group. In my mind the joke was always on the bigot, or the sheer ridiculousness of the prejudice. Yet, I found it funny then and don’t apologize for it. Much humor can be ugly if not meant in jest. It is only because of the extreme emotional angst it causes not only blacks, but at this point many whites, that I won’t even tell a joke using that word anymore, and only use it reluctantly if discussing the topic itself.
A few years ago I was teaching my first constitutional law class where race was an issue. I remember the first time I used the word “black” in class, a word the Supreme Court still uses. I was looking at the class and I was a little nervous lest I was told by a group of angry students that “black” is offensive. As we know, colleges are hotbeds of political correctness. I was not accosted but I think I saw a few involuntary grimaces. Most of the students used "African-American," a designation I neither think is accurate (does it include North Africans of Arabic descent, white South Africans and Rhodesians, and exclude blacks from the West Indies?), nor mellifluous,** nor fair – why don’t we say European-American for whites, etc.?
Color is of course, a ridiculous way to refer to people too, in some senses. None of us are white, black, red or yellow, just different shades of brown.
In the same class I mentioned earlier, I was once reading a paragraph to a case out loud. The opinion was written by a judge who was a leader in anti-race discrimination. When he came to refer to a Chinese person, he referred to them as a “yellow man”. I felt compelled to stop and explain to the class of youngsters that for the judge, who was writing in the late 19th century, that was not a slur, and was not so even in my youth. I'm not sure when it became politically incorrect, but it certainly is now.
Yet, how strange is it that no one would think to refer to someone as a yellow anymore, but we still use black and white? What could the rationale for the difference possibly be? Obviously, rationale is the wrong word, as these things are cultural preferences, and rational thought has little to do with it.
Of course, even stranger is that we don't use “colored person” or just “colored” anymore - that's now a slur - but “people of color” is just fine, in fact preferred by some. Then again, the NCAAP still uses “colored people” and get away with it, no doubt because being mostly “people of color” themselves, no one takes offense. Plus, there is historical significance.
I stick with black and white, because it is easy to say, everyone knows what it means, and so far, it is not considered offensive, or at least terribly offensive, by the large majority of the country.
Yellow, though, as I’ve said, well, that’s out of the question, though no one can say why. As strange, it is now considered incorrect to call someone an “oriental,” but not offensive to say that you are going to the the orient or an antique is oriental.
Of course, being the schizophrenic country we are when it comes to ethnicity, there are a number of places in America that have “devil” in it, which was a direct reference to the American Indians who lived there. Actually, there is a movement to change those names, and many have been.
I still use “Indian,” the word I grew up with. "Indigenous people" or "Native American" is just too long for me. It shouldn’t matter that Indian was a misnomer from the start. Native American is a misnomer too. They were simply here before the Europeans, but they didn’t start off here either. Apparently, and the geneticists seem convinced of this, they are descended from Africans like everyone else in the entire world.
Jew is an interesting word. It’s the only ethnic group I know of which also describes the religion. And, although many words can take on a different context from the way they are said, Jew easily becomes a slur when the J is emphasized or said with a grimace, but why I can’t explain. How come it doesn’t work with Christian?
In fact, I have at least one friend, a Jew, who doesn’t like it when non-Jews use the word Jew, even if meant as in “he is a Jew”. No one I know agrees with that, but he’s a rational person and feels it deeply.
Which raises that issue of “Well, if they use it, why can’t we?” This most often has to do with the dreaded “N” word, which some whites feel they should have the right to use as long as blacks do. While I understand the sentiment behind that, I think it’s a fallacious argument. Not all blacks use it, probably the percentage isn’t that high (although I really don’t know). Let’s use an analogy. If one white guy beats up other white guys, is it okay for a black guy to do so. If you need me to answer the question, you aren’t thinking.
One time I did get into a bit of a mess with that issue in the same con law class I spoke of before. While discussing racism, one black student used the “N” word appropriately. Then, a white student asked a question about it, also appropriately. He was, unfortunately, the class wise guy, but he had meant and said it seriously. Didn’t matter. Many, maybe all (it happened so fast) of my black students were furious and one raised her hand and said someone has to tell “him” to shut up. Now what do I do? I had no idea as I wasn’t prepared for it. So, I said that I can’t solve the problem of who can say it and who can’t, but it just shows how painful fighting words can be and why there was an exception for it in first amendment law (the subject we were discussing).
After the class, the white kid who had said it came up to me sheepishly and asked “What did I do wrong?” I could tell he felt awful. All I could think to say was that I wasn’t going to suggest he did anything wrong, but this is the culture we live in now and if you use the word, just be prepared for consequences. A year later a student in that class who was a little older (and white) told me I had handled it well. I sure didn’t feel like it. Still doesn't. The next week a few of the black students who were always present boycotted the class (or, it sure was a coincidence). I’m guessing they didn’t think I handled it so well.
On a political note, something strange has happened between the two ideologies. It used to be that conservatives were against political correctness. Perhaps having to many points scored against them by liberal word police, many now are, or at least pretend to be, just as sensitive to words as their opposites. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.
So, what’s the moral here? I’m not sure. Obviously this is a cultural matter, and there is no cosmic right or wrong. It's not much different than saying "bless you" when someone sneezes but not when they cough. But, I try and not hurt peoples feelings if there is no principle at stake, so, I’ll try not to say r____d in public if it’s going to upset some people (but, among close friends and family, I may have to resort to it) but if it slips out, I didn’t mean it personally, you i___ts.
** Ah “mellifluous,” my favorite word. May it never become politically incorrect.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .