Saturday, February 06, 2010

A rose by another name is just not nice

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.”

“Oh, sh*t.”

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.


  1. I think that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman had a view of this dilemma- "There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes wops or greasers (I guess we add in retards here now). Here you are all equally worthless. Do you maggots understand that?"

    You know I don't buy into PC "BS" and I do not accept the proposition that we let every group decide for everyone else what words are acceptable to them. especially if the words heretofore had no slur or insult intended- such as retard. Nigger is another story because it was an insult. But I don't buy your analogy. I think a more apt one would be some black guy going around beating whites but doesn't want the same thing done to him. If the word shouldn't be used it shouldn't be used- no exceptions for people who want to decide when and by whom it can be used. Anything else would be, well, RETARDED!!!!

  2. One problem with your claim of not accepting PC BS, I'm afraid. A few weeks ago, you whined here because I called the followers of the conservative movement "Tea Baggers" instead of "Tea Partiers" (yet another taboo I didn't know about). I seemed to remember calling you a girl about it. And, I'm afraid that they've used term that for themselves too, at least for a while. So, I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored. No?

    Besides, are you saying that if one or any number of members of an ethnic group uses a racial slur for their own group, that justifies everyone doing it? That doesn't go with your sensitivity over baggers/partiers. I don't buy vicarious or collective guilt and wouldn't think you would either.

    Most important, I'm afraid I did not get the movie quote, but I've never been real good with that.

  3. To quote you to me Whatchyou talkin bout Willis? I said if the word doesn't already have the intent of being an insult- like nigger. As teabagger only has a perjorative meaning in that sense it's like nigger. I thought I explained that clearly enough. I'll use smaller words next time. You're a retard........(I expect the appropriate rejoinder)

  4. I thought I put in a comment about the quote. I guess I didn't save it. It's from Full Metal Jacket (around 87 I think) Stanley Kubrick film. The actor who plays that seargent (a real former DI) steals the first few scenes.
    It def worth a look.

  5. I remember the movie, which I thought was excellent (although a little long - and I notice when all the male actors have crew cuts I have trouble telling them apart) but I don't remember that scene or line.

    Your previous comment I can't even make sense of because there's an incomplete thought in there somewhere. But, if I complete it the way I think you meant it, it still makes so sense to me. If it is okay (culturally, I'm not talking about legal aspects) to use a racial slur because one or more of the group you are slurring uses it, then that is racial guilt by association, and I don't see a way around it. But, at risk of us going around in circles, let me just say - No I'm not, you are. And whatever you say to me bounces off and sticks to you like glue.

  6. Actually, people with cognitive challenges do not refer to themselves as "retarded" when they talk w/each other. I do remember kids screaming "retard!" at the kids from the "retarded" class on the playground. It turned my stomach. Actually it is as offensive used in common speech as is any slur - with that be "that's gay" or the "n" word, etc., but I guess only when it becomes personal. For me, b/c I know, am friends with, work with, etc. people with a variety of disabilities, it is offensive. (Apparently there are only a few states that still call their departments and services MR, so I don't take offense there when my friends, who have kids with that disability, use it.) Certainly, David, I don't think some of our older relatives meant anything by it (despite our cringing) when they referred to "the colored girl" or calling over the the waiter as "Boy" to get his attention, or the "chinks" when we were little. They had grown up with it -- but on the other side, I am sure it was not appreciated. Even our oldest relative, after being chastised, now refers to "the girl" and she no longer has a color.
    Yup - it's a more complicated world.

  7. If I could sum up my points. I can't keep up with what's offensive or non-offensive. It is most often personal and cultural, and as often irrational.

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. I wish that all these overly sensitive,priggish, muthaf__kas in the politically correct police would just get over themselves. Lenny Bruce had it right all that time ago. The way to take the pain out of a perjorative word is to use it until it doesn't mean anything anymore rather than mystify it by making it taboo. And really, don't we have enough real problems to worry about?

  9. Now, if only the politically correct police were listening.

  10. And actually, he says it better than I do. True, he is a Shriver, and I wouldn't have expected less, but he defiintely makes the point in a way I wish I could have (and sorry if I wasn't supposed to reprint the whole thing:

    The bigotry behind the word 'retard'

    By Timothy Shriver
    Monday, February 15, 2010; A17
    Washington Post

    Professor and author Christopher M. Fairman ["The case against banning the word 'retard,' " Outlook, Feb. 14] made good arguments about the limits of language to effect change in behavior and attitude, as well as about the nuanced ways in which words such as "retard," "queer" and "gay" can carry multiple meanings, some of which intend no insult or humiliation.

    But I believe he missed the point of the campaign by people who have intellectual disabilities, their friends, advocates and tens of thousands of individuals and dozens of organizations: We are fighting a word because it represents one of the most stubborn and persistent stigmas in history. Millions of people have a prejudice they often are not even aware of. It is much bigger than a word, but words matter. And the word "retard," whatever its history, reflects a massive problem.

  11. Read the article. While I'm sensitive to people being offended, I can't go along with the "magic word" theory that some words are inherently offensive in nature without "our" making it so. Of course, words do have power and those that cause pain to people should be avoided - whether personal or in general. But, what words? That's what the post is about. There gets to a point where you need words for things, and they should be organic, not synthetic. Your point seems to me to be that when any group of people decides it is offended by a commonly used word, and simply declares it taboo, people who use it, even meaning no offense, should be subject to criticism for using it. In other words, one group gets to dictate to everyone else what word is "offensive", even if the allegedly offended group doesn't necessarily agree ("black" "Indian" etc.) Without repeating my whole post, I argued that these decisions should be based on the same cultural consensus that all other language is based upon, and that we should realize that these "decisions" are often highly irrational and sometimes plain unfair. When artificial sounding words or phrases are used to substitue for allegedly offensive words ("handi-capable" comes to mind; "_____ challenged" are others) it doesn't work so well. George Carlin was a master at showing the absurdity of some of this with humor and the funny part was the truth in what he said. Apparently, "retard" has crossed that tipping point where it was generally considered offensive in our culture and my post acknowledged that (if you missed that, read it again). However, that being said, we don't seem to have a real word for it anymore - just artificial ones that come from what may be termed the "language police". The article you linked also raises other issues beyond the scope of this post concerning the idea of limiting one group in order to aid the less capable. Can't deal with all that in a comment which has gone on way too long to begin with.


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About Me

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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 . . . .