Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Retard" Is Just a Four-Letter Word

I love my wife. I also love my sister. I love pie too. To say I love them all equally would be one thing; to say I love them all the same would be creepy.

It’s so fine, it’s sunshine, it’s ambiguous, it’s overused, it’s the word, “love”. Love is the most used word in song and verse, theater and literature. And yet we really don’t know love at all - because we love the word so much that, like sugar and spice and ketchup, we use it on everything.

Affordable” is a word that gets tossed around a lot lately. It’s as popular, though not as weighty as love. No one has written a sonnet asking, “How do I afford thee, Let me count the ways.” No one is making a movie called “I Can Afford You, Man.” It is not even always a positive word. Having stuff that is not “affordable” to everyone gives us status.

““Right” is another word we love. People on the Left assert that everyone has the right to affordable health care. The problem with “affordable” is that, like love, its definition is contextual. Steven Wright tells us “everything is within walking distance … if you have enough time.” Likewise, everything is affordable … if you have enough money.

I support getting more people health care because healthy people will contribute more to society, but there is a limit to what we can afford. A while back, everyone had the right to affordable housing. People bought houses they couldn’t afford and now they can’t buy things for the people they love because the economy got fucked up. Pardon my French.

If I remember the story correctly, one day my niece, who was not quite old enough to drive at the time, used the word “fuck” in a sentence. Although she undoubtedly used it properly, my sister, who was driving her home from school, objected to the word. My niece said, “Mom, it’s just a word.”

Of course it is. But words have meaning and, more importantly, they have the weight of whatever emotions we invest in them (e.g. the word “love”). My niece knew that, but she was possibly trying to appear cool to the friend who was in the back seat with her.

In advance of pro-am night at Go Bananas, comedians are warned that their sets must be “TV clean”. This always puzzled me since the words “shit” and “fuck” and a few others are spewed out on the stage by the majority of performers. Recently someone clarified for me that the forbidden words are all c-words: “You can’t talk about putting your c-word in her c-word or c-wording on her c-word”. So George Carlin’s list of seven words you can’t say on television is reduced now to just two? At least for Go Bananas, TV clean includes “piss”, “shit”, “fuck”, “motherfucker” and “tits”, but not “c-word” and “c-word-sucker”.

Not mentioned by the G.B. guidelines was a word that is available to black comedians but not the rest of us. That is of course the “n-word”. I would sooner write the c-word here than the n-word. There is so much more emotion and conflict tied up in it and yet it all depends on who uses it.

Getting a lot of press lately is a word that people are responding to as if it were the n-word; that is “retard”. Rahm Emanuel recently characterized a proposed strategy by some liberal Democrats as “fucking retarded” and many were upset by it, especially Sarah Palin, who has a developmentally disabled child.

“Mentally retarded” is a benign term used to describe someone whose intellectual development is prevented from progressing “normally” by some condition such as Down Syndrome. But “retarded” has taken on such a negative connotation that where I live, the Hamilton County Board of Mental Retardation has become Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services (just as the County Whacko Ward became the County Mental Health Clinic).

Does using the word “retarded”, in the way Emanuel and others have, demean people with that particular mental disability? Defenders of the term say that it does not; that saying “that’s retarded” means someone is behaving as if developmentally disabled. Just as saying “that’s crazy” means they are behaving as if mentally ill, saying “that’s so gay” means behaving as if they love someone of the same sex, saying "that's so dumb" means behaving as if they are mute, or saying “that’s so lame” means behaving as if they have severe leg injuries. By saying the proposed policy was “fucking” retarded, Emanuel meant it was like someone developmentally disabled having sexual intercourse, which, as far as I know, would be just like anyone else having sexual intercourse; so I find his comment odd at best.

When someone calls someone else a retard, it conjures up, for me, images of degrading stereotypes, suggesting that people who are actually retarded are lesser human beings because of the way they look or speak or act. It seems a very mean word, expressing a cruel thought (just as "c-word" and "c-word" are very nasty names for otherwise very functional, important and enjoyable parts of our anatomies). "Retarded" may become (already is to some people) so pervasive that it loses that emotional weight and becomes like “crazy” or “lame”: words used everyday without a thought to their origin. For now though, I will avoid using the r-word as an insult or as part of a joke on stage and I will try to spread more “love”.

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

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