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When Should We Say Retard?

When should we say “retard” when referring to another person? Never. This is a lesson Ann Coulter should learn.

It is just that simple.

Never.

What can we learn from Coulter’s unfortunate word choice and how might we change our choice of words? Read on.

Following the last presidential debate, conservative commenter Ann Coulter tweeted: “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” Reaction to her poor choice of words was swift and poignant.

Particularly effective was the post by John Franklin Stephens, a 30 year old man with Down syndrome. In his post he eloquently writes,

“After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.”

He then wrote being compared to someone like him should be a badge of honor because, “No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.”

Now this happened a week ago and may feel like old news, except Coulter continues to try to justify her language by piling more offensive language upon her initial insensitive word.

Friday night she appeared on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” and said,

“It’s offensive according to whom? Moron, idiot, cretin, imbecile, these were exactly like retard, once technical terms to describe people with mental disabilities.”

She claims “retard” is a synonym for loser and says she has used it several times since the debate.

This is an unfortunate and false claim she is using to justify her poor word choice. “Retard” is no synonym for “loser” except, perhaps, in the cultural dictionary she continues to create.

The answer to her question, “It’s offensive according to whom?” would be, “It’s offensive to people who have been insulted and dismissed by that term.”

Two years ago, then White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, used the phrase “[expletive] retarded” to describe strategies advocated by those unhappy with the pace of health care reform. Sarah Palin and Rush Libaugh quickly criticized him. Emanuel had the good sense to apologize.

Christopher Fairman wrote an excellent article entitled “The Case Against Banning the Word ‘Retard'” in response to that controversy. He argued against banning the word given the price we all would pay for freedom of expression. This is, however, the point of my point, if you will.

Banning any word only opens the door for another offensive word. Instead, we must choose our words with care and respect for others.

Words have the power to heal and to harm. Words carry the breath of life in them and they can easily take life away with their speaking. The freedom words afford to us does not extend to our abusing and denigrating others with our words. Our words have power.

Retard is a legitimate word to use as a verb when describing an action, but it is not socially responsible to use it to describe another human being. Most of all, it is inappropriate because it dehumanizes and stereotypes someone.

These are not political comments for the President has borne much sharper and indelicate commentary. No, this is a call to recognize that using “retard” in the way Coulter used it only reopens the wounds of those who have felt the sting of that word applied to them in dismissive, denigrating, and denying ways.

We should never use language that dismisses or that diminishes someone else. We should never use a term we would not want applied to ourselves.

Coulter used an unfortunate term and in trying to defend her actions only compounds her offense. We have an opportunity to learn from her insensitivity and pay more attention to the varied ways we use language.

May we all think more carefully about how we describe others or speak about their actions.

Have you ever been harmed by language? How does it make you feel? How would you feel if someone called you “retard”, would you feel like a loser as Coulter suggests or something deeper and of more pain?

  • Pam Brown

    Well done. I think in the case of Coulter, she craves attention and for her, negative attention is better than none at all. It’s a shame she had to insult those of us who loathe that word.

    • DarrellGwaltney

      Yes, it is positively painful to watch her attempt to justify what she has said. She is either desperate for attention or truly insensitive to others. Each is equally pathetic in the truest sense of the word.

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