Off the beat: A case against the ‘r-word’

Our campus comprises some of the most eloquent students in the nation — activists who stand for the rights of the historically oppressed, the misapprehended, the overlooked. Yet, I continually hear a word tossed around that is so insidious, so toxic, that its mere utterance fills me with a quiet dejection.

“That’s retarded.”

I look up, dumbfounded, with blurred gray eyes and an expression that conveys a silent suffering. The perpetrator — sometimes friend, sometimes foe — cackles, blissfully unaware of the slight’s impact.

Why does it disturb me so excessively, this stain on the English language that was formerly a respected clinical term? Perhaps it’s because it deters me from comfortably revealing the full identity of my favorite person on Earth: my younger brother, Joseph. He happens to fall into the category this word inhumanely singles out. He has Down syndrome.

Meanings of words evolve. “Retarded” is a slur now, and casual utilization of it is not clever. Justifications for its usage range from “It’s just a word” to “People with mental disabilities don’t understand the word, so it doesn’t matter if I say it.”

And that’s what petrifies me. Even the most educated of people are picking a term that insults those who are, in many cases, literally voiceless. Joseph, to illustrate, hears “retarded” and does not have the cognitive or linguistic capacity to defend himself. But his silence has a sound — one of profound grief. To use this word is to humiliate and hurt a community that is often powerless to protect itself.

When I heard that University Relations had confirmed Bill Maher as the fall commencement speaker, the world fell soundless around me. Somewhat overlooked in the case against his invitation was the quip he made in January 2001, on his show “Politically Incorrect,” about “retarded children.” But he went further than that, sinking so low as to compare them to dogs: animals that, while loveable, still bark, drool and get by on four legs.

Barbara Walters stood up for Maher on “The View,” stating he didn’t intend “it to be mean-spirited.” Whoopi Goldberg continued that “we, society, took the word ‘retarded’ and made it into something derogatory.” So, according to Whoopi, it’s fine that Maher said “retarded” because its negative connotation is merely a social construct — yet many of us are quick to speak out against offensive usage of the word “gay,” and rightfully so. Why, then, don’t as many of us grant “retarded” the same consideration?

People can defend Maher all day long for making that remark (“He’s a comedian”), but all I see is a cowardly, reckless man who used his voice to malign the voiceless and undervalued. His version of “comedy” attempts to insulate ignorant statements with a veneer of humor.

I do commend Maher for apologizing within the month — but he knew perfectly well what the word meant when he voiced it. His apology does little to rectify the tidal wave of damage these offhand comments cause. When this popular comedian spews out ignorance, impressionable people hear him and assume they should do the same, because it’s “funny.”

My brother has more emotional intelligence than anyone I know. While I can occasionally act selfishly in my refusal to make the hourlong drive to visit my aunt in her nursing home, Joseph always looks forward to it. When I’m upset, I know Joseph doesn’t necessarily comprehend the reason behind my melancholy — but he’ll say my name soothingly and hug me until the pain evaporates into the vast universe of which I am only an irrelevant particle. Though Joseph may not fully grasp that I’m away from home to pursue a college education, or that my dad is away from home to go to work, his heart aches because he knows a family should stay together.

That’s why I don’t get it when even those who fight for different areas of social justice — be it gender equality, LGBT rights, issues surrounding race — choose to use an ableist term in place of a more precise one. Why neglect the opportunity to employ more accurate diction? I think you meant to call your professor “unreasonable,” not developmentally disabled.

Furthermore, even if you referred to someone with a bona fide mental impairment as “retarded,” you would be limiting the person to that one demeaning label. Yes, my brother faces obstacles, but everyone does in one way or another. Above all, he’s a beautiful person who cares deeply about his family. Why hide redemptive traits behind the pernicious mask of pejorative vocabulary?

To be clear, I hate the sin, not the sinner. Many of the people who use this term are lovely in other respects and don’t intend to inflict emotional damage upon those associated with the special-needs community. The impact, however, is detrimental regardless of the intent.

It’s 2015, not the mid-1900s. The World Health Organization is finally working toward scrapping the term “mental retardation” from its medical classification list. Let’s strive to scrap it from our vocabularies as well.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

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