"Retarded" used to be a garden-variety insult, but it may be the next candidate for prime-time bleeping.
E. Duff Wrobbel never gave the word much thought — until his daughter was born with Down syndrome. When she was just a baby, Wrobbel was driving with her when another car cut them off.
"And I actually said that word," says Wrobbel, who is a professor of speech communications. "And then I stopped my car and got teary. And I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I just said that.' "
Now, Wrobbel has joined other activists who campaign against the word "retard." To them, it's not a hilarious put-down; it's hate speech. (The word has been retired by medical and social service organizations, which prefer the term "intellectual disabilities" instead.) They petition TV networks and comedians, and organize against movies like last summer's hit film Tropic Thunder, which coined the term "full retard" to describe a certain kind of unsuccessful Oscar-baiting role.
While the Tropic Thunder protests did little but provide publicity, there are signs that the word's status may be changing. Earlier this summer, film critic Eric D. Snider was reviewing a DVD called Miss March. It's a stinker of an insult comedy uniformly hated by critics when it came out in theaters last spring. Snider noticed that in the DVD version, actors' lips were clearly saying "retard" repeatedly, but the word was dubbed out and replaced with "stupid" or "crackhead." (He wrote about it here.)
It's not just movies rethinking "retard" as an easy laugh. The Black Eyed Peas recorded a "clean" version of their song "Let's Get Retarded" that changed that line to "Let's Get It Started." And a few months ago, popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage renounced his use of the word.
"You know, I just sat down to write the column, and I'd used the word 'retard' in a column recently," he explained. "And there was a handful of letters taking me to task and I thought, 'OK, I won't use it anymore. I'll use a new word. I hope you like this one better.' "
The new word was "leotard." As in, "You're being totally leotarded."
"Frankly, I've heard people using the 'r-word,' " Savage says, "and it just seems so pansy-assed, if I may use that phrase."
Savage is gay and brings a specific knowledge to that phrase. According to Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower, "gay" and "retard" occupy parallel linguistic positions when it comes to schoolyard trash talk. They mean the same thing — "stupid" or "bad."
Sheidlower can trace the use of "retard" as an insult back to the late 1950s. The first reference he could find was in a book about jazz. In a reference to Playboy magazine, a character says, "that Hefner jazz is for retarded jockstraps."
"Retarded," like "gay," functions as an all-purpose put-down, says Sheidlower. If you say, "Stop being so gay," or "That movie was retarded," it's not meant to be taken literally — as in "Stop being so homosexual," or "That movie was intellectually disabled." That differentiates those words from racist slurs. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written on the topic in his column in The Atlantic.
Coates says that in order for hateful language to become socially unacceptable, it needs to be linked with the kind of bigoted behavior no one wants to be associated with. And he suggests that there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in empathy.
"As a young man, I used the word 'chink' all the time," he says. "We referred to the corner store as 'the chink store' and thought nothing of it. What happens is, if you're lucky, you come to understand those words describe actual human beings."
Until then, "retard" will continue as a commonplace zinger.
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