Are Words Retarded?
Is it possible to reclaim derogatory words in everyday speech?
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 1, 2012 23:11
Last week, conservative commentator Ann Coulter took to Twitter with the following assessment of the third presidential debate: “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard [President Obama].” The next day, despite widespread denouncement of her initial word choice, she returned to Twitter in order to express the view that, “if [Obama] is ‘the smartest guy in the room,’ it must be one retarded room.”
While many observers on both sides of the political aisle had a deeply visceral reaction to the colloquial just-mentioned uses of the word, widely condemning her word choice as a thoughtless and disrespectful one, Coulter herself didn’t seem to recognize the problem. In a radio interview taped the day after the tweets were published, she responded to a question about the incident by saying, “Look, no one would refer to a Down Syndrome child, someone with an actual mental handicap, by saying ‘retard.’ Where do you think the words ‘imbecile,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘moron,’ ‘cretin’ come from? These were all technical terms at one time.” Asked about opposition to her word choice, she simply wrote critics off as “liberal victims” and “word police” to whom she feels she owes nothing and about whose opinions she could not care less.
The apparent crux of her argument – that, in her words, “‘retard’ has been used colloquially to just mean ‘loser’ for 30 years” – is also the crux of a larger ongoing war over words in the United States. At the heart of that war is a single, vital question: is it possible for a once-derogatory word to change meaning with enough significance so as to make that word reclaimable in everyday speech? Or, conversely, is a word like “retard” – or “gay,” or a whole host of other words whose usage is currently under scrutiny – socially and historically charged enough that it should remain off-limits indefinitely in all but its most literal sense, if even that?
This linguistic argument is very much open for debate, but I hold my own strong point of view, which I am unlikely to change anytime soon because I am at least 99 percent sure I’m in the right. Maybe my stance has something to do with the fact that I am an English major with a particularly strong affinity for the beauty of words in all of their possible permutations, but I happen to think that the assertion many of Coulter’s defenders are making – “words are just words, nothing more and nothing less, so Ann didn’t do anything wrong here” – is not only moot, but also absurdly ill-considered and downright unintelligent – not to mention insensitive.
At what point did we, as a country, decide that words had lost their meaning? When did we start to think that it was okay for an individual to sling offensive words around and then, as an afterthought, to tack on the footnote that the words weren’t meant offensively and that, as such, their use was permissible? In what version of the country did it become acceptable for an extremely public figure to use language that is widely considered to be offensive and even malicious to specific groups of already-stigmatized individuals?
Ms. Coulter and allies, let me be clear: there is no such thing as “just a word.” You have not, apparently, noticed, but here is a fact: language is the single most important tool the human race has for the purpose of communication. A given word, Ms. Coulter, is the ruler by which we measure intent, the scale with which we weigh significance, and the hammer with which we construct meaning. A word is enough to either invigorate or decimate a whole people. It carries with it an infinite number of stories, feelings and lives. Each word is, in fact, a full history in and of itself, and it is made important by its very existence – universally acknowledged and understood – in the language.
I would also like to clarify a couple of things that a word is not. It is not some trivial string of letters that can be claimed and unclaimed and reclaimed at will. And, Ms. Coulter, it is emphatically not something that, in your words, fringe-dwelling “authoritative, bullying victims” can simply use as a political wedge in order to create a problem where one does not already exist; rather, it gains traction when – and only when – the problem has already been established.
No, Ms. Coulter, a word is, instead, an example of a rare middle ground on which we can all meet. The fact that a word carries its own personal history is one of the things that makes it beautiful: that shared knowledge of its meaning is a place in which we can find common ground in a day and age where such mutual understanding is rare. For precisely that reason, you are not off the hook for redefining the word “retard” and bending it to suit your intentions simply because you weren’t using it to “refer to someone with an actual mental handicap.”
In the realm of language, definition is more important than intention. As such, you don’t get to play the so-called “word police” to whom you say you are so vehemently opposed: the only real police here is the dictionary, the authority of which you have deeply violated and undermined with your careless word choices and unintelligible attempts at verbal self-defense.
Get a clue, Ms. Coulter. Words can kill.