Ellison: Fighting for our words

Raising Hellison

Political discourse these days seems to thrive on feigned outrage and manufactured scandals, and Sarah Palin is not new to the practice. This month’s installment: She called for Rahm Emanuel to step down after he called plans by liberal activists to run ads attacking Democrats who were stalling health care reform “f—ing retarded.”

While Palin’s credibility to demand that Emanuel lose his job was quickly squandered by her defense of Rush Limbaugh’s use of the same word (albeit not with the preceding “f—ing”) to describe the same activists, I am willing to entertain the possibility that Sarah Palin was right to criticize Emanuel last week.

For his part, Emanuel apologized to Timothy Shriver ’81, the chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics. After they met in person, Shriver issued a statement with other advocates for the disabled in which they called on all Americans “to understand the collective efforts of our community to remove the words ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ from everyday speech.” Additionally, the statement indicated that Emanuel “committed that the administration would continue to look for ways to partner with us, including examining pending legislation in Congress to remove the “r-word” from federal law.”

It is important to note that the latter portion of the advocates’ statement refers to very different usage of the word. In federal law, the “r-word” is used in the context of describing people with disabilities; eliminating it would be akin to replacing the term “gay” with “homosexual.” Emanuel, of course, used the word in everyday speech not to refer to actual people with disabilities, but to refer to a political strategy he believed to be thoughtlessly misguided. Urban Dictionary defines this usage as “an ‘unofficial’ (not recognized by dictionaries) slang descriptor of [something] which is one or more of the following: a waste of time, abandoned, abject, abominable, abortive, absurd …” — the list goes on and on.

How bad is this usage of the word? As bad as the “n-word,” as Sarah Palin and Barbara Walters asserted? While I recognize that people with intellectual disabilities have been treated poorly over the years and do not want to diminish the pain this has caused, I still cannot equate the use of the word, especially when describing the actions of someone with no disabilities, to a word that encapsulates centuries of institutionalized oppression and discrimination.

It is probably more accurate to compare the “r-word” with the use of the word “gay,” going back to Urban Dictionary, to “describe something stupid or unfortunate.” Both words, when used in this way, are meant to be derogatory and do not denote their official meanings. Emanuel didn’t really think the liberal activists were intellectually disabled, just as no one really thinks situations have sexual preferences.

But there are key differences. Being gay is not undesirable, and to associate the word with negativity is to harmfully suggest that it is. On the other hand, scoring below a 70 on an IQ test, the definition of mental retardation in most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is less desirable than being able to score above 70, though this obviously does not mean that an intellectually disabled person is a lesser person. Plus, when the “r-word” is used in a derogatory manner, its meaning resembles the clinical definition, albeit differing in tone and degree.

Does this make it okay to use the word the way Emanuel used it? Probably not. Using this word in a derogatory way that deviates from its clinical definition trivializes the very real struggles of people working to overcome mental disabilities. And if someone requests that I not use a word because it causes them pain, that is usually a good enough reason for me to find a different way to express myself.

But this attempt should be taken seriously. If we’re going to police harmful words, we cannot equally object to such attempts, even if they are self-imposed, to modify our discourse to avoid needless offense, claiming it is yet another example of political correctness run amok. In my opinion, that’s just f—ing … never mind.

Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.

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