On Retards and Niggers

I had been preparing another ethics post but today I’m gonna play at being a real blogger and riff off a topical story; Attention seeking  broadcaster calls singer ‘retarded’, causes kerfuffle.

The incident itself is boring but the ensuing debate about the word ‘retarded’ is not. Many people don’t consider it offensive at all, while Special Olympics New Zealand chairman David Rutherford said using ‘retard’ to be as hurtful as racial slurs like ‘nigger’. Rutherford may be right about the offense felt by the respective groups, but I think there is an interesting difference between intellectual disability and race that may explain the disagreement.

First however, we must look at what ‘offense’ talk is about. In the present sense x is offensive to y if x lowers y‘s status. We talk about ‘offensive’ words but thats not exactly accurate. It’s what people do with their words that offend*.However in most contexts If I call someone ‘nigger’ rather than the obvious ‘black’  the audience assumes an intention to communicate disrespect as the best explanation for the choice. The word is relatively archaic, from a time when blacks had less status and I have other options. So someone who believes in racial equality or desires not to make blacks feel bad will not use the word.

The history of disability slurs is a bit different. Neutral terms become derogatory very quickly. ‘Retarded’ was once a respectful term used by scientific authorities.Its rooted in the latin for slow(as in development). Around the 1970’s it started to be seen as derogatory. The same thing had happened before with ‘Imbicile’ and ‘Idiot’ ; both were once neutral terms of science but are now almost exclusively reserved for occasions where the speaker wishes to offend. ‘Handicaped’ is more than half-way to becoming unacceptable. Even the current standard, ‘disabled’, has been challenged by ‘challenged’.  ‘Special’ and ‘gifted’ have quickly become jokes. There are many slurs coined especially to derogate but intellectual disability seems exceptional its ability to turn nice words bad.

I suspect the reason for this high turnover of labels is that unlike blackness, intellectual disability is inherently low status.  Black’s low status in the actual world is  a historical accident and can change with our norms. It’s quite possible, in fact its easy, for a person not to think less of someone based on their race. Such people will use ‘black’ while racists will use ‘nigger’.This situation is relatively stable, providing no special force towards linguistic change

However the low status of the intellectually disabled is not accidental. They are by their nature, less intelligent, less able and less independent than others. We all evolved to be impressed by intelligence, skill and power. Few seriously look up to the intellectually disabled or would want to be disabled themselves. Iintellectual disability is not desirable. No matter what word you use to refer to the intellectually disabled, the stigma will eventually reassert itself  because it is carried by the referent its self. 

The coining of new words is an attempt to pretend we don’t think less of the intellectually disabled and show that we don’t intend to offend**. It employs the same benign hypocrisy as euphemisms. However this ‘euphamistic’ power  collapses as soon as the word achieves wide currency. The demands of everyday use bring down the facade and reconnect the word with its objects real qualities.When everyone starts ‘using the toilet ‘(itself a delicate french euphemism originally ) true ladies must start ‘powdering their noses’. When everyone starts uttering sentences such as’ the intellectually disabled boy is eating his crayon, Miss‘, ‘intellectually disabled’ will pick up the same connotations as ‘retarded’ no matter what our intentions are.

Because of this we need a stream of fresh terms to keep pace with stigmatization of the old terms that refer to intellectual disability. Racial terms do not seem to change so quickly. There is nothing bad about black people that will stigmatize any neutral name attached to them. It is thus normally  clearer as to what counts as a racial slur rather than a put down of the disabled. We should expect some disagreement as to the latter.

So the moral is that if someone uses ‘retarded’ we shouldn’t assume malice. Everyone is pretending a little bit when they use ‘positive’ names for the intellectually disabled. Some people will be genuianly uncertain what words have fallen bellow the threshold of acceptability in such a fast-moving game. However this does not  mean you should talk of ‘morons’ and ‘idiots’ while feeling pride at your plain speaking. You may feel the polite terms try to mask the obvious, but in doing so they do make it clear that you are not positively against the intelectually disabled. The best rule is: adopt the new terms when you learn them while forgiving those who keep the language they grew up with.

*Many still fetishize words, giving us childish constructions such as ‘the N-word’ and ‘Ni***er’.

**  Such linguistic change may be accelerated by an arms race between ‘socially concious’ types trying to best their peers in the sensitivity game.


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