In May of 2013, Bill and I were sitting at a train station in Venice, Italy. We were waiting to catch our ride to Florence on Italo, a then brand new private Italian train company. As we were waiting, we heard an announcement in Italian about a train that was significantly delayed. The pre-recorded announcement did not use the word “delay”. Instead, it included an Italian incarnation of the word “retard”, used as an adjective.
Bill turned to me and said, “Now you see… there’s an instance in which the word “retard” is used in a completely non-offensive way.”
I have never forgotten that conversation, especially as more and more “woke” types feel the need to outright ban certain words from the English language. I am all for avoiding deliberately insulting others, especially those who suffer from any kind of intellectual disabilities that are beyond their control.
However, as I realized when we were at the train station in Italy, words have many nuances, usages, and definitions. Some words are inherently offensive, and almost always used in a hurtful way. And sometimes, people deliberately take offense at the use of a “taboo” word when absolutely no harm is intended. That causes problems that could just as easily be avoided if the person would simply be more mature and stop being willfully ignorant.
It’s been many years since I last used the word “retard” in the taboo way, although I will admit that in the 1980s, it was a word that was flung around on playgrounds and school busses with the greatest of ease. It was also used in plenty of 70s and 80s era comedies, both on television and in the movies. I can think of two films off the top of my head– very popular movies that still remain popular today–in which characters use the word “retard” as an insult.
Today, those films would probably not be made with the word “retard” used as an insult, although I would not be surprised if some incarnation of the word “douche” was used in its place. Personally, I find the word “douche” offensive for several reasons, but I’m not campaigning to have it banned. In many cultures, the word “douche” just means “shower”, and is perfectly useful and non-offensive. So rather than trying to get the word “douche” banned, I simply avoid using it myself.
As a lover of language, I can’t quite bring myself to jump on the “ban-wagon” when it comes to any word, even the ones that can start riots. I never think of words as things that should ever be banned, even when they are deemed very “offensive”. Instead, I am more concerned about context and the attitude behind the use of language. And yes, that means that I think words that people routinely campaign to have struck from the language are sometimes acceptable to use in certain contexts. To avoid being offended, it’s up to people to grow up and not be deliberately obtuse. Otherwise, they’re doomed to stay butthurt.
This morning, someone shared the below post on Facebook. If I had already had my coffee, I probably would have just rolled my eyes and ignored it. But instead, I left a response. Basically, I wrote that the word “retard” is only a slur if it’s used as an insult. There are other ways to use it that are totally neutral.
I knew I might regret leaving that comment, but the friend who shared this is usually a very understanding person. I figured she’d get what I mean. Besides, while I understand people being aggravated by insulting, demeaning language, I am aggravated by people who presume to tell me what I can or cannot say or write.
I think people should be responsible for their own use of language; most of them don’t need the language police to remind them to be “politically correct”. Frankly, I’m fed up with people who use social media as a place for that kind of soap box activism, particularly when all they’ve done is shared someone else’s viral post. Facebook was originally supposed to be fun, wasn’t it?
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before someone came along and tried to school me about how the word “retard” is never acceptable. This person wrote that it’s no longer used by professionals and it’s outdated, etcetera, etcetera.
My response– simply because I was feeling stubborn and my verbal restraint reflex was somewhat “retarded”– was that yes, in fact, sometimes the word “retard” is perfectly acceptable and unoffensive. That word has other meanings besides the insulting one. The word “retard”, when used as a verb, means “to slow or delay”. That was how it was used at the train station in Italy. No one got offended when it was used in that way. I can think of other ways the word “retard” can be used that shouldn’t cause offense to anyone.
The person who challenged me came back and posted that she’s got autism. Actually, I believe she wrote that she’s “autistic”, and has an “autistic” child. I was a little surprised that she put it that way, since I thought the emphasis was supposed to be on the person rather than the condition. Like– I thought it was more politically correct to say, “I have autism” rather than “I’m autistic.” But I am not in that world, so I don’t know, and I wouldn’t presume to tell someone who is in that world how they should refer to themselves.
Besides, I don’t think of autism as something inherently good or bad. My husband’s older daughter is supposedly on the spectrum, but we know she is a brilliant artist and she’s proven that there’s nothing wrong with her intellect. I don’t know if she’s sorry she has autism. She no longer speaks to Bill. But, based on what I know about her, she’s got plenty of things going for her besides the condition of autism.
I responded to my friend’s friend that I was sorry that people have used the word “retard” in an offensive way, and that she is offended by its use. But I am not going to be told that I can’t use a word that I know is perfectly acceptable in many situations, simply because some group says it’s “offensive”, in and of itself. That’s wrong.
The challenger then asked me to use the word “retard” in an unoffensive way. So I wrote something along the lines of, “I see no reason to retard the development of languages by banning specific words.”
She then wrote that my answer was “stupid”. There was more to her comment, but I quit reading, because she made it clear that respectful communication and education weren’t her goals. Instead, it appeared that she wanted to disparage my intellect by referring to my answer as “stupid”. That’s brilliant, isn’t it? I guess she didn’t see the irony. She’s lecturing me about not ever using the word “retard” because it’s disrespectful and hurtful, but then she uses the word “stupid” to describe my comment and, based on her perceived tone, my intellect.
I truly didn’t want to get into a pissing match with this person, since I don’t know her and she doesn’t know me. If she did know me, she might be surprised by how “not stupid” I am, at least compared to the average person. Even if she did still think I’m stupid after meeting me, that would obviously be her uninformed and incorrect opinion.
I realized, however, that my time would probably be wasted trying to continue the conversation. As I didn’t want to get into a legitimate argument, I wrote “So now you are insulting me. That’s very nice. Have a good day.”
Normally, when a person writes “Have a good day.”, that means they’re done with the discussion and are politely trying to bow out. I figure that’s a more respectful way of leaving the conversation than telling them to “fuck off” is. But, as this person says she has autism, I guess she didn’t pick up on the social cue. She came back and wrote, “Feeling insulted, huh?” then continued with more insults…
I guess, if I were going to assign an emotion to how I felt about her response, it would be “annoyed” or maybe “puzzled”. It does seem strange to be preached at by a stranger about not offending people with intellectual disabilities by calling them “retarded” (which I never did), and then, in the next breath, having that same person refer to my comment as “stupid”.
If I had written that I thought her comment was “retarded”, what would her response be? Isn’t “stupid” just as offensive as “retarded”? At least the word “retard”, even when used an insulting way, indicates a medical condition that a person can’t help. Stupid just means a person or thing is dull-witted and unintelligent, whether or not they can help being that way. I can’t think of many ways the word “stupid” could be used that isn’t negative.
I wrote something akin to, “No, I’m not ‘feeling insulted’. You’re being hypocritical, and I have other things to do. So kindly enjoy your day, and I will continue to speak and write as I please.” I truly wasn’t “insulted” by her comment, because I would have to care about her opinion to be insulted by it. But I will admit to being annoyed by her comments and her erroneous presumptions about me. Especially, since I truly didn’t attempt to insult her.
Then she wrote some sarcastic remark about how I can keep “offending” people with special needs, but at that point, I used my block button. Because I do actually have better things to do with my time today than argue with a perfect stranger about my vocabulary. Hell, cleaning the lint out of my belly button would be a better use of my time than continuing that unproductive discussion with someone whose mind is currently closed. She obviously didn’t see my point, and wasn’t going to try to see it. Instead, she was hellbent on “winning” the argument, and doing so in a disrespectful, non-empathic way. Still, she failed to convince me, so I guess she can keep fighting the good fight with someone else.
Some people might point out that I probably “asked” for this unpleasant exchange. I would agree with them that it’s mostly pointless to point out these kinds of language discrepancies among friends. A person who would share an image like the one above probably has strong feelings about the subject matter, but hasn’t thought very long and hard about them, and is just looking for likes and loves, rather than actual commentary.
On the other hand, I do get annoyed when some busybody presumes to correct my language. I’m an adult, and fully responsible for what I say and do. If I say something egregiously obnoxious or offensive, it may be appropriate to call me out for that. But I don’t really need my friends to pre-emptively instruct me on the proper way to use language.
Moreover, I think my opinions matter as much as anyone else’s do. I’ve spent my life being told that my thoughts and feelings don’t matter, so I tend to be strong-willed and argumentative about these things, now that I am an adult. I realize it’s hard to be assertive about such things without still inadvertently offending people. Such is life.
I do get irritated when people try to tell me how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking. I think it’s disrespectful to try to read people’s minds, especially when they’re strangers. Maybe I would be happier if I just “let it go”, but I think that people who are able to do that often don’t think about much more other than what’s right in front of them.
Either that, or they’re like that Japanese monk Bill and I ran into a few years ago, who just radiated peace, serenity, and calmness. I have seen very few people like that in my lifetime. I would actually LOVE to be like that monk… although I realize I am ASSUMING he is actually as calm as he appeared. For all I know, he’s got a hot temper.
Perhaps today I will go out of my way to use the word “retard” in non-offensive ways. Of course, around here, most people speak German and don’t speak to me, anyway, so that effort might be lost on them. Also… when it comes to grammar policing, all bets are off.