Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Words

This op-ed by Special Olympics athlete and promoter John Franklin Stephens criticizing Ann Coulter for using the word "retard" received a lot of buzz today. His criticism is legitimate, but misdirected at one polarizing individual, instead of culture at large.     

I personally know someone with down's syndrome, my little buddy Cedric, my wife's best friend's son. And of course like everyone else, I have come across special needs people at various stages of life.

I cannot think of too many things more reprehensible than bullying or mocking a special needs person, yet I have, for most of my life, casually used the word "ratard."

However, I have never used "retard" to deliberately denigrate people with down's syndrome or any other disability. In other words, I have never used it with malice. Cedric--nor anyone like him--has ever entered my mind when I say "that's retarded." I think this is probably almost universally true.

That's because "retard" is common vernacular in our culture. It's used in movies and in daily conversations. "That's retarded" has become a rhetorical staple, rarely intended as a slur against people with disability.

Yet I think I agree with the underlying sentiment of this op-ed: "retard" is a vulgar word, and probably should not be used in polite company. I have become more and more sensitive to it myself and have very much cut back on its use.

Although I think it's unfair and unnecessarily polarizing to single out Ann Coulter to make this argument--after all, most people who use the word aren't doing it to be cruel--the argument that "retard" should be purged from polite company makes sense to me.

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