Words: Meanings and Miscommunication

Does changing a word, reducing its usage, change the world? Does it change attitudes? Or do we use new words in place of old words to convey the same dismissive, derisive attitudes? If we rid the world of the word r*tard, will that be enough to get the intellectually disabled the acceptance and equality that is their right as fellow human beings?

Meanings, and the attitudes behind the meanings, matter. When young people today use that word so casually in their conversations (and boy do they use it!), do they mean harm? It's doubtful when they use it they're stopping to think about those with challenges; it's certainly obvious that they're not thinking of them and how that might make someone with an intellectual disability feel. No, it falls off the tongue carelessly with no thought. And the common usage has only increased over the years; any given day at the college, I'll hear it a handful of times as I pass through the common areas.

Do I stop them? Do I confront each student and gently explain that's hurtful? No, I don't, because I did, initially, when they used it directly in front of me, and it didn't help get them to use the word less. There's got to be a better way than directly addressing it. 

Condemnation of individuals who use the word thoughtlessly is not helpful, either. It is a commonly used word, like moron, idiot, imbecile, and even those in the disability community who should be sensitive to language and how it's used, use those three words, even if they avoid the R word.

I'd tell you that my use of dumbass is better, morally superior, but it's not. The attitude behind those words, used so casually in conversation that even when we don't mean to, have a tendency to slip from our tongue without deliberate forethought, is the same. The words are meant to convey a specific cluster of attitudes, and those attitudes are clearly communicated when we use any of those words.

It's a dismissive attitude, one that instantly signals that the person it's being used against is or has done something stupid. It's a way of rendering them less, less than smart, less than. It's not nice, and even softening it, to say that even dumbasses have feelings, does not lessen the fact that the terms are meant to sting.

I could commit a logical fallacy, point to its common usage and say that makes it okay, but it doesn't, not if you're on the receiving end of that attitude. It's only okay if you're the one dishing it out (and that's because you're dishing it out).

I'm not sure there's a solution here; people do some spectacularly stupid things, even the smartest people. There ought to be a way to convey those failures of cognition without a derisive attitude that somehow still conveys the humanity, the value, and the validation of that humanity and value. I fear it's so much easier and so much more satisfying to just slip into the use of those words that convey that attitude than it is to painstakingly break down the claims being made, bit by singular, spectacular failing bit.

The problem is we're human, hypocrisy is inevitable, and lapses in theory of mind and the golden rule are going to happen.

I'm all for ending the use of the "R" word, but it's the attitude behind the word that has to be changed, and whether we use that particular word or not, I'm willing to bet that underlying attitude is one we all employ at one point or another.

http://www.specialolympics.org/spread-the-word-to-end-the-word.aspx (my link button is acting up, so here's the site).


Life in the House That Asperger Built said...


People DO some spectacularly stupid things. :-)

Love you!

farmwifetwo said...

I think if people simply got over it, it would lose meaning. Everyone likes to point to language, word use and say "you need to say it PC"... WT???

ID is no more PC than MR... sorry. It is, what it is, period. People will always find comments to say to others whether angry or flippant and in jest.

Something as simple as my eldest telling me that the kids in his class were making comments about his snow pants. I said to him "are they cold" "Yes", "are their clothes wet after recess?" "yes"... "Just look them in the eye and say 'But atleast I can play in the snow, not be cold and not have to wear soggy pants in class'." He came home the next day and told me he did just that and I asked what their comment was.... "They didn't say anything".

Exactly, they didn't say anything. It's about self-respect and spine. About speaking out clearly and politely. It's not about getting offended about every little thing. Ironically, but shrugging things off you gain more respect than you do by throwing a temper.

It's only a word... unless someone is being a deliberate bully to your face, deliberately causing harm that needs to be stopped immediately... the best thing to do is let it go and not give it more importance and giving that person what they want... "recognition".

kathleen said...

As I tell my kids-there are no "BAD" words..really, how can a word be bad? It is how you use words and the intention behind the use that matters.

Ari said...

I have lots of moments that I describe as being "retarded". I don't want to be part of the problem and I definitely don't want to hurt or upset anyone. But, I need a way to let people know that I am not functioning as a fully-capable adult despite my appearance.

Thus far, "autism" has not been useful without an explanation. In person without a keyboard, every letter is painful and slow. I can't hand-write like I type, just holding a pen is hard. So lengthy explanations aren't always possible. What other word could I use? Or can I just keep using the word retarded but just to describe myself?

KWombles said...

Ari and all,

(this comment may be a bit of a mess, oops, I plead being really tired and ready for bed at 6 in the evening)

I don't know that there's any right answer; I think it's the attitude behind it that's the problem; I think that's what the Special Olympics is trying to promote: an end to the attitude of discrimination, prejudice and devaluing. The word is simply a symbol.

Does that shorthand work for you? Is there a better way to describe it? I don't know. Maybe fuzzy-brained? Having a hard time today with executive functioning?

I wouldn't judge your use of a word to describe yourself. Nancy Mairs is a writer, poet, and professor who also has MS; she calls herself a cripple; it's her condition, her experience, her right to name her experience.

Farmwife two, you're absolutely right; they'd co-opt that term and ask, "What are you, intellectually disabled?" just like "special" was taken and is now used derisively.

Attitudes have to be changed, then the words will lose their sting.


Yup, people do. :-) Love you, too.

Kathleen, some of my favorite words are "bad" words; you know if I told Lil that there were no bad words, she'd be using my favorite ones more than she already tries to get away with. :)

Again, I think it comes down to attitude; farmwife two's right that PC is meaningless; creating new words to describe the same thing, especially when the attitude towards the thing doesn't change, is pointless.

Where I see no harm, I don't intrude with the students I hear using it. If they're not bullying, if they're not being mean or cruel in the use, then I let it pass, and in all my years at my college, I've not seen students use it to bully. It's a term that used offhandedly. Do I wish they found another way? Yes. Teaching sensitivity and the power of words is something I think will be more effective; my freshman comp 2 class this week is tackling this very subject on the class blog. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

hope that made sense.