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Sunday, May 24, 2009
Rethinking “retarded”Friday's "Infidelity" post led to a moderately heated discussion re: my use of the word "retarded" in the intro. The charge: that it's insensitive to use that word because it works to demean or insult those with mental disabilities.
It probably goes without saying -- at least I hope it goes without saying -- that it was not my intent to insult or demean anyone, and I don't think that, taken in isolation (i.e. the context of that post) it could have reasonably been taken to have done so. As such, my initial response and the response of others to the criticism was to treat it as overly sensitive stuff worthy of dismissal.
But it's now been about 48 hours and a couple of things have happened. Reflection mostly, leading to the realization that it makes little sense to argue from the "taken in isolation" position, because nothing really occurs in isolation, especially when you're blogging. I can think of all kinds of words and ideas that, taken in isolation, wouldn't technically be offensive, but that's being too cute. If my strident attacks on Chief Wahoo establish anything, they establish that I kind of am trying to impact the general discourse here, so it's disingenuous for me to cordon off selective posts and say they don't count. It all counts, so I have to judge everything I say equally and not give myself free passes just because I'm trying to be funny or whatever.
So I've gone back and read everyone's criticism, and I've read a lot of stuff online, and I'm convinced that, yeah, throwing around the word "retarded" as a synonym for stupid or idiotic is bad form and should be avoided. I was resistant to this argument at first because, hey, I'm human and I'm predisposed to argue against things which challenge my habits and assumptions. The clarity provided by a day or two, however, makes it seem obvious to me that, even if the word isn’t deployed to mock those with special needs, it does work to equate the idiotic (Braves fans doing the chop) with those who are retarded in the clinical sense of the term. And actually, using the term is a double offense of sorts: in addition to demeaning those with mental disabilities, it's non-negative connotations mean that it's nowhere near as rough as a term as could be used on the jerks doing the Tomahawk Chop. They are entitled to attack for unadulterated stupidity, and by using a murky, qualified term that isn't always a negative lets 'em off too easy.
All of this said, I don’t think my or anyone else's use of the term rises to the level of capital offense. There are worse terms with far less ambiguity about them than "retarded," and their use implies far more ill will and nastiness than anyone using "retarded" ever has. I'm also not going to grant anyone the argument -- as some tried to make in the comments to the post -- that there is some moral equivalence to the Indians' use of a racist caricature as a mascot and my unfortunate use of a given term. That's baloney, and if you want to fight about, hey, let's fight about it, because that's what comments sections are for. Also, I'm not going to go back and change that post, because (a) trying to make something disappear on the Internet is a fool's game; and (b) that post combined with this one might actually be useful to have around for people as they try to parse the use of troublesome terms.
To sum up: in hindsight I wish I hadn’t used the term "retarded" in such a fashion, and I will refrain from doing so in the future. You may now all continue arguing about whatever suits your fancy.
Posted by Craig Calcaterra at 2:08pm
Sara K said...
Well spoken, sir. I especially like your observation that the Chop, as an act of willful ignorance, deserves a harsher term. Turner Field attendees can, should, and hopefully someday will do better.
Posted 05/24 at 02:43 PM
Bob Timmermann said...
Very well said, Craig. It would have been a lot easier to hold your ground and been defensive. But this showed a greater depth and understanding of the subject.
Posted 05/24 at 02:51 PM
Bill B. said...
Craig, I have to give you huge credit for being able to admit fault, something that far too few have the ability to do on the Internet.
I didn’t happen to catch the particular post in question, so reading this was kind of a surprise for me, but nonetheless, it sounds like the P.C. crowd got to you.
Frankly, I can’t fault you for what you said. The term “retarded” has a meaning other than the clinical one. The relatively recent colloquialism is, whether the P.C. crowd likes it or not, just as valid informally. It’s like if you called someone a “noob”. Not exactly a word you want to use, say, in a research paper, but in a blog, I don’t see the crime.
At any rate, I try to avoid snafus like that myself, and my point of view is that if you absolutely have to use a word that is bound to cause some level of controversy, then you need some work on your vocabulary.
I’m not saying that’s you, because I don’t think you would struggle to come up with synonyms for the colloquial “retarded”.
Basically, if you use “retarded,” I don’t see the big deal. But you should try to avoid it anyway simply because most people won’t take too kindly to it.
Posted 05/24 at 02:54 PM
Tom Seaver said...
Perhaps the best course of action would be to leave your posts open to edits, like Wikipedia. That way, everyone can eliminate all words, phrases, or thoughts they find offensive. Then, after a rousing session of Kumbaya and hand-holding, we can read your latest offering, which, hopefully, will be wrapped up in three words or less and not offend anyone. Ah, the things for which we humans strive.
Posted 05/24 at 02:59 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Tom— I say plenty of things on this blog that are pointed and uncompromising. If it was simply a matter of not offending others I wouldn’t care.
My comments in this post are because I wasn’t, upon reflection, personally comfortable with what I said and how I said it. Just because it happens to flow with the offense of others doesn’t make this an exercise in wikiblogging Kumbaya nonsense.
Being reflexively anti-P.C. is every bit as stupid as being reflexively P.C.
Posted 05/24 at 03:02 PM
Yeah, it’s so lame when people use “retarded” like that.
Posted 05/24 at 03:09 PM
As a father of a boy with Down syndrome, I appreciate this. Words shift and change in meaning. In another era (not so long ago), “idiotic” would have referred to people we now call retarded. My son would have been labeled a “Mongoloid idiot.” “Retarded” was brought in as a way to move away from the stigma of idiot, and now we use “delayed.”
And yet, recognizing that the meaning is but a product of recent social constructions doesn’t mean that the meaning isn’t real and potentially hurtful.
Posted 05/24 at 03:09 PM
Again, I don’t see the big deal.
You can find something offensive almost anywhere if you look hard enough.
If I got angry every time I heard something that could be construed as insensitive, I’d be in a perpetual state of pissed off.
Take the comment in the spirit it was given, or just ignore it.
Posted 05/24 at 03:34 PM
Keith Law said...
I think part of the reason the word persists in the vernacular is the lack of a really good snarky replacement. “Lame” - nice one, KR - doesn’t have the same effect. Synonyms for “stupid” don’t have the same connotation as “retarded,” and really, the idiot/moron family of words is getting a bit played out. You can always escalate with the ol’ Anglo-Saxon gerund, but that certainly won’t fly on the site where I do my baseball writing, and I doubt Craig wants to head down that path either. So we’re left with “retarded,” or a substitute word that’s less strong and doesn’t reflect the same level of venom that the stricken word brings to the table.
Posted 05/24 at 03:42 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Ethan—I’m sympathetic to the notion that, yeah, people can be offended by anything, but that’s not a position that provides much guidance unless you think that there’s NOTHING that is truly offensive. Clearly I shouldn’t be dropping N-bombs, right? At the same time, saying that someone is “stupid” isn’t anything offensive (at least I’m not going to go through this exercise over it). So where does that leave us?
It seems like it leaves us in a position where we have to do our best to make choices on what is and what isn’t acceptable in our own conversation and writing. After some thought, I decided that “retarded” wasn’t a good word to use. Someone else may decide that it’s fine. That’s cool. I don’t propose external censorship—again, my backtracking here is based on my own reflection, not the browbeating of others—but to suggest that we shouldn’t wrestle with these issues seems like an intellectually lazy and rather reactionary tack to take.
Posted 05/24 at 03:55 PM
Tom Seaver said...
Wait! I’m offended at PC! Where do I go to get satisfaction, Craig? Isn’t that one of the new additions to the Bill of Rights? The Right Not To to be Offended?
Posted 05/24 at 04:30 PM
Tom Seaver said...
My point is that if you believe you were intellectually lazy, fine. If you did it because you offended people, don’t open your mouth because someone will be offended about just about anything. Have some stones.
Posted 05/24 at 04:32 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Tom—it was the former in my case. I didn’t write this because I felt the need to address any one person’s concerns in the thread. It was really a matter of not feeling that I could personally defend my use of the word retarded in that context, and I’m just wired in such a way that I have to be able to justify what I say.
Posted 05/24 at 04:43 PM
You can’t be blogging by thesaurus Craig. Almost have to go back to W. C. Fields vocabulary which was really double-entrendre, wink-wink.
Posted 05/24 at 05:17 PM
Bravo for finding that necessary but elusive middle ground between anti-intellectual/reactionary/lazy persistence and overly sensitive kowtowing.
Posted 05/24 at 06:34 PM
That this is an issue is retarded. Free speech, retards.
Posted 05/24 at 07:50 PM
Tom Seaver said...
That is an intellecually dishonest position, Craig. You said that it sparked a heated debate and you changed your mind after reflecting on everyone’s criticism. Sounds like you get wobbly when people criticize. That is, when some people criticize. Tolerance is simply a one-way street to get someone else to believe what you believe. If you were torn by your use of the word “retarded” (defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment”) after hearing criticism from people, simply don’t use it again. Easy, case closed. But for your attempt to apologize to a small group, you impinge upon society’s ability to use words that have a legitimate usage. Just remember that some people might be offended by the use of the terms or phrases “switch hitter”, “rubbing up the (base)balls”, and “high and tight”. Thinking back to my teenaged years, “getting to third base” could be offensive to others, as well.
Posted 05/24 at 08:14 PM
Jamie Moyer's Grandson said...
I agree that calling Braves’ fans that do the tomahawk chop “retards” is improper and offensive to those with special needs. So what are we supposed to call those moronic idiots now?
Posted 05/24 at 08:43 PM
Mike B said...
Brian, first of all, freedom of speech applies to government censorship of public speech, not to a private blog. Second, even in the misapplied way you mean it, just because you have the right to act like a dick doesn’t mean you should. Dick.
That said, “retarded” is one of those words that, by the time we die, will be completely un-PC. For now, the word as I believe it was used (underdeveloped) is in my opinion fair game, though if avoiding one or two sensitive seeds is the goal, there’s no real reason to go out of the way to use it, either.
Posted 05/24 at 09:00 PM
When the movie Tropic Thunder was released there were protests about Robert Downey’s character’s use of the word retard. After watching the film it seemed like one of the least offensive things about the film and Downey’s character in particular. It was not used to demean disabled people. It was a criticism of Hollywood and the Oscar bait that it produces. I think it is important to take into account the intent behind someone’s words before getting too worked up.
Posted 05/24 at 09:04 PM