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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
Craig Calcaterra 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.”
If doing anything other than turning a deaf ear to criticism is to “get wobbly,” then fine, I’m wobbly. Back in the real world, however, the one in which things aren’t all in black and white, it’s more complicated:
1. I said what I said.
If that makes me a slave to “tolerance” then so be it, but hearing many voices and then ultimately relying one’s own conscience is how reasonable people work through things. If that troubles you, there are far more blogs on the Internet written by uncompromising people who think they’re always right, and they will never cause you the sorts of problems I seem to be causing you.
“you were torn by your use of the word “retarded” 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.”
I don’t consider this post to be an apology, though given your views on what constitutes weakness and wobbliness, I’m assuming you see apology and retreat in anything other than an uncompromising position. That’s fine. For my part, this blog has always been an interactive forum and I have frequently gone out of my way to explain my thinking to people. That’s all I’m doing here.
But even if I were apologizing (and whatever you want to call what I’m doing here), to suggest that my saying so impinges on anyone’s right to say what the hell they want is ridiculous. Societies make aggregate judgments about what is and what is not acceptable. I’ve got one vote on that just like you do. If I’m among a loony fringe who thinks that the word “retarded” is offensive, nothing I say is going to make society as a whole change its mind (see words like “womyn” from a liberal arts college near you). Say what you want. I don’t care. The marketplace of ideas is going to decide what flies and what doesn’t, not whatever you or I have to say individually.
Ultimately the purpose of this post is to explain my thinking on this, which is something my readers have come to expect me to do. If that’s unacceptable to you, sorry.
Posted 05/24 at 09:29 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Bloggeroflamancha: I recall all of that. I didn’t see the movie and didn’t really have an opinion about it at the time. Based on what I read about it, though, it sounded pretty funny, actually, and you’d never find me on a line protesting about it. And I agree, intent matters. In the mouth of a character like the Robert Downey character and in a movie doing the things “Tropic Thunder” was trying to do, I can totally see the argument for it.
As I’ve said a couple of times here: I don’t think the word is an epithet, and I have no desire to scrub the language of words simply because, in some situations, they may be deployed offensively. But (a) I have no context defense for the crude way I used it; and (b) my thinking about it all is going to counsel against me using the word in most situations going forward solely because of my own comfort level with it.
Posted 05/24 at 09:34 PM
Craig, I appreciate your thoughtful response to my comment. My point was mainly that I think some people look for things to get offended about and that as a regular reader of your blog I did not find it likely that you meant any harm in your comment. Sometimes we use words like retard without giving them a second thought because we grew up using them in a different time.
I can understand your rethinking using the word in such a casual manner. I think Tom Seaver is being a bit harsh, although what would you expect from a former Met. They are all loud, obnoxious and unapologetic. Thankfully Keith Hernandez has not seen fit to weigh in as of yet.
Posted 05/24 at 09:54 PM
BJ E said...
Very admirable actions Craig. It takes a pretty big person to admit you made a mistake with something like this. I’ve been fighting this battle for quite some time now. Mainly a losing battle. With the whole “retarded” thing, it seems like it’s very easy for people to write you off as being overly PC if you object. Ask anyone though, who has a family member with Downs Syndrome how hurtful it can be to hear it.
Very refreshing to see a mistake being owned up to, that could have easily been dismissed. Thanks.
Posted 05/24 at 10:11 PM
Kudos Craig, well said.
Posted 05/24 at 10:23 PM
Right-on all-around. Hyphen-hyphen.
Posted 05/24 at 10:35 PM
As everyone in the the non-Seaver crowd, it’s good to see you, Craig, giving thorough thought to your use of words. I came down on the side of your support originally because, well, “retard” is a word with a lengthy history of usage prior to its association with the mentally disabled, and, I’ll admit, it irks me to see language so severely limited in scope for the sensitivities of a few.
This said, because those sensitivities are so personal—the people who take offense to the indifferent deployment of “retard” are often thinking of family members who have suffered undue mockery—it is certainly pragmatic to reserve usage for very specific instances. It is not a word for casual use.
I have to voice a complaint though, in regards to the offended. A lot of the comments have had echoes of BJ E’s “Ask anyone though, who has a family member with Downs Syndrome how hurtful it can be to hear it.” I’ve got family with Downs. I’ve got family with autism so sever they’ve been wards of the state since they were children. I have a brother whose autism is comparably mild, but bad enough that his education, his social life, his understanding of the world is very, very different from yours or mine. These people have all been mocked as retarded, and frankly, I think that by being so sensitive to it, you give the word more power and stigma than it deserves. You make it worse than it is. “Idiot” and “moron” are essentially powerless words: anyone can use them or be called by them without consequence or fear. Not so with “retard”, and I honestly believe that if so many people weren’t getting so busy being offended by the word, it wouldn’t be a problem. That is: retard is offensive largely because you deem it so.
Posted 05/24 at 10:42 PM
Tom Seaver said...
Sorry to push a button with you, Craig. Did not realize you had such thin skin.
As you continue to show such a vapid intellect when engaging in a discussion about the use of a word, further discussion would be pointless. I still think you should stick with the Wikipedia post idea. Please everyone, Craig. That way your thin skin will never suffer another blemish.
Posted 05/24 at 11:17 PM
Craig- It’s great to see someone willing to reflect on the use of their language, their craft, and their relationship to others in the society. Changing your position after thoughtful reflection isn’t a sign of a “lack of stones,” rather, it is a quality of intelligence and emotional maturity. Whether or not you agree with the “P.C. crowd” is less important than the fact that you have thoughtfully considered your viewpoint. Developing that skill is one of the most important in life, because it means that you will be able to understand the positions of people who disagree with you (which we could all use more of). Thanks.
TC-you are correct to point out that words are merely symbols that are interpreted through the individual’s filters. There are many words with offensive intent that do not offend me. However, these symbols are not communicated within an isolated context (as Craig pointed out). The larger culture helps to determine the meaning of that symbol. And each symbol can change within contexts. Yeah, language is confusing and complicated, but those of us who are married already knew that….
However, just beacuse a word has an outdated and unique history or developmental sequence, it doesn’t become unhinged from those meanings for a loooooooong time. for a greater part of the history of the world, it has been OK to relegate someone to a second-class human being. “Retarded” has been, and is used many times for this purpose. This word is more effective because it was an honest-to-god “label” applied to a specific population, which brings its stigmas and connotations and history into the discourse. Using the term “retarded” to describe the tomohawk chop may have been a proper descriptive use of the word, but that doesn’t remove the word’s history of usage from it. I’m sure you would agree with me that while I may be “correct” in describing craig’s vocabulary as “niggardly,” I think it is a position that few would want to stand behind. Just like “retarded,” I wouldn’t take personal offense to the descriptor, but I would probably bring a firestorm for doing so (as we have seen). These words may eventually become relics of derision and useful in general communication once again, but only if we continue to act in a similar manner as Craig and THINK about the greater context.
Tom- gee, I wish you were my dad. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and study some anthropology.
Posted 05/24 at 11:20 PM
Sal Paradise said...
I love it when people argue that a group they are not a part of would be offended by something that they would likely have more difficulty taking offense to than you do.
Will you start telling us how hurtful it is to call a misbehaving dog a ‘stupid mutt’ even though they’re purebred next?
Posted 05/24 at 11:45 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Tom—you’re beyond cute. You start a discussion with me, I meet it and raise a few points you apparently don’t want to deal with (e.g. how one person’s expression of a view you apparently disagree with “impinges” on your speech rights), and then you declare victory—a pretty damn false and ignorant one if it depends on thinking I’m out to please everyone—and vow to go away.
Whose got the thinner skin?
Here’s what I think: I think you fancy yourself a victim of a politically correct/liberal culture and have grown very comfortable painting your perceived enemies as weak, thin-skinned people. Yet you don’t engage. You don’t debate. You don’t discuss, because to do so risks doubt of your own positions, which you have decided = weakness.
People with rigorous, as opposed to vapid intellects don’t fear getting into sticky crap that may call some of their beliefs and assumptions into question. In fact, they realize that they may learn something by doing so. So how about, Tom? Care to explain to me how I’m impinging on society’s ability to use words?
Posted 05/24 at 11:48 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Sal—are you suggesting that everything you say and think is dictated by only what effect you think it will have on others? Do you not have any independent set of moral or ethics that steer your behavior? Is it OK to steal $10 from a rich guy even though he’ll never know the money is gone?
Posted 05/24 at 11:54 PM
Tom Seaver said...
Sure Craig. Here you go. With each person who surrenders a bit of freedom, it erodes the freedom of society as a whole. There is nothing wrong with using the word retard, if the intent is to describe something that is hindering or impeding the grow or movement or change of something. If you meant it as a pejorative, then you should apologize. If not, it is a word. So calm down and stop projecting your weaknesses onto me. I am advocating for freedom to use words as they are defined. You are apologizing for using a word. So there you go, Craig.
As far as the thin skinned comments, I drilled you right in the heart. You feel compelled to talk about what you think I think. I have addressed your words. While not out and out ad hominem, you seem to read into me without knowing very much about my beliefs. You would do best to refocus your efforts on baseball and not what another person is thinking or does in their life based on a couple of anonymous posts on a blog. Yeah, Craig, you have the thinner skin. Suck it up and admit it. If not, proceed along in righteous indignation, believing that you are all for discussion, when you have shown only that you don’t want your opinion about the use of the word retard questioned, unless it is, of course, support for your humble apology.
Posted 05/25 at 12:19 AM
Tom Seaver said...
By the way, Craig, despite our difference of opinion, have a nice Memorial Day.
Posted 05/25 at 12:23 AM
Craig Calcaterra said...
“With each person who surrenders a bit of freedom, it erodes the freedom of society as a whole.”
Then the difference between you and I comes down to how we each feel about my choices regarding the manner in which I communicate. I don’t consider choosing my words in a way that comports with my personal beliefs and sensibilities to be “surrendering freedom.” You feel differently. You use the phrase “projecting your weaknesses.” I suggest to you that in your belief that I am surrendering my freedoms, you are projecting your insecurities. Isn’t it fun to play armchair psychologist?
“As far as the thin skinned comments, I drilled you right in the heart. You feel compelled to talk about what you think I think.”
Except you called me thin skinned before I ever got into that. But if it makes you feel better to think you’ve nailed me, fine, you nailed me. I’ll also note that you’ve been talking about what you think I think since this thread got started. And for all of your alleged disdain for the ad hominem, this entire discussion about the thinness of my skin is nothing but ad hominem.
But guess what? I don’t care. In the 10% of your comments that aren’t aimed at attacking me, you’ve explained your position: to compromise is to surrender; doubt is weakness. I simply don’t feel that way, and nothing you say is going to change my mind. Likewise, nothing I say is likely to change yours.
With that out of the way, you too have a nice Memorial Day.
Posted 05/25 at 12:45 AM
I’m going to say that using the term “retarded” is nothing like Cleveland’s team using the Wahoo mascot.
As already mentioned, “retarded” is actually a legitimate word - for example, things other than mental capacity can be retarded. It’s essentially been twisted with time. Maybe we should be retiring “stupid” and “moron” instead, as they actually ARE only used as insults.
Wahoo, on the other hand, started out as a caricature of a culture - in effect, more like the physical embodiment of the word “moronic” - and when this was pointed out, rather than being toned down it was waved in the face of those caricatured. It’s basically a baseball owner mooning the world.
“Retarded” would be more equivalent to the Chicago Blackhawks’ logo - something initially coined at least with some thought to sensitivity, but perhaps falling victim to little more than changing times.
Craig - use your own conscience, be consistent and willing to take your lumps when justified. Those who are offended: don’t take yourself so seriously and pay attention to whether you’re actually being mooned or not. (See: Deepak Chopra’s opinion of “The Love Guru.”)
Posted 05/25 at 02:53 AM
Tom: Learning and growing is a part of life. Choosing to paint that in politically negative terms shows that you, not Craig, are the intellectually dishonest one, if only with yourself. Stop patting yourself on the back for thinking you bested someone in an argument and try LEARNING something from the argument.
Craig (and BJ E): Notice I didn’t say “learning from mistakes” - I don’t think you made a mistake, you simply thought about how you honestly felt about something that you (and many of us) hadn’t before, and adjusted accordingly.
Posted 05/25 at 03:05 AM
This is the American media echo chamber at its finest. Here, self-referential analysis and an endless loop of inane arguments are all retarded Americans really want in their force-less, decadent lives.
I’ve always thought it was evil that the government, military, and elites were silently assaulting us by lowering men’s testosterone and women’s fertility because they think there are too many of us, (http://www.prisonplanet.com/billionaire-club-in-bid-to-curb-overpopulation.html) but maybe mosquitoes and dandelions really are more useful than people, after all. Especially Westerners.
Posted 05/25 at 06:46 AM
BJ E said...
TC - You’re right, not every person that has a disabled loved one is gonna be offended by it. Only 99% of them. I don’t think most people set out to be thin skinned or sensitive about something. Personally, I don’t stay busy trying to be offended by the use of the word “retarded” (or anything else). It does bother me though, and if I hear it used, I let the person know. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Michael - Point taken. Although in my book, making an adjustment or correction means I was doing something wrong in the first place.
Posted 05/25 at 07:00 AM
Jon E said...
Good call on offering an apology of sorts and looking to not use the word again. It is a hurtful term that makes fun of a group of folks who truly can’t stand up for themselves.
Posted 05/25 at 09:00 AM