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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
Keith Law said...
Tom, FWIW, I don’t see any evidence here of thin skin on Craig’s part. He just responded at length to your criticism.
Posted 05/25 at 11:32 AM
Sara K said...
I am really shocked at some of the sniping in this thread, though I know I shouldn’t be. The people taking swipes at Craig for his position must feel threatened by his position, that language is powerful and should used with thought and care. The intensity of feelings in the responses only serves to prove that point.
Posted 05/25 at 01:18 PM
Sara K said...
@ David: It sounds like you have some very strong opinions on what Americans need in their lives. Maybe you should start a blog or something?
Posted 05/25 at 01:19 PM
TJ E: It’s not a matter of being “not wrong,” it’s being “better.”
David: Listening to those low-power rural talk radio stations again…?
Posted 05/25 at 03:33 PM
Sal Paradise said...
We should balance the removal of freedom with the harm that the freedom would cause. I think that’s generally considered fair in Western democracies. Overstating the harm of the word ‘retarded’ solely because some people are taking offense on the behalf of others doesn’t pass the smell test in my humble opinion.
The people who are most negatively affected should have the greatest say. If you can convince me that a bunch of (presumably) college-educated people without down syndrome are the most negatively affected by the use of the word ‘retard’ then you have a point.
You can look at the debate over autism (whether it’s a disease or a state of mind, with people who are autistic arguing rather heavily for the latter) to see where this sort of thing can go horribly wrong. The people who are most affected (those with autism) are being told what’s in their best interest.
My independent set of morals and ethics tell me that it’s wrong to force a belief on people who don’t necessarily want it, and equivalently wrong to eliminate a choice because some people may be offended by it even if it doesn’t personally affect them.
Posted 05/25 at 07:23 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Who’s forcing anything on anyone? What choice of yours is being eliminated? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I simply stated my thought process and my beliefs that are going to lead me going forward. Why does that bother you?
Posted 05/25 at 07:35 PM
The Common Man said...
Damn, I’m never not checking your blog for a day again, Craig. I caught your “retarded” response in the comments, and wondered if you’d catch flak.
For what it’s worth, I applaud any person who thinks about what they say, not just before they say it but afterward, to make sure it has the intended effect and paints the speaker in the way they want to be seen. Introspection is good. So right on, Craig.
Perhaps the Tom angle is all played out, but since Sal is bringing up the exact same argument… It’s worth pointing out that Craig never actually “surrendered” his freedom to use any term. Rather, he chose not to exercise said freedom. Like, for instance, I have the right to own a gun and am pleased to have the right to own a gun. But never in a million years would I want to own a gun.
Posted 05/25 at 11:25 PM
Sal Paradise said...
If Craig had simply stopped using the word, I’d be all for it. That would be a choice. But writing an apology makes it seem more than just a personal choice, and reflects on community attitudes within Shysterball rather than just a personal choice.
Posted 05/25 at 11:47 PM
Sara K said...
Craig didn’t write an apology. He wrote about his thought process. Detailing a reconsideration and offering an apology are not equivalent acts.
In Craig’s response, he shows his awareness of how language functions. The best word for the job is the one that is most accurate; this is why we encourage people to expand their vocabularies, so that they don’t have to overuse non-specific language. We also encourage writers to make specific claims that are not distracted by irrelevant side issues. Craig analyzed the use of the word “retarded” in the context of his intended message and decided that the word was inaccurate and raised irrelevant side issues. The comment most germane to the post was Law’s observation that we lack an alternate word that accurately expresses the disdain intended (although I think “repugnant” might work).
But just for fun, let’s also look more closely at the claim that Craig’s discourse somehow reflects the attitudes of all ShysterBall readers. How is Craig supposed to represent such a diverse group? Majority rules? Never offer opinions? And what would his silence have reflected, in light of what had already been posted? Without our knowing about his decision or his reasons for it, Craig would have been left looking inflexible and snippy. This may have pleased some members of the group, but certainly not all. A lot of us appreciate Craig’s thoughtfulness, even when we disagree with him.
At any rate, I don’t think you have to be worried about anyone thinking that Craig’s thoughtfulness represents you.
Posted 05/26 at 09:49 AM