Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Junior High Tactics

H taught Jr. High a few years ago so I became an expert on Jr. High humor. I can't say it was enjoyable. H reported many conversations that went something like this:

Student to another student: "You're such a re@#$."
H: "We don't use that kind of language in the classroom."
Student: "Why not? It's not a swear word."

Imagine my surprise when I find myself engaged in this kind of conversation with grown ups. Accordingly I discover that when I call people out,  I am a pearl clutcher or over-sensitive. I hear excuses like "It's just a medical term used to describe someone who is a bit behind in you know...development." I'm accused of not respecting my own child because I dare to suggest that this word could be perceived as an insult to her. You see I must be an awful person to think of that word in relation to my child. Not really shocking when you realize how many medical books still refer to Down syndrome involving mental retardation. Yet I bet if we pushed these users to tell me who they imagine when they utter these words, they would imagine the kids from the "special" room. Maybe even my kid. I bet it might even come to them unbidden.

Oh, they are awfully attached to a word one would expect to only be thrown about by a bunch of Jr. High boys (for the record my own Jr. High age son would rather die than use this word, and has been known to school people who do use it). And it's not just the R word they bandy about and then defend as doggedly as one would say a good cause. It's the multiple references to people with intellectual disabilities. Comments about the "short bus" or "Life Skills Class." They call people they don't think smart "special." And for all their defense, they only use the words, images, etc in reference to people they don't value. They use it because to not be smart in the rather limited way we see intelligence is worthy of insult.

But why do they defend themselves so adamantly? These people who would never say "That's so gay" about something they consider lame? People who would never let a racial slur slide from their lips? I suspect that for many being schooled on language is a new experience for them. They are not used to being told they are being ugly, insensitive, cruel. And instead of saying "Shit you're right" they have to defend their honor so to speak.

Still that is only part of the story. The other part of the story is that we live in a society that does not value those with intellectual disabilities. There are philosophers (cough Singer cough) who think it's a mortal sin to eat an animal but have no problem suggesting we just kill babies with disabilities. And while I am not suggesting that those who sling the word around think this way, we are all products of this kind of thinking. This is why I though my world had ended when I found out Jude had Down syndrome. Language shapes us and we use language to shape others, to shape our values and our culture.

Lastly, I just want to point out the simple fact that the word, the references, are just not funny (unless maybe you're 12 or something). It's not funny to mock special ed classes where kids are often pushed into just because there are no resources for inclusion. It's not funny to think about kids who need a bus with a lift for their wheel chair. It's not funny to use a word that arose in the heart of eugenics. Perhaps, it's time we mature our humor palate.


DandG said...

"....something they consider lame."

Is that not just as much a slur on those who cannot walk?

Do we all have "blind" spots?

Or does criticism always fall on "deaf" ears?

It is really a fine line between appreciating the value of ability and denigrating its lack. Other things being equal, it is better to see, hear, and process information than not to do those things. That is not the same thing as devaluing people with deficiencies in these areas. I don't really know all the answers.

I am NOT defending the use of the r-word! I am just saying that, as with "lame", "blind" and "deaf", the metaphorical use of disability has a long history that is very hard to change

Ginger Stickney said...

No we shouldn't use them if bother someone. Period. Someone told me they really hate it when people use the word spaz (someone who has seizures). Yeah I make sure I don't use that word anymore.

And what I'm talking about here is not slips but rather the way people refuse to stop saying words that they've been told they hurt others. The way they cling to them. That I can't get behind ever.

I'll have to disagree with you about devaluing though. The words we use to cut and insult do show what we value in society. I don't think this is always a conscious process but it's there. What else can we mean when we say something is "lame?"

Ginger Stickney said...

And I know you're not. I think you're right that we have to process through our attitudes, etc. But I would argue that part of this process involves an examination of our language.

Language becomes what Foucault would call common sensical. The words we used are so ingrained that we don't question them. When I had Jude I began a long journey in scrutinizing my attitudes towards disability esp. intellectual disabilities. This is in turn lead to an examination of my language.

But seriously here I'm really taking issue with those who refuse to let go of the r word. I get the way it can drop without it can slip in but I'd argue that this is because of societal views. We don't let people slip with the n word..I doubt if we'd cut someone a break like we do with the R word.

Becca said...

I TOTALLY agree - if it bothers someone, hurts someone directly or indirectly or hurts a group of people *somewhere,* then we should try to avoid it. Period. Why hurt someone just for the sake of exercising your right to free speech/modern slang/vernacular? Misanthropy isn't my style. I was also told that "spaz" bothered someone, and you can bet I'm way, way more cognizant about the words that come out of my mouth. Someone else mentioned that the term "blind leading the blind" is offensive. And you know what? I don't use it anymore. That's all it took. Someone said it bothered them (and that wasn't even in person - it was on a blog or something by someone I didn't know personally), and I *listened.* Great post, Ginger.