Tuesday, November 05, 2013

It's All About Etymology

Oh yes, it's happened again. That ugly word along with its disgusting derivative has reared its ugly head. This time it's a lipstick called "Celebutard." Yeah seriously.  Apparently Sephora and Kat Van D thought it would be a great idea, and they're marketing this lipstick with no end in sight. And of course Kat Van D's response was that those of us protesting were over-sensitive and  that it was just a lipstick. I mean no one likes the word police right? And in addition to that stock response is a bunch of people telling us how we must hate our kids because we associate that word with them. This often involves sarcastic comments of fake pity. Those poor kids living with parents who fight for their right not have to hear slurs about them used by just about everyone. Clearly an awful fate.

Yup, I've covered this ground before, and have no doubt I will again. In fact, I'm even kind of annoyed that I'm having to write about this again. It's been done. Better even then what I'm doing here. But as I was snuggling with my little wee one, I knew that I had to write this to get it out there. It will be my stock response to the ignorance and the volatile that is hurled at me whenever I say "Um...hey could you not use the "R" word please."

I'm hoping that a bit of word history can break it down for those who don't get it. The word "retard" was first used in a clinical setting in the 1800s. It was clearly connected to people who had what we now call an Intellectual Disability. Some other words used in this connection are imbecile, moron, idiot (and yeah I don't use those words anymore either). While most medical fields no longer use the term MR it still pops up on occasion. I read it in more than one piece of literature about Down syndrome when I was pregnant with Jude.

What's vital for this conversation is that this word indicated a certain set of characteristics. In fact, it also marked a way of being in the world. A way of moving the body. An appearance.  These things at some point refereed to people who were put into institutions because they were deemed a danger to society not just because of their actions but because they would "dumb" down to the population (see Down Wit Dat's excellent history of Down syndrome series). And that's the point that I want to emphasis here. The R word came to label people who performed low on IQ tests and were thus deemed "not intelligent." For people who might speak "slow" or move "slow" because they thought "slow."  And by the 60s the word was being slung about as an insult. As a way to indicate that something or someone was not smart. That someone or something was "stupid" or "dumb."

Thus when you or when a company uses the "R" word or the derivative "Tard" they are in fact referencing back to the entire history of the word which means that at some point they are hitting back to people who were medically labeled. We don't use the word because it doesn't mean anything anymore. We use the word specifically because it at some point  referred to people who were deemed intellectually inferior. If the word, had not come to be attached to this idea then it wouldn't be used the way it is used now. That's the problem.

See the thing is is that I KNOW Jude is not stupid. I KNOW that Jude is not intellectually inferior. I KNOW that Jude is going to learn things on her own time table just as we all do and that whether or not it's slower matters jack in the grand scheme of things. I do not look at my daughter and think "retard." Ever. So when you accuse me of thinking that when I see my kid, you're wrong.

You are right that I'm sensitive...maybe even overly so and for that I do not apology. I don't have much patience for slurs of any kind. This word hurts. A minority group is asking that the word not be used. I don't think it's too much to ask that we step away from the word. That we come up with more grown up ways of labeling things. That perhaps we even need to question this impulse to labels things and actions as "not smart." Maybe we need to actually question why so much of goes back to this idea of the "intellect." I'm not promoting an anti-intellectualism instead I'm suggesting we examine our narrow ideas and thus our narrow words connected to such an idea.

It's no joke. Maybe if the world was more equal for Jude, I could step away. But it's not. And when words like this are tossed about with such casual aplomb, it makes it even clearer that we have a ways to go.

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Down Wit Dat said...

The casual use of a word that has been used to condemn people to a life of poverty or institutionalization-- or even death--has got to stop.

Extranjera said...

Yes. Retard or retarded are not NEARLY removed enough from the initial significance to be easily 'casually' used as insults. Like you, I don't think even idiot, imbecile or moron are removed enough.

We need to do better. We need to be more human to each other. We need to think and respect and be able to reciprocate and think of each other in those terms.

Otherwise we can't seriously be this existence we like to call 'a person'.

Rachel Douglas said...

I am so sorry you are having to fight this fight but I am so glad you are...lets do this thing!