What’s wrong with this picture? It was posted recently by a friend who I love and respect and who I was rather surprised to see casually tossing around the R-word.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “The R-word? Like it’s as bad as the N-word? Seriously?” Yes. “OK, hold on here. I say ‘retard’ but only to poke fun at people who obviously aren’t mentally impaired. It’s an exaggeration to make a point. Just like the joke in the image. But I would never use it against someone with a mental impairment. What’s wrong with that?”
Well, that’s one way to look at it. My friend’s take based on being on the receiving end of that slur was “None of those words bother me. They only have meaning if you let them.”
These responses are typical of those I get when I challenge people on their use of the R-word. “It’s OK to use,” the theory goes, “so long as I don’t use it against actual retards because, you know, it’s hurtful to them and I’m not a bad person.” Often those using the R-word report that they personally are not offended to be called a retard because they aren’t impaired and so they just disregard it. And if it’s OK to be called a retard, then it’s no stretch to conclude it’s also OK to call someone else a retard as long as the other person has neurotypical brain function. The reasoning there is that, because we are treating others in a way we ourselves don’t mind being treated, it’s OK. This is, after all, the essence of the Golden Rule so how can it be bad?
Wrong. I don’t use the R-word for all the reasons I’m about to explain. But I’ll make an exception this one time to illustrate the recursive nature of the term: Anyone who truly believes that using the word “retard” as a noun is OK in any context may be one. Bear with me, I’ll explain.
It’s all about “Us” and “Them”
I grew up in Klan country and as a kid the N-word never bothered me, either. All the adults and my peers used it as an adjective, a noun, an adverb. They even made a verb out if it. That single word contained a rich language of expression to which I was systematically indoctrinated as a child. As an adult I came to understand how the term “nigger” creates the division separating “Them” from “Us.” The effect is to dehumanize a group of people in order to feel less guilt when mistreating them. Actions for which we’d be judged harshly and for which we’d feel guilty if committed against one of “Us” are accepted or even encouraged if committed against one of “Them.” Threaten or mistreat one of “Us” at your peril. “We” are loyal, moral, decent, and fiercely protective of our own. Threaten or mistreat “Them” and “We” cheer you on or jump in to participate because “They” need to be taught their place.
When we discuss the N-word we mostly talk about how it hurts the people it is meant to describe. While that is true in too many ways to count, I have come to realize that it damages the person using the word by teaching and reinforcing the practice of judging fellow human beings based on something other than their character. Such judgements invariably elevate the self-perceived status of the person using the term by diminishing “Them” in some way. Those with low self-esteem feel better knowing all of “Them” are of even less intrinsic worth. For the narcissist who already believes in the inferiority of others, social acceptance of oppression merely confirms the bias. Dehumanizing a target population, whether a population of millions or of one person as is often the case of bullies, is the first step to justify harming “Them” economically, emotionally and physically because “They” are lesser humans than “Us.”
Since coming to understand how the word nigger facilitates hate by creating a “Them,” I’m as offended as a white male can possibly be at that particular word. I damn sure wouldn’t post the P.O.N.T.I.A.C. meme these days (where the N stands for exactly what you think it does) but if Facebook were around when I was a kid it would have gone viral. Someone at my high school actually had that as a bumper sticker. But it was “OK” because they were white, driving a Pontiac, poking fun at themselves and, after all, it was just a big, harmless joke. I was steeped in this culture throughout my entire primary and secondary school career and could not have emerged as anything other than racist, despite a strong conviction that I was not. But it was in conflict with my true character so when I began to recognize my own racism for what it was, I determined that I would work to purge myself of it. Unlearning those teachings required conscious, deliberate, sustained effort and that process continues to this day. I don’t know that I can ever completely undue the toxic effects of my childhood but I’ll eventually succeed or die trying.
The default action is the path of least resistance
But it’s one thing to not act with racial bias and another to implicitly consent when others do so. When I was bullied in school it was by a handful of people but their freedom to commit those violent acts required the silent consent of the hundreds in the school who saw and did nothing. These people were either not offended to witness the treatment I received or they were offended but not enough to act. By creating an “Us” and a “Them” the bully forces bystanders to pick a side. Picking the side of the bully is what allows the victim to be excluded from the group to become “Them.” All that is required to address the root cause is for ordinary people to stand with the victim. If enough people do so, the bully is excluded from the group and becomes the “Them.” Based on this, I realized that it isn’t enough to “not be racist” in a vacuum. Failing to act is the default action that racists need to enable racism to continue. In the face of racism, failure to stand with the victim means the racist is part of my “Us” and that is not acceptable. To live up to my convictions requires me to make the racists and the bullies part of my personal “Them.”
Nowadays I take exception to any language that creates an artificial social hierarchy distinction. Because it is almost impossible to institutionalize oppression of “Us,” the rhetorical technique of creating a “Them” is a the first step toward bullying, toward organized hate groups, toward genocide and, lately, toward political office. “We” don’t deserve to be treated that way, but “They” most certainly have it coming. Without the rhetorical device of “Them,” any attempted harm to the intended victim threatens “Us” and we intervene. Eliminating us-and-them language is a prerequisite to breaking the cycle of hate. I therefore make it a point to voice my objection to it.
Judge people by their character? Their actions? Yes and yes. By their skin color, religion (or lack thereof), ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or mental capacity? No. Absolutely no. “Retard” is among the current set of socially acceptable slurs used to separate “Them” from “Us.” There are plenty of people taking a stand against this word based on how they and their loved ones are affected by it. The problem is that objecting to the R-word makes you one of “Them” to people using that language. In their eyes your too-politically-correct opinion doesn’t matter.
Us-and-them damages “Us” too
I’d like to take a moment to argue from the other side of the issue. I propose that it’s worth the trouble to eliminate “retard” and other weapons of mis-construction from your vocabulary because of the affect they have on you and your loved ones.
Let’s break down the D.R.A.M.A. meme that inspired this post. Consider that to successfully use the word “retard” in a humorous context requires an understanding that the word describes an inferior class of people. The essence of the D.R.A.M.A. meme is that people creating social drama are attempting to justify their elevated position in the pecking order but that the act of creating the drama is the very thing that relegates them to the population of lesser humans known as retards. To find this funny you must first understand the reference to retards as denoting a lesser class of human, and you must further hold yourself apart from and in greater esteem than that group. For such a meme to go viral requires those same beliefs to be widely held. That so many do go viral reveals much about the beliefs and values present in our popular culture. That is a rather depressing revelation if you stop to think about it.
On the other hand, if you do not understand the reference to retards as denoting a lesser class of human then D.R.A.M.A. roughly translates to “a very small subset of the population asking for more attention.” This directly contradicts the pop culture meaning of the term and isn’t at all funny. In that context it is nothing more than an offensive, if somewhat clever, backronym.
Furthermore, to make a retard joke in a socially acceptable context requires an understanding of the unacceptable context. Telling the joke reinforces the concept of social hierarchy the mind of the speaker and the audience. If teller truly believes in that social distinction, why hide the bigotry behind a mask of humor? If the joke teller doesn’t believe that then why say it at all? Afraid of being called politically correct? Afraid of becoming one of “Them?” Either way there’s a certain amount of cowardice involved in telling a retard joke. Cowardice is a cancer of the soul.
Just don’t keep telling yourself there’s no harm. Retard jokes require and perpetuate the oppression of a class of people based on something other than their individual character. They reinforce in the teller a culture of hate which diffuses through that person’s “Us” group, especially their children. And they remind the teller of his or her own cowardice. As the unwitting audience of such jokes, I am impacted only by those I hear. The teller is diminished by every instance of the joke that they tell. Retard jokes harm the teller. Maybe we should refrain from telling them simply out of self-respect.
The road to power is paved with Us-and-them
Bullies of all stripes, from the school yard to the halls of government intentionally create us-and-them contexts within which they can accumulate power. Creating a social climate in which “They” are blamed for all that is wrong makes it OK to punish “Them” for their perceived sins. But that emotional, economic and physical abuse is dirty work and most of “Us” don’t want to do it ourselves. So through our inaction or affirmative assent we give over to the bullies our proxy to oppress “Them” and elevate “Us.” This feeds a cycle of increasing abuse leading to increasing power, leading to increased abuse, and so on. By the time “We” realize the abuse has gone too far, standing openly to defend “Them” is in essence to defect and become one of “Them.” To speak out is to paint a target on your own back. (NSA, anyone?)
The use of offensive slurs in a humorous context is how we deceive ourselves about the harm being done to others and our part in it. So it’s OK to call someone a nigger if you are black. And it’s OK to call a neurotypical person a retard. And it’s OK to call a heterosexual person a faggot. These are all acceptable contexts.
Because these contexts legitimize the language and “prove” the words are benign. Or if we admit the harm at all we acknowledge only the smallest and most undeniable aspects of it. “Look, there’s no us and them. It’s all just us.” Or so the theory goes. In all these “acceptable” contexts you must first know that nigger, retard or faggot are bad in order to understand the intended usage. If you are a child hearing these terms for the first time you can infer from the usage the underlying meaning. It’s bad to be a nigger. It’s bad to be a retard. It’s bad to be a faggot. Glad I’m not one of those.
Even in humor, even with the most benign intent, this language damages all of society. It perpetuates hate. It diminishes the quality of life for entire populations of humans based on something other than their character. It desensitizes all of us to the extent of our negative impact on others. Worst of all, these words gradually diminish and define the character of those who wield them, creating a legacy of hate that we pass on to our children.
The Big Us
I propose a new approach. Begin with the assumption that there’s a “Big Us” which does not judge the worth of people based on their genetics, religion, political affiliation, sexual preference or identity, health, or any arbitrary factor. In fact, the Big Us doesn’t attempt to classify humans into groups at all. By default, all people are members of the Big Us. The only way that the Big Us judges humans is individually, based on their actions and demonstrated character. Consider that calling someone a nigger, retard or faggot, even in jest, reveals to your listener nothing about that person’s character. But ask yourself what it reveals to your listener about you, your beliefs and the esteem in which you hold (or not) your fellow human beings. In the context of the Big Us the social custom of carving a few people out for mistreatment doesn’t work. “We” rally around the intended victims instead of allowing them to be abused through our inaction or consent. Those doing the carving become “Them” and by their own actions exclude themselves from the Big Us.
However, unlike the current social hierarchy system, the Big Us is constantly recruiting from “Them.” Since it is individual character that excludes someone from the Big Us, it is possible to strengthen one’s character and rejoin the group. It may be a difficult transition requiring sustained, deliberate effort as in my case. In time I discovered that it is profoundly liberating to live life based on the assumption that I am intrinsically no better or worse than any other human being on the planet. Assuming entire groups of people are bad until you get to know them, and then making individual exceptions for the few “good ones” who you know personally, is exhausting unless you live under a rock. Then you have to explain to your friends why these exceptional people are part of “Us” rather than “Them.” Meanwhile these exceptional people know they will never truly be part of your “Us,” nor will most of their friends.
It is much easier and massively more accurate to assume all people are worthy of compassion and love, then make individual exceptions based on demonstrated character. I don’t have to explain to my friends why certain people are “one of us” and should be given a pass. In fact, since I don’t recognize a social hierarchy, I do not squander precious time or attention to maintaining one. There’s one group. That’s it. I can use my time and energy on far more important things then figuring out who I am superior to and why. Thanks to the Netownian physics of the Big Us, those seeking to create a “Them” by pushing someone out of the group end up excluding themselves from the group and becoming “Them” if they push hard enough.
It usually isn’t black and white. Most people with whom I vehemently disagree are part of my Big Us because we can discuss our differences and seek to understand one another. My friend who posted the D.R.A.M.A. meme remains my friend despite my challenging the language of the post. We discussed it. Like reasonable people. I would not end the friendship over this but neither will I continue to support, even passively through inaction, the linguistic tools with which oppression is built.
I will instead set what I hope is a good example, objecting to words used as weapons and presenting what I hope is a compelling case. Then people in my circle of friends and acquaintances can decide for themselves whether to adopt more compassionate language, to ignore my rants but remain my friend, or to unfriend me and write me off as a kook. Any of which is fine by me, up to a point. The Big Us only works if each of us is wiling to cut our ties with the people, businesses, corporations, politicians and governments who threaten the group. If I can’t convince my friend that calling people retards is wrong in any context, there will come a day when we will no longer be friends. I’ll close by repeating what I told my friend who had professed to be unbothered by being called a retard: I’m sorry none of those words bother you. I hope someday they do. I hope we’re still friends on that day. Hugs.
Are there bullies and bigots in your “Us”? Take action
If you are interested in compassion-based social change, here are some organizations whose principles are congruent with my idea of the Big Us. I encourage you to explore their web sites and get involved. To qualify to be on this list, the organization’s primary focus must be on changing behavior of of the population at large rather than that of the bad actors. And while victim self-help groups are useful, they do not address the root cause and therefore don’t belong on this particular list. Please let me know in the comments of any other groups who should be listed.