Sunday, December 28, 2008

Maybe It's Time to Get Back to "Sticks and Stones" Again

It's been a while since political correctness has been made fun of on this blog, so it's high time to do it again. There's always a lot of talk about people who have become the self-appointed Language Police, and Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow nails it in a column from this morning's paper when he says that we've become too quick to judge language as "hate speech"--in this case, using the well-worn term "retarded" to describe someone with a certain type of mental disability:
I was mystified by a billboard in East Dallas. "Erase the R-Word," it says.

The sign features an "R" in a circle. At first I thought someone was trying to wipe out Radio Shack.

Slowly it dawned on me. "Oh! 'Retarded.' "

At www.r-word.org, I was informed: "The r-word is hate speech that perpetuates the negative stereotypes that face people with intellectual disabilities every day."

That was kind of a shock. "Hate speech"? Really?

I was certainly aware of other terms in use these days. But I sure never thought "retarded" had become hate speech.

And I still don't buy it.
Nor do I, Steve. And here's his main point:
In fact, in my estimation, the very use of terms like "hate speech" creates a kind of reverse prejudice.

Some people seem to delight in pouncing on the innocent terminology of others. Instead of building good will, they undermine it..
He goes on to relate a conversation he had with the mother of a son with schizophrenia; the mother got so riled up that Blow said her son was schizophrenic rather than that he had schizophrenia ("He's a person, not an illness") that it left him much less enthusiastic about hearing her story.

And that's the thing: There are a lot of us out there who are perfectly willing to meet people with differing views halfway, so long as they don't continually pull the Language Police thing on us. Blow concludes with another excellent observation:
[W]e have to recognize that language changes slowly. And we don't need to accuse anyone of hate speech simply for not using the latest lingo.

For that matter, I don't think we should get worked up about the metaphorical use of disabilities either. "That's retarded." "Are you blind?" "How lame." "He's insane." "I had a heart attack."

That's just how we talk. No ridicule of real infirmities is intended by those expressions.

We're all smart enough to recognize when words are really being used to be hateful or hurtful.
Maybe that's part of the problem: People who should be smart enough to recognize this are letting their righteous indignation get in the way of real communication. (And I should point out that if Blow--himself a survivor of a heart attack--can use the above term in a joking manner, other people in similar situations ought to take a little chill pill as well.)

As I've said many times on this blog, there is no Constitutional right here in America to not have one's feelings hurt. And when the speaker doesn't mean anything by the statement, like in the above examples, it's definitely not time to break someone's bones with sticks and stones for supposedly hurting them with words, which is exactly the opposite of what our moms told so many of us kids in this situation. On this occasion (among many), Mom was right.

1 comment:

hmshore said...

I guess the only difference with the word retarded or retard is that you're not really playing on a level playing field. People with special needs can't really understand how words can never hurt you when in fact they do hurt. When you are watching the movie Tropic Thunder and you see the tagline "once upon a time...there was a retard" what do you think? You think about some dim witted person and the next thing you know you are mocking people who are "retards." Words can hurt. I have a daughter with special needs. When my other child goes to school and her teacher asks the class "does this hat make me look retarded?" what is she supposed to think? People have a vision in their head of what a retarded person is and it's a demeaning vision. My daughter with special needs can read, write, tell jokes, and is incredibly funny. Yet, if someone makes a joke about special ed or uses the word retarded in a movie she is watching (Speed Racer, Nancy Drew, Get Smart, etc), what is she to think? I'll tell you. She's to think that she is a useless, stupid and unproductive member of society. That's the message clear and simple. To me it's not about free speech or being politically correct. It's about having a little decency for a group of people just doing the best they can.
Sorry, slurs hurt no matter how you look at it.
Thanks for listening.