Monday, February 28, 2005

The Power of Words

Last fall, des femmes began highlighting the use of sexist language by progressive male bloggers. She pointed out the inherent harm in oppressive language, and refused to just sit by and "take it" because these men were otherwise progressive, liberal men. Many women and a few men avidly supported her and her conclusions.

But sexism isn't the only problem that otherwise progressive and liberal (and even feminist) bloggers have when it comes to words they choose to use. There are many times when reading over an otherwise excellent feminist dialogue I come across offensive and oppressive language. I've seen feminist women insulting those they don't like (or agree with) by calling them "fat," for example.

The most common example, however, is using the word "retarded" to describe a person, opinion or behavior. I just don't get it. How can the same people who will condemn the use of sexist language (because the understand the inherent harm in using such language) then turn around and use oppressive language themselves?

I know that back in the 80's, "retarded" (or some version of the word) came into fashion to describe something (or someone) that somone found to be "stupid." I was fortunate (for lack of a better word) in that I never picked up that habit. For one thing, my mother was a Special Ed. teacher, and anyone who dared utter that word in my house got a very long lecture on the subject. It was easier to just avoid getting into the habit. But the other reason is that I, myself, worked with people with disabilities (both mentally and physically). When I was 15 or 16 I took a training course to be a "Special Sitter," wherein I was specially trained to "babysit" people with mental and/or physical disabilities -- not on a long-term basis, just for a night here and there when the parents wanted to have an evening out for themselves, that sort of thing. I was given the opportunity to get to know a wide variety of adults and children with various disabilities. Through my experiences, I learned that these adults and children weren't much different than me or my friends (although, some of them were a hell of a lot nicer, quite frankly). The thought of using a word like "retarded" as an insult was abhorant to me.

There are generally three types of people who use the word "retarded" (for something other than referring to a mentally retarded person):
  • The person who uses the word out of habit, but then catches him/herself and apologizes. This person makes an effort to not use the word and genuinely feels bad when s/he slips. I can completely understand this type of person. I still find myself doing this with words like "gyp" or "lame," although much less often as time goes on. I have no hard feelings toward this person, because I do think they are genuinely trying to make a change in their language.
  • The person who uses the word out of habit, but then makes some comment about knowing it's not "PC" (oftentimes rolling their eyes while they say this). This person generally has no intention of ever changing their habits, regardless of the fact that they know it's offensive. I probably have the least amount of respect for this person. This person knows it's offensive, they just don't care. Really, why even bother with the half-assed apology? Just admit that you don't give a shit about using oppressive language and be done with it.
  • The person who simply refuses to acknowledge or recognize the oppressive nature of the term. OK, sure, better than recognizing the oppressive nauture of the word and still using it anyway. But, come on... How is this any better than using the word "pussy" or "girl" as an insult?
When you use a word that describes a person or group of people (like fat, girl, pussy, gay, and yes, retarded) as an insult, you are making a judgement about that person (or group of people). You are declaring them "lesser than." Being an otherwise decent progressive, liberal, feminist, what have you, doesn't change that. As the saying goes, "No One is Truly Free While Others Are Oppressed."


Amerikat said...

I'm often struck by how many apparently feminist women still throw around 'fat' as an insult, especially when arguing with other women. I stopped reading the comments on Bitch Magazine's blog for precisely that reason.

blue said...

But sexism isn't the only problem that otherwise progressive and liberal (and even feminist) bloggers have when it comes to words they choose to use. There are many times when reading over an otherwise excellent feminist dialogue I come across offensive and oppressive language.Not long ago I commented on another blog where someone used the word "retarded," suggesting there were much less offensive ways to make their point. The response to my comment was, IIRC, "Get the fuck over yourself." Also included was a claim that there were ways to use the word (in a jokingly derogatory way) that were not offensive at all. Happily, other commenters backed me up that this is not actually true. Using "retarded" as a descriptor of anything in order to mock it is to use it like a metaphorical reference to people who are looked down upon.

I do not believe anyone can use the term and be unaware that it is offensive. I CAN believe that they have either not thought through that it is offensive to a class of people historically and tragically oppressed, or that they don't care about this class of people. But I do not believe in ignorance that it's a "bad word." People learn which words are bad (unkind, hurtful, mean, vulgar) by the time they hit kindergarten.

bean said...

Yeah, Lily, your experience was sort of what got me thinking about writing on this topic. I was pretty busy at the time, and I almost forgot about it. But then I ran across another incident (more along the lines of what Kat was describing) and that jogged my memory about writing on this topic.

anastasia said...

Speaking as a member of group three, I'll explain why I and most of my comrades don't see retard as an oppressive term.

1) Most people who don't see retard as oppresive view it as being on the same level as idiot, moron, and imbecile. They also started out as technical terms to describe people with below normal intelligence. To be consistent shouldn't you also call out people when they use those words as well? Why is retard oppressive and idiot, moron, and imbecile okay?

2) The reasoning goes: retarded = that's really stupid. Stupid = below normal intelligence. Aren't people who are mentally retarded stupid as compared to non-retarded people? And if that's the case, then how is using the term retarded to point out that someone (or action or idea) is stupid making the mentally retarded lesser than. Gay, gyp, fag, pussy, girl, all take a negative stereotype and apply it to the whole class. But the lower intelligence of mentally retarded people isn't a stereotype, it is the defining attribute of the class. They are lesser than when it comes to intelligence. I believe you see using retard as judging the mentally retarded's worth as people, whereas I see it as solely judging their intelligence.

Also, what class of people is being oppressed by lame? I've never heard anything about it being oppressive or offfensive.

bean said...

1) Idiot, moron, and imbecile are not words that are currently used as medical or technical terms to describe a person or condition. FTR, yes, I do still find those terms problematic, but not even close to the same level as "retarded," because the latter is still currently used by the medical establishment, and people are currently still officially labled (medically and technically) as "mentally retarded." Because of this, you are equating a group of people with an insult. Which is absolutley no different than using "girl" (or whatever) as an insult.

2)First, I have to say that I find this entire reason so appallingly offensive, I've had to take a day to even try to respond to it. So, let's start with the numerous problems with this "logic."

Mentally retarded people are not "stupid" -- they may have lesser IQs, but that's not the same as "stupid." Frankly, the mentally retarded children and adults I've worked with have often been far less "stupid" than most "non-retarded" adults I've met. The view that having a lower IQ is somehow "lesser than" is really simply nothing but an oppressive view. You have "othered" a group of people and deemed them worthy of being oppressed.

By using the word "retarded" (or even worse, "retard"), by "judging their intelligence" and using that as an insult you are oppressing that group of people through language in exactly the same way that people use "girl," "woman," "gay," etc. as a form of oppression. You are making a NEGATIVE association with a group of people, you are making a NEGATIVE judgement on these people (and saying it's not the people it's their "intelligence" is no different -- you are still judging their worth of intelligence, which is still oppressive).

And, FTR, the class of people oppressed by the term lame used as an insult would be: THE LAME.

blue said...

Well, I had to take a day off from this too. And then Bean said what I would have tried to say. I'll just add this:

retarded = that's really stupidIt doesn't mean "really stupid" though, that's the disability oppression at work. "Retarded" means "slow," but it is the association with persons who have the medical diagnosis of mental retardation, and the societal response to them (i.e. "They are stupid, you don't want to be like one of those people.") that has lead to the use of it as derogatory. Thus, as Bean said, your explanation is based on inaccuracy. And cruelty too.

river rebel said...

I covered a death penalty trial which had a phase called the "mental retardation" phase. It was the first of its kind in California and first or second in the country as courts grappled with how to implement the USSC's decision "Atkins v Virginia" which prohibited the execution of "mentally retarded" people.

I don't know why they chose that terminology except maybe it's still used in medical circles. In the legal community, it's still commonly used. I think they should change it.

But then who makes up the terminology?

Well, the phase itself was a nighmare. Including when the prosecutor proposed arbitrarily adding 14 points to an African-American defendant's IQ of 67 to put him above the standard for legal execution b/c he said IQ tests were racially biased. That, was even after the DA illegally gave and the court illegally allowed the second Worchester test for IQ within a 12 month period, which put the IQ at 72. It was a bad joke.

Basically, even though he was supposedly ineligiable to be executed under the Atkins' decision b/c of a low IQ, the jury didn't care, they wanted the guy to pay for killing a white police officer and still voted to execute him anyway. Which is probably going on elsewhere around the country. In part, because no parameters were outlined by the Supremes when they wrote that decision for what the states had to do.

No official statistics are kept but at least 10% of people on death row have IQs less than 70. Another over-represented group.


river rebel said...

And as we know, most if not all the populations overrepresented on death row have been viewed as being "lesser" in value in our society. Mostly for being convicted of killing people of "more" value in our society.

Which is why it makes me uneasy to see someone say well, that person is of lessor intelligence, thus separating them away from people of higher intelligence and what's intelligence anyway?

anastasia, I'm not convinced you view simply their intelligence as lessor according to your words. There are other words to use, why is it important to use that one?

I agree with bean, about "stupid" v low IQ. The guy I mentioned above was very smart in part because if he wasn't, he would not have survived(including taking off all his clothes before surrendering to the police) because he had many problems including processing of auditory and visual imput, probably more from brain damage from a frontal/temperal lobe injury at 20. In other ways, he was more child-like although that could also be attributed to a temporal lobe injury.

He heard his mother screaming when the police were trying to physically arrest her over a noisy radio and just reacted without thinking by firing shots up the staircase where his mother, brother and two officers were, without looking at where he was shooting. It wasn't clear if he could formulate or had time to formulate the intent to commit capital murder. His mother was the most valuable person in his life, besides his daughter and I think it could have been more of an emotional response anyway.