A word gone mad?

Retarded, retard, spazz, spastic, mong, monged.
Not lovely words, with delightful intent and meaning… There’s more, but, at the risk of appearing too precious, I really don’t want to type them.

Nigger, Negro, Faggot, Ponce, Queer.
Other horrible words. Offensive, disgusting words that again, I struggle to type without feeling somewhat uncomfortable.

But there’s a difference between each list. The first are words that you’ll hear, or read, on an almost daily basis, the second are words that are rarely if ever expressed “in polite society”, and rarely ever without some negative comeback. They’ve become almost universally unacceptable.

As an example; I was watching the QI Christmas programme, and in addition to the ‘comical’ unintelligent-people-impersonations, the “retarded” word was used. Now, it was used in some degree of context and not, deliberately, as an insult. It was also used in regards of American law, where ‘retarded’ is still somewhat used ‘medically’. Now, sadly for me, I like and respect almost everyone on the show that night, especially the host; Stephen Fry. To hear that word tweaks a sense of indignation and discomfort that I find unsettling: my ‘heroes’ are diminished.

It’s one thing to hear those words used by children, thrown at people on online forums and spat out by people you have little respect for, but when intelligent, informed and responsible people use them, without irony or remorse, it’s a blow.

Is that fair, though, can I expect everyone to understand the impact, the history and the issues – let alone agree with what is offensive and what is not? Comedians have a unique position; they revel in being challenging, edgy and, at times, offensive. For many it’s a right they guard with passion, and in times when free-speech needs to be respected and protected, it’s difficult not to sympathise with them.

The comedian, Brendan Burns, used the phrase “kowtow to 30,000 retards” when criticising the Brand/Ross situation. When challenged about using that word, he stated that the only thing that offended him were “people who take offence”. Now in an age when people do readily take offence at the smallest slight, it’s possibly a brave and almost principled position. Except that I would find it extremely surprising if Burns used, as an insult, a word from the second list. He therefore does have a moral code, a line he does not cross, or at the very least, a line he knows he could not get away with crossing.

So why are insults derived from descriptions of disabled people still fair game? From a morality point of view, its hard to think of a group in society less deserving of being ridiculed, and certainly in regard of people with a Learning Disability, less equipped (both intellectually and in terms of having a voice in society) to defend themselves.
Maybe that’s the point, where’s the comeback for someone using the word “retarded”? Disapproving looks or a letter sent in to the BBC – all too easily dismissed as “political correctness gone mad” or as a vindication of their edginess in tweaking the preciousness of a small section of the viewing public.

Perhaps there’s another reason; the words used are derived from existing or disregarded medical descriptions. Is it possible for the majority of people to, firstly, keep up with changing terminology, and secondly, be aware of the history behind them? For instance “Spastic” (and derived from it: “spazz”) a ‘common playground’ insult still used by adults unfortunately, is considered a universal term for Cerebral Palsy. The fact it relates to the high muscle tone found in one type of Cerebral Palsy is incidental, what remains is the fact the word is, to the general public, an insult.

Maybe that’s the crux of the matter; so few people understand anything of the types of disability and their nature, the difficulties and struggles that people with disabilities go through, and least of all, the history of poor treatment, abuse and social apartheid that they have been subjected to, how can we expect an understanding of the real, meaningful and unequivocal offence those words cause?

My view: they’re used as an insult, that much is known. They relate to people with a disability, that is also clearly known, what else is necessary? So should their use be banned, should the law intervene, should their use be considered a hate crime, whether used at someone with disabilities or not?
Perhaps not, perhaps those of us involved with supporting people with disabilities should do more to educate and inform (as an aside, how much is taught in schools about disabilities?), perhaps every time those words are used we should complain?

Free speech is one thing, but you’re not free to cause offence or encourage hatred. In addition, others are free to complain and criticise: maybe, for it to be generally considered intolerable, we should stop tolerating its use?


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