Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Its Only Words - Or Is It?

I am a lover of words. I am an avid reader, and a writer by nature and training. I have given lectures to students about the power of words.

Indeed, words can create immense feelings in us. Words have started and stopped wars, and have the power to invoke great feelings of love or hatred toward our fellow human beings. When used lovingly, words make us feel protected and nurtured; when used carelessly, words can make us feel vulnerable and frightened.

We live in a world where "politically correct" terminology seems to be the cause of the day. Yet, just last night, while watching "Studio 54 on the Sunset Strip," Matthew Perry says to his castmate, "Why aren't you getting this, I know you're not borderline retarded."

Almost daily, on the Trisomy 21 Board I visit, there is a post about the inappropriate use of the word "retard" or "retarded" in media, or every day life. Recently, the word "Wee-tard" was adopted to describe people who play too much Nintendo WIII.

Last week, Dakotah's teacher, whom I have a great relationship with, and whom I really like, used the phrase "That's really retarded" when describing something. She immediately corrected herself to say "that's really ridiculous" and then later apologized directly to Dakotah "because of Paige."

A few years ago, my brother-in-law was constantly using the word retard and calling people around him "tards." I adore him - he is my brother in every sense of the word. And when I told him it wasn't a word that we used around our house, he was devastated -- he never even made a connection to the word as a derogatory term. And he certainly didn't connect it to Paige.
He was embarassed and quite upset at himself.

In our house, for obvious reasons, the word retard is a "zero tolerance" word -- no one slips and uses it because no one would ever use it any way. When any of us hear it, we all bristle and take pause.

Even at the clinic for Child Development where Paige goes, "mentally retarded" is NOT allowed to be used to describe any of the children there, as there are so many negative feelings that are associated with it.

Among kids Dakotah's age, it seems as if the two words that are the most offensive, and the most widespread for insults are "retard" and "gay." Everything negative is called "gay."

I wonder at what point we will begin to understand that calling anyone a name that reflects an important part of our society in a negative fashion is not acceptable?

As I've written this post, I've considered using some of the other "hot" words that we are all so aware of - the ones that degraded people by colour, or nationality or religion. I imagine the gasps of anyone seeing those words on my blog, as those of you who know me know that they are not part of my vernacular.

Instead, what I hope is that we, the media and society as a whole will finally, finally start to gasp at the word retard. That we will not hear it on a show that has probably been through dozens of writers and script run-throughs. That our kids will not hear it on a playground. That we won't see anyone "acting retarded" on YouTube for a laugh.

The funny thing is, in my mind, its not an insult to be considered "retarded" or "gay" or "fat" or any of the other words we use to try and make ourselves feel superiour to others.

I've known many people who have had these labels thrust upon them.

Anyone who finds it impossible to see passed these labels is missing out on a huge, wonderful part of life.


Camille said...

What a writer you are!!!I had one experience with the word retard. About 3 years ago, Amy had a birthday party in March. The kids were watching a movie and one of the boys said to another, hey retard. I told this child who was 10 that we did not use this word in our home. Amy's little sister has Down syndrome and we rather think this word is offensive...
5 months later, we had a pool party and the same boy, sitting at the top of the slide, says really loud: hey, you re. Then he said oops and that was it. I was very proud of him, for remembering... A few months later, I told the story to his mother; how great it was of him to have remembered. She was a little embarrassed. But no, I told her be proud of him, they are children and my gentle talk about "the word" had an impact...Communication (words) is our best tool... So if I hear the word again, I will once more have a gentle chat with...

Shelley said...

Absolutely! We are 'lucky' here in that 'retard' hasn't been as widely used as in US although with increasing Americanisms being used that may change. I have little patience for people who complain about having to be 'politically correct' - what is wrong with asking people to THINK before they speak? Language is an incredibly powerful tool. It isn't just words, it is our history, our values and our attitudes sometimes poorly summarised into a few words.

Shelley said...

PS - I encounter the term 'Deaf and Dumb' more often - now that brings me out in a rash - I don't like to let those sort of comments pass - I agree with Camille - a gentle prompting to help people THINK is sometimes all that is needed to break down negative (and false) stereotypes!

mum2brady said...

Great post Betsy. Words really do have an impact :)

Today I was talking to the care coordinator of our medical home project on a call about an upcoming luncheon we're doing for families of children with special healthcare needs. She was saying it was such a shame that not more people had RSVPed, especially when there were so many "downs" kids on the list. I said to her "you mean children with down syndrome, right" and there was definitely an awkward pause and she did apologize :)

I think that sometimes it so often a part of speech that kids don't think, but once you talk about it, then it does give them pause. My kids friends will still say it, then look at me and say oops and change it to a different word. They are learning....

I agree that "gay" is way over used in a negative way.... I find myself asking my children if whatever they are talking about really is homosexual.... We've worked out the retarded word, now on to the next one ;)

Thanks for your thoughts!