Words matter

If, before this week, you had told me that I would one day agree with Sarah Palin on anything, I would have snorted hot tea up my nose and wondered what you were smoking. 

That was before Palin called out Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, for using the word “retarded” as a slur.  I am so sick of hearing this word used that way that I can only stand and applaud.  I am sick of the way we treat the cognitively impaired as second-class citizens, long after we’ve agreed that it is wrong when done on the basis of gender or race or creed.  But it’s still okay to use the word “retarded” as the ultimate insult, in the process disrespecting every human who has ever struggled with an imperfectly functioning brain.

I have heard the word retarded used to describe my daughter, and I always wince.  She is cognitively impaired because of a genetic disorder that damaged her brain before she was born.  There is nothing any of us could do about her condition.  To mock and scorn her for it is the cowardly act of a person with few redeeming qualities, one who must denigrate others in order to feel good about himself. 

Not too long ago, I asked colleagues on a writers’ board to stop using “retarded” when they meant “ignorant.”  One or two people told me they didn’t realize how offensive it was and apologized.  The others basically told me to go screw myself for asking them to grow up and use some judgment.  

This was disheartening, to say the least: if writers don’t accept that words matter, how can we expect anyone else in the world to?  Words do matter, and when you use “retarded” as a slur, you are dismissing and dehumanizing my daughter.  And she, sir, is a finer human being than you and I could ever hope to be. 

If you could see how hard she works to learn a thing I can pick up on the first try, you would not be scornful.  You would stand in awe of her persistence and her dedication to knowledge.  If you could listen to her conversation, and hear how she assures everyone that they are beautiful and she loves them, you would see the depth of compassion she has for others.  She does not see the purpose of hurting and insulting people, even those she disagrees with.  If you could see the way she stands up to someone who loses his temper and tells him he reminds her of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, you would admire her courage and her sense of self.  

You may call my daughter retarded, and if you mean it as a description, it is true; if you mean it as an insult, the slur is on you.  You are something far worse than retarded: you are ignorant, and know it, and can’t be bothered to educate yourself.  That, in my opinion, is the condition worthy of mockery and scorn.


  1. Hear, hear! I can't agree more. Feel the same way about the casual way people say things like, "Oh, that's SO gay!" when what they mean is that it's stupid or bad or whatever. I mean, if something's gay, it's gay. That does NOT equate with stupid. And it's offensive to use this kind of offhand, lazy language around people who are gay, because they fight enough ignorance everyday as it is. I completely relate to the feeling of this kind of language making one feel treated as a second-class citizen. I've been guilty of it myself and the color that rose to my cheeks when it was pointed out is not something I wish to experience twice. Lesson learned. I wish others would be as open to the lessons. Thanks for this piece, Jennifer.

  2. I'm with you 100%. My cousin was born with a disability, and a sweeter and more genuine person you would be hard pressed to find. So when my own son used "retard" to insult his brother, I had to take a very deep breath before I could talk with him calmly about it.

    Words do matter — like Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

    Good post, Jennifer.

  3. Writers and journalists are among the most difficult to convince of their own prejudices because these are reinforced by the use and repetition of tired, hackneyed terms like "retarded". They interpret a lack of criticism as approval, when the reality is that most people would not consider their output worthy of comment. Congratulations on speaking up!

  4. Jennifer, like all of your blogs, this one is very insightful. I believe that the cognitively impaired see things that others simply cannot because they are unencumbered with the pettiness, ego, and arrogance that paralyze the rest of us. Who can say what is normal? When celebrities, government officials, or personalities use the term "retarded," they make me wonder how they got where they are. Words can be weapons and most of us have felt the sting of them at some point. It is not that these terms should be banned; it is that they should never be used. There is a difference!

  5. On the whole, I am not awfully keen on politics in general – but, on occasion we all have to take notice. There are several excellent points made here, and I'm paying attention – I am grateful to you.

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