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.