– Topher Endress
Men, we have read posts on the importance of words, but I need to take some space to write about a very problematic issue that many of us (myself included) face. All to often, it is easy for us to call something by the wrong name. We willingly forsake accuracy for emphasis in many conversations – not always a bad thing, of course. However, sometimes this lack of consideration for our terms is very damaging to others. Take, for example, Ann Coulter’s recent tweets about Obama. During one of the presidential debates, she referred to him directly as a retard, then later said that if Obama was the smartest man in the room, it must be one retarded room. Now, especially on election day, I’m not going to pick sides and say that she’s right and saying it wrong, or that she’s wrong and saying it really wrong. I will, however, never mention Ann Coulter again in an effort to keep her off the airwaves. Someone who is so blatantly disrespectful does not deserve our attention for it. Of course, as I think about her word choice, I can’t help but think about what I hear from the people around me.
When was the last time you said someone was retarded? Not too long ago, if you are anything like the general 20-somethings population that I’ve known. See, our culture has taken this word and misapplied it because, as a descriptor, it adds emphasis to what we say. I didn’t just make a mistake, I’ll apologize for being retarded. That person isn’t just asking a question in class, they are retarded for not getting it right away. The ref didn’t make a bad call, he is retarded for missing that obvious foul. It is quite literally akin to using the word literally to describe feelings (when it is far more likely that you intend to say emphatically, legitimately, or passionately). We like being able to emphasize our words through these types of hyperboles.
However, let me point out two main reasons why misusing the word retarded will ensure a swift kick to the face from me next time I see you in person: retarded was never meant to describe a person and retarded is an emotionally charge word that places the power in the listener’s ear.
First, there is a proper use of the word. Today, it is used to only to describe a system or process that is slowly down or being hindered. In music, you have a retardando when the tempo slows. We have machines that retard and baby clothes that are flame retardant. While this could have described those with mental handicaps several years ago, I would hope that each person reading this blog would realize how inappropriate and inaccurate that term is if used to describe a human. I don’t mind anyone using that term properly, but it is never the correct usage to use it as a description of a person.
Second, the biggest reason that this word is offensive is because it is. Simply put, because a critical mass of people have used it inappropriately as a pejorative term, anyone using it now is necessarily bringing in the negative connotations that come with it. We don’t have those same negative emotions associated with other adjectives – I wouldn’t be offended if you called me “quixotic,” but if enough people started using “quixotic” as an insult I would eventually be offended by that term no matter how good of a descriptor it once was. We are Men of Character. Not knowing that something is offensive is an excuse that can be used once at most – we do have an obligation to understand how to best relate to and see the value in each person around us. Part of that means educating yourself on how to interact in a way that is fair to both parties. Of course, that is the general ideal. The word retarded is well-known to be offensive, so I personally wouldn’t give anyone that one-time pass.
I understand that as guys, it is natural for many of us to rib each other. Most insults and bickering are more parodies of masculinity than they are true expressions. But there is no reason for a group of dedicated Men, Men who want to change the perception of fraternal life at Purdue, Men who want to cause an impact in their community, Men who strive to be a light in already too-dark world, should ever jeopardize their efficacy by using words that serve no purpose other than furthering a divide with an already maligned community. Many people hearing the word retarded recognize that it stands for a label that dehumanizes someone with mental handicaps or disabilities. And no Man of Character I know would ever stand for that.
How can you work on changing your vocabulary to exclude words that only serve to insult? When do you find yourself using terms like that, and how can you change those situations? What other words might you be using that offend those around you?
As a final read, I highly recommend this open letter, penned to Ann Coulter after her tweets.