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Outlook: The case against banning the word 'retard'

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Christopher M. Fairman
Professor, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 11:00 AM

Christopher M. Fairman, professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, was online Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled "The case against banning the word 'retard.'

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Related articles: Timothy Shriver: The bigotry behind the word 'retard' (Post, Feb. 15) and Defending the word 'retard' is not heroic (PostPartisan, Feb. 14)

Fairman is the author of a book subtitled "Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties," whose title is unprintable here.

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Christopher M. Fairman: Hello. I'm Christopher Fairman, a law professor at The Ohio State Moritz College of Law. I'm here today to continue a dialogue about the use of the word "retard" and its variations and recent efforts to restrict its use. I hope my article in Sunday's Post got you thinking about the issue. I welcome your questions.

Christopher M. Fairman: We also have an online poll on this issue if you want to weigh in there as well.

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Lawrence, Kan.: I think you would agree that the idea that people with Intellectual Disabilities are worthless and a hindrance is false. Certainly people have the freedom to think this if one would like, but do you agree that Special Olympics should attempt to persuade people to think otherwise? As you state, words are ideas. Special Olympics hopes to dissuade people from this mindset, should they not dissuade them from using this word (which represents this idea)?

Christopher M. Fairman: Of course I agree with you both on the value of people with intellectual disabilities and the power of the Special Olympics to advocate on their behalf. This includes their right to combat speech with more speech. As I point out in the article, there are costs that come from these efforts.

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Arlington, Va.: Speaking of words that were once acceptable, the term "handicapped" has been dismissed as bad and has been replaced with "disabled." I don't see this as an improvement but the fight has been lost until disabled becomes a pejorative word also.

Christopher M. Fairman: You're exactly right. The history of pejorative language is that there is always another word that fills in to serve the insulting purpose. Trying to stamp out one word--like retard--only prepares the way for another--maybe IDs.

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washingtonpost.com: Timothy Shriver: The bigotry behind the word 'retard' (Post, Feb. 15)

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Los Angeles, Calif.: On Fox News Sunday last week, Sarah Palin criticized Rahm Emanuel for using the "R word" during a private meeting with supporters when word leaked out months later, but she defended Rush Limbaugh's satirical use of the word on his nationally broadcast radio show. She sounded as if Rahm's use would have been okay with her had he used the R word in a SNL skit. Is this an example of the proverbial distinction without a difference or is it an example of Palin's objectivity as a Fox News commentator?

Christopher M. Fairman: I'm not sure how I would characterize Palin's position except that it makes no sense to me. Both Emanuel & Limbaugh were using the same word for the same purpose.

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Vienna, Va.: I am a proponent of Free Speech, but I fail to understand your defense of the use of the word "retarded" to refer to so many individuals who find this hurtful to them. Certainly, don't "ban" the word. The WORD is what it is. But what is gained by keeping it as a "descriptor" of a group. Would you also defend the use of the word "idiot" or "feeble-minded" a few decades ago. THANKS for spurring on this debate, Christopher -- or do YOU prefer "Chris" -- that would be fine with me!

Christopher M. Fairman: I don't think any word should be restricted as my writing on the f-word [I hate using the euphemism] documents. I would have no problem with idiot or feebleminded either. As far as defense of "retarded" goes, I've heard from many doctors in the past two days who favor the term for clinical diagnosis purposes. Only my mother calls me Christopher, Chris is fine.

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Boston, Mass.: How do you ban a word? I agree that retard has a horrible meaning. But can really make people stop using it? Look at the N-word. Courteous and polite people don't use retard or the n- word now. So that leaves everyone else who don't really care if the word is banned or not -- they are the type of people who are the reason we want to ban the word.

Christopher M. Fairman: Well you can effectively restrict use of words through government regulation. The FCC does that with the F-word. The Special Olympics New Zealand wants to do the same thing there. I think that's problematic.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I loved your article. "Retard" and "retarded" are perfectly good verbs and adjectives that refer to much more than mental ability. I've heard people use "African American" as a derogatory term just like the forbidden "N-word." I've also heard people use "Jew" in the same manner. Banishing words does not banish the underlying hateful attitude. We should decry prejudice, not words.

Christopher M. Fairman: Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right that it is underlying attitudes of prejudice or fear that creates insults. As long as those feelings exist, words will surface to express them.

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Annapolis, Md.: About your poll, I oppose banning the word because I do not find it offensive.

I say this as the sister-in-law of a mentally retarded woman, now 58, who has has lived with my husband and me for the past 14 years. I recently look early retirement to be with her full-time, as her needs are becoming more urgent. For example, she needs help in toileting, but will only allow a woman to assist her.

I love her dearly, but calling her "mentally challenged" is a joke that minimizes the great amount of time, effort and patience required to meet her needs. "Retarded" is a neutral term that more accurately reflects that is involved.

Christopher M. Fairman: Thanks for mentioning the poll. I guess it does capture all the nuances of the issue. By the way, currently 53% oppose the initiative, 23% support it, and 24% are neutral.

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Washington, D.C.: Let me reprint the pledge from R-word.org that you cited at the beginning of your article: "I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities."

You wrote, "I won't be making that pledge," but then did not address the specific wording, which is not "I will not use the word," but opposes only "derogatory use." Do you think derogatory use of the word is unobjectionable?

Christopher M. Fairman: Then problem is one of definition. What is derogatory use? I do not think that Emanuel's use was at all. He was not trying to use the word to insult. He was using it as an all purpose put-down to members of his own party. On the other hand, if someone calls a person with Down syndrome a retard I would find that objectionable.

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Bethesda, Md.: I'm "chronologically challenged" (old) and had no idea until the Rahm Emmanuel flap that the term "retarded" is now considered offensive. It sure beats some of the unkind alternatives that were bandied about in my youth.

I checked with my niece, who has a Down's Syndrome child, and she told me use of the r-word is fine with her. She did note that, since she lives in North Dakota, news of its offensiveness may not have reached there yet.

There will, unfortunately, always be unkind people who deliberately say things that hurt. I hope people will not be too quick to judge those who inadvertently make hurtful comments because they did not realize a term was offensive.

Christopher M. Fairman: As I mentioned in my article, one of the fears I have about efforts to restrict use of words is that over zealous enforcement often develops. People become too willing to find offense where none was intended.

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washingtonpost.com: The case against banning the word 'retard' (Post, Feb. 16)

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Arlington, Va.: If we could somehow capture all the hot air that has been spilled on this topic we could put it to good use to melt all the snow around here.

Christopher M. Fairman: Well I would selfishly use it here in Columbus, Ohio where coincidently The Ohio State University called a snow that today and cancelled classes--much to the delight of my civil procedure students I'm sure.

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Fairfax, Va.: Actually, among some developmental pediatricians the word "retarded" is considered NOT a good descriptor -- it implies a delay that can eventually be overcome. Many mental deficiencies cannot be made up for with even the earliest and best interventions -- we can help a person reach his/her highest potential, but that highest potential is just that, the upper limit. So really the whole "MR" (mental retardation) label should be phased out, and if no one is diagnosed or labeled as MR, there's no reason for anyone to be offended when retarded is used as an insult. Calling someone an idiot isn't politically incorrect.

- A pediatrician in training

Christopher M. Fairman: I think the medical community must not be of one mind on the retardation as descriptor issue, although I agree that my research leads me to believe that intellectual disability is quickly becomes the label of choice if it isn't already.

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Lawrence, Kan.: It seems you agree that there is an issue in the social and cultural acceptance of people with ID. Do you feel that taking into account the social nature of the intellectually disabled community might affect how one combats this issue? Might the intellectual capabilities of those with ID change the way they are able to distinguish between an direct insult and an unintended slur? If so, would you add to or alter your position?

Christopher M. Fairman: I agree that cultural acceptance is a problem that gives rise to insults. I don't know but would assume that depending on the individual it might be challenging to explain the direct from the unintended. I don't think this changes my stance at all. Speech should not find some lowest common denominator.

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NW D.C.: I believe that language is ever evolving and while words are words, their meaning or connotation can drift and shift. This can happen at the grassroots level but is largely influenced by organizations that mount campaigns to push, say, "physically- challenged" over "handicapped" or "Native American" over "Indian" as preferred usage. How do you suppose an organization or group determines, one day, to redefine the appropriateness of a word?

BTW, I'd prefer to see the word "busboy" retired in favor of "busperson" or "busser" as busboys seldom are "boys" and "boy" has some patronizing aspect to it, no?

Christopher M. Fairman: Organizations have stakeholders with very specific interests. In the case of this debate, Special Olympics' stakeholders include people with intellectual disabilities, their families, and volunteers. In the past 30 years, they have witnessed a clinical term develop a pejorative meaning. To support the interests of their constituents, the r-word campaign was launched.

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ARC: Would you change the name of the organization ARC, whose acronym stands for Association for Retarded Citizens?

Christopher M. Fairman: They already have. It now is simply the Arc, not an acronym. I, of course, would not have changed the name if it was serving its purpose for the group.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: You write, "The N-word invokes some of the foulest chapters in our nation's history; "retard," however harsh, pales in comparison." Aren't you neglecting to mention that people with cognitive disabilities have similarly historically been denied rights and privileges American citizens are entitled to and the "r-word" has played a key role in this pattern of discrimination?

Christopher M. Fairman: I have heard from many who called to my attention the denial of civil liberties of those suffering from mental disabilities. I should not have tried to minimize the suffering of one group by comparing it to another larger group and its suffering. The remedy is not restriction of the r-word or n-word, it is public support for equality for all people.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: It's all about context. If "retard" or "retarded" is used as an insult, it's an insult. If used in context, it is not. That doesn't mean we should ban the word. If someone is forgetful and I say, "You must be an Alzheimer's patient." That's intended as an insult. Should we ban the term "Alzheimer's?"

Christopher M. Fairman: Good point. Context and intention is all important.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr.Fairman: For me, the word "negro" is a recent example of once-acceptable words being unacceptable or worse, depending on the race or political party of the person using it. Does your book identify people who decide on words? I've been calling them "speech police" for some years now but can't figure out who they are. These people are powerful and intimidating. They've got the offended party getting people to apologize, resign or be fired for uttering a word! Who are they? In a country that values the importance of free speech, where do they get the authority to dictate what words to use, or not? Will no one challenge them?

Christopher M. Fairman: Speech police, word police, word zealots, speech vigilantes--all refer to these self-appointed guardians of our vocabulary. These are vocal minorities that often purport to speak for the majority. Sometimes they are organized into groups, like the Parents Television Council that targets what they deem indecent language on television or the r-word.org folks.

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Mora, Minnesota: Interest groups like the ARC and Special Olympics need to spend their resources focusing on improving how they serve people with disabilities to strengthen self-advocacy and self-respect rather than throwing all their resources into a political campaign that has limited power to influence change. LET IT BEGIN WITH ME is an effective tool for change and influencing attitudes and I am not offended by the word retard. My daughter has mental retardation, it's a medical term and I am not ashamed of it! I embraced it the first time she was "labeled" because finally we had some direction and guidance! Let's focus our energy on teaching people with disabilities to embrace and value who they are and that will change how others value and respect them! I am concerned that the more we tell people they should be offended the more they will perseverate on the hurtful offense which is in direct opposition of embracing life and moving forward. When people need to insult others that says more about them than it does about who they are insulting -- LET'S TEACH THAT!

Christopher M. Fairman: Thanks for your comment. You are one of the stakeholders in these groups and should have a voice in guiding their direction.

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Washington, D.C.: You wrote, "Emanuel "was not trying to use the word to insult. He was using it as an all purpose put-down to members of his own party."

Perhaps its because I did not go to law school, but I cannot parse the distinction between a put-down and an insult. Obviously he intended it to be insulting to the audience. By that logic, it's OK to use the n-word to disparage a group of white people.

Christopher M. Fairman: Thanks for your question. I meant that Emanuel was not trying to insult or put down people with intellectual disabilities, His audience was members of his own party. He was not saying the left wingers were intellectually disabled. The meaning of "retarded" he was trying to communicate was "silly" or "dumb."

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Christopher M. Fairman: Thanks to every one for their comments and questions. Obviously, I couldn't get to all of them. Words are ideas. Thanks for yours today. Take care.

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