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The R-Word

Advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities will gather in Daly City, Calif., today to “spread the word to end the word.”

The r-word, that is. The campaign, organized by the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International, encourages people to pledge to stop using the word “retarded” in a derogatory sense. The group’s website encourages supporters to “help eliminate the use of the R-word in everyday speech.”

The effort gained national attention when The Wall Street Journal reported in January that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used the term “f-ing retarded” last summer after liberal activists proposed a series of commercials that would attack moderate Democrats. Emanuel clearly intended his use of the word “retarded” to be derogatory.

Until recently, I thought the term “retarded” was a medically incorrect description of someone who is developmentally disabled. My daughter, who is a mental health worker, corrected me. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders compiled by the American Psychiatric Association contains criteria for a diagnosis of “mental retardation.” The version currently in use, the DSM-IV, bases the diagnosis on IQ scores and overall functioning. The draft proposal for the next version of the manual, the DSM-5, has a new set of criteria and changes the name of the condition from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability,” which is deemed to be a more accurate description.

Until the new version is released, however, it will continue to be medically correct, if somewhat dated, to refer to people “with an IQ of approximately 70 or below” who have “deficits or impairments in present adaptive functioning” as mentally retarded. This is not necessarily derogatory. Nor is it derogatory to use the r-word while discussing a campaign to end the thoughtless use of the r-word. So why am I calling it the r-word?

Many adjectives are derogatory in some contexts but not in others. Here are some whose derogatory connotation has varied wildly: Liberal. Jew. Nazi. Dwarf. (Walt Disney did not title his film "Snow White and the Seven Little People.") Fat. Fundamentalist. Negro.

We can even string these adjectives together to come up with something like a fat, fundamentalist, liberal Negro Jewish Nazi dwarf. If anything ought to be obnoxious, this should be, right? Have I offended you? Would you be less offended if I substituted the description "ecclesiastically ultra-conservative, politically progressive Semitic National Socialist of African heritage who is short and has a high body mass index?"

Most words are offensive when they are used, not to denote a certain group of people, but to imply that those people have negative characteristics and that a reasonable person ought to be offended by being associated with them. When Emanuel called the liberal activists’ proposal “f-ing retarded,” he intended to insult them. In doing so, he implied that mentally retarded people characteristically have bad ideas and that some ideas are so bad that only a mentally retarded person could be expected to have them. Neither statement is true, and both are highly offensive.

Kirsten Seckler, a spokeswoman for the Special Olympics, told ABC News, “We aren't trying to ban a word, but the pejorative in casual use - especially used by kids in schools and in the classroom - is isolating and it hurts.” A similar effort seeks to prevent people from using the word gay to mean bad or stupid while still promoting its use as a term for those who are attracted to others of the same sex. (Correct: “My teacher is gay. I met his boyfriend at graduation.” Incorrect: “My teacher is gay. He just gave us homework over winter break.”) Switching to new, more politically correct terms each time a word appears in the vernacular with a derogatory meaning will simply lead to a constant updating of the language, without addressing the prejudices that make the words offensive in the first place.

Of course, there are some words that have no meaning other than one that is demeaning. Their use is therefore offensive in all contexts other than in discussions about the words themselves and in direct quotations. This is the case, for example, with the n-word. I would use the word here if I thought any readers would not recognize which word I am discussing. Since I don’t believe this is the case, I see no reason to hurt anyone by spelling it out.

I’m not sure we really must refer to “the r-word” to campaign against the casually hurtful use of the word “retarded.” But, so long as pledge-takers pay attention to the whole message, the “spread the word to end the word” campaign sounds like a good idea to me.

I am pretty sure Rahm Emanuel is not so quick to call something or someone he dislikes "retarded" anymore. He probably even has a t-shirt commemorating today's "spread the word" event.

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