Are you retarded?! a rant on semantics

Disclaimer: Understand that I do not condone the use of the word retard to describe anything except a technical situation IE “The fire was retarded by the efforts of the Forest Service and Fire Fighters”  and the sole purpose of its use in this blog is to drive home the word’s misuse.

Lately there are a couple of terms which I have had trouble with.  The first, which is somewhat ADHD related, is the term retard.

Let me start by saying we as a society have developed a nasty habit of attributing negativity to legitimate terms.  For something to be retarded, it’s processes must be slowed or hindered.  Fire retardant, for example, slows and often extinguishes fire.  For the longest time, being a retarded individual meant being someone who developed slowly or differently, and thus had a difficult time integrating with society.  Now it is completely negative.  People jokingly call their friends “retard” when they are being ridiculous, goofy, or acting stupid.  Stupid is not a nice word.  Now retard isn’t either.  30 or 40 years ago, if I performed an activity differently and less efficiently than anyone else, and I used a dysfunctional process, it could have been described as a retarded procedure without implying any negative connotation.  Today, if I were told that the way I did something is retarded, I would know that person meant to demean me.  Similar effects have occurred with the term “dumb” (which before meant mute), “gay” (which is now used similarly to retarded), and even “special;” terms now meant to belittle a genre as well as an individual (IE “Dude, you’re so gay” belittles the individual being spoken to, but also belittles homosexuals). 

There are several reasons this is a problem for me.  First of all, these are legitimate terms in the American English language which have been given a negative implication.  This means that eventually, when reading historical documents (especially psychiatric files) we will view benign descriptions of handicapped individuals being retarded as being bullied or disrespected because of the use of terms which, in modern days, are seen as being negative.  Secondly, we cannot maintain adequate language to define handicaps and social taboos, because anything we use will eventually be turned into something negative or abusive.  This reflects the twisted social norms we’ve established.  We have placed negative labels incorrectly.  This gross misuse of terms should be taboo.

Years ago, you’d have caught me saying these people who are ignorant, poorly mannered, or belligerent are retarded.  I had originally done so in this very blog, in sarcasm.  However even then it felt filthy.  I have changed it, of course. It surprises me that this term does not have extremely positive implications, given the attitude and care that so many of those “afflicted” or “challenged” people have.  In writing this, I am embarrassed even by my own ignorance in the matter; yet it is an important topic to put out there and I am doing my best to do so.


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