Sticks and stones

April 5th, 2010 § 7 comments

I’ve been following with interest the ongoing debate about what the headline writers are now calling “the R word,” as in retard. The issue was given new impetus when White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is famous for his foul mouth, referred to liberal activists as “fucking retarded.” He brought down on himself the wrath of disability advocates and a sharp rebuke from Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, not to mention a Facebook tirade from Sarah Palin, who never saw a bandwagon she didn’t want to jump on.

As a card-carrying logophile, I have mixed feelings on movements to ban the use of any word. On the one hand, I think political correctness can all too easily run amok: remember the fuss when a political aide to the Mayor of Washington DC used the word “niggardly” to describe a civic budget? On the other, I understand how painful the impact of words can be, especially when they are bandied about thoughtlessly. On yet another hand, if I had one, that is how most of the human race employs language, nine times out of ten. (I leave it up to you whether or not to include lawyers in the human race, which might affect these odds. Pardon my lame joke. Which, by the way, illustrates the problem, since ‘lame’ is another word with the power to offend.)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me! Nyah nyah nyah nyah!” Remember shouting those words on the playground … and then going home and crying your eyes out? It’s a huge lie; names can hurt like hell. But name-calling is just the tip of an iceberg; the real problem lies in people’s attitude to disabilities and to those who live with them. I had a very tiny taste of this attitude myself, many years ago, when I suffered some nerve damage during a spinal fusion and needed crutches to get around for a few months. Because I was not wearing a plaster cast or bandages, the crutches aroused intense curiosity in some people, who would debate aloud the possible reasons why I might need them. On one occasion, when I was on the train to work, a couple of women sat across from me, wondering what was “wrong” with me, and whether I should even be on a commuter train if I was “seriously crippled.” When I leaned across to explain why I was using crutches, they were quite offended at my interrupting their “private” conversation. Later, I mentioned the incident to a friend of mine, who had polio as a child and uses a motorised scooter. He laughed and said “You didn’t know? ‘Cripples’ are all deaf!”

Some of the bloggers in my blogroll have disabilities. Although society would lump them all together as ‘disabled,’ they are, in fact, a disparate bunch, with very little in common. FWD/Forward is a feminist blog with a number of contributors. As a feminist myself, albeit of the old bra-burning school, I find their points of view refreshing, trenchant, often provocative and sometimes shocking – which is how I believe feminists should be.

Planet of the Blind is another blog I like. It’s co-written by a professor of creative writing and disability studies at the University of Iowa and his wife, and also has a number of other contributors. It’s topical and interesting, and I highly recommend it.

We may think we’ve come a long way from the days when children born with disabilities were shut away in institutions, or displayed in exhibits for the ignorant to gawp at. The reaction of the Canadian media, during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, to Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau proved otherwise. As I read the front page stories, salivating over Mr Bilodeau and his brother, I turned to The First Husband and said “WTF? (or words to that effect) Is the man a hero for winning a gold medal [assuming any normal person gives a shit!] or for acknowledging his brother, who has cerebral palsy, in public? This is sick.” Anna, a FWD/Forward blogger who takes no prisoners, wrote a terrific post about it. I hate to say it, but it was pretty damn’ inspiring! (Sorry, Anna.)

§ 7 Responses to Sticks and stones"

  • Jan says:

    While I think the whole PC thing has gotten entirely out of hand, I often chide my kids for using words like “gay” and “retarded” in a derogatory manner, simply because there has to be a better way to describe things. On one such occasion, The Young One turned to me, quite exasperated, and snapped, “Okay – STUPID then. I can still call things stupid, can’t I? Or is Paris Hilton going to come after me on the behalf of stupid people everywhere?”

    I think you’re doing exactly the right thing, Jan. Kids pick up most of their attitudes at home; if their parents are slagging people for being different, you can bet your bippy the kids will too. I suspect The Young One is a chip off the old block; he did not get that smart mouth from the Tooth Fairy!

  • Trying to control words is tanamount to trying to control thought. No doubt it’s not your styl but Southpark did an excellent episode that dealt with this very issue.

    [Season 13, Episode 12, The F-word]

    “Gays Against Fags”, says it all really.

    Believe it or not, La Craic, I used to watch South Park all the time. Haven’t for ages, because I got out of the habit. But I’m glad to see it’s as potty-mouthed and fearless as ever.

    I’m inclined to agree with you about trying to control words, but I see it as analagous to the abortion debate. Until birth control is freely accessible to anyone who wants it, there will always be a need demand for abortion. So too, until attitudes to people with disabilities, gays, Black people, etc. change, there will always be a pejorative take on words related to them. In the meantime, Martin Luther King jr probably said it best: “Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

    (By the way, La Craic, I’ve censored your comment to remove the link you included. Try as I would, I could only raise a bunch of poker sites with it. But, for anyone who’s curious, I have referenced the episode above, and it can be watched on the websites of Comedy Central in the States and the Comedy Network in Canada.)

  • JES says:

    One of my favorite subjects — the debasement of words like bravery and hero

    Saw an re-run of The Office last night. In the episode, the spooky office nerd Dwight sprays an angry big man with pepper spray, preventing a potential fight between the a.b.m. and the office “good guy,” Jim. Jim keeps trying to thank Dwight, but he will have none of it. He tells the camera:

    No, don’t call me a hero. Do you know who the real heroes are? The guys who wake up every morning and go into their normal jobs, and get a distress call from the commissioner, and take off their glasses and change into capes, and fly around fighting crime. Those are the real heroes.

    Burst out laughing when I heard that.

    But it is tricky. Every now and then a blogger will confess to some major weakness, like being a closet alcoholic or someone who was abused as a child. Commenters fall all over themselves rushing to say s/he is so brave for talking about it. Are they actually brave? I can’t make up my mind. Sometimes I think the brave ones are the ones who resist the next drink but never tell anybody about it, and sometimes I think the ones who confess it openly are the ones with the real stones.

  • Sorry about the link, it seems everything is spam these days. The episode, as well as others is available on if anyone wants to see it. Megavideo are devils for pop ups though.

    I agree whole heartedly that you cannot legislate a change in consciousness. It’s something that bugs the hell out of me in France. They seem to believe they can legislate for every social problem, a move which is invariably doomed to failure. Look at Switzerland. It is one of the politest most PC countries in Europe. No racism in Switzerland, right? Wrong. As soon as the Swiss were in the privacy of the voting booth they had no problem voting their distaste for Islam and it’s minerets (note: perhaps a dislike of Islam and minerets shouldn’t be referred to as ‘racism’ but while church bells are allowed to ring at the same time the call to prayer can no longer sound from a mineret, it infers a certain double standard). Personaly I like my idiots, bigots, racists and liars out in the open where I can see them rather then forced into an aestetic conformity while they surf white power websites at home.

  • wisewebwoman says:

    It seriously depends, Tessa on the one slinging and their intent. I remember the huge fuss (and job loss) of one of our aides who was overheard at some international brouhjaha calling The Shrub “A Moron”. It was sincerely meant and I leave it up to any who met him to debate his intellect.
    And she was fired for stating her truth.

    It’s the stereotyping I have the most difficulty with – classifying aboriginals, east Indians, under a blanket epithet usually involving the word ‘dirty’. I get completely steamed. Also with the denigration of gays, transgendered, etc.

    Unfortunately once the anti-pcs get on a no-holds-barred policy they use it to trash ‘others’.

    I don’t know where the fine line is when such simple phrases as ‘the blind leading the blind’ can cause serious offence.


  • Hey, great post, but WordPress messes it up on my monitor. Maybe it’s the widget you are using. Have you tried a different CMS?

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