Politically Correct or Showing Respect? Are Words “Just Words”?

I know that some people really don’t like to be what they consider “politically correct”.

A boyfriend (now an ex-boyfriend) and I were talking over lunch one day. We hadn’t been together all that long. He was telling me a story about his job as I ate my hamburger.

“It was so retarded,” he concluded. (He wasn’t a fan of modifying to language to be what he considered “political correct”) “Hey, are you okay?”

I’d choked on my burger. “It was what?”

“Retarded,” he said. “No good?”

“Not if you expect to go to any work events with me or meet any of the people I support,” I said. “Hell, meeting my family’s pretty dicey if you’re going to go throwing the R-word around,”

“It’s just a word,” he said, looking confused.

“Not in my line of work, it isn’t,” I said. “You’ll make the people I support furious, or you’ll make them cry. My co-workers will wonder what kind of jack-ass I’m dating. And the R-word has been dirty in my family for as long as I can remember.”

“I can be good,” He smiled. “But, seriously…it’s just word.”

You don’t get it, I thought.

Not a Matter of Being Politically Correct

Being politically correct is one of the least of my considerations for choosing my language. Many of my  friends who dislike  the “politically correct language”  may disagree with me on that, but they’re not here, so…

I think that speaking respectfully about people can look to some people look like an over-use of politically correct language, but that it goes deeper than that.

I’ve had the “just a word” argument many times, and not just over “retarded”. I went through a period where I also argued that “slut” should be purged from the English language, on the following grounds:

  • It’s ugly.
  • It expresses a double standard that while it’s socially okay for men to have sex with many women, the reverse is not okay.
  • Women and girls call each other sluts without being aware of what it really means.
  • Calling a woman a slut, regardless of the intended meaning at the time, is a way to make a woman feel bad about herself.

Eventually, I got over wanting to ban “slut”. I discovered that I had the power to decide to decide whether the people who called me “slut” were going to make me feel like a slut or not. Their word made no difference; how I chose to react to their word did.

It really is just a word.

I took that lesson and applied it to other words that people would call me later on: “disabled”, “handicapped”, and “challenged”.

Yes, “retarded” is just a word. “Mentally retarded” is actually diagnostic criteria. “Retarded” means “slow” and, in the context of “That’s retarded”, isn’t necessarily meant to be a comment at all on people with intellectual disabilities. I realize all these things.

When It’s Not Just a Word

However, “retarded” is one of those words, like “slut”, that I choose not to use. Over the years, “retarded” has come to have a lot of negative connotations pertaining to people with intellectual disabilities. It’s become a way of putting people with those disabilities down, and part of the movement to institutionalize children with intellectual disabilities that resulted in widescale suppression of even their fundamental rights and freedoms. I don’t use it because it’s “politically correct” not to use it; I don’t use use because it’s a really emotionally loaded term for many of the people that I support.

As is the word “retard” which comes from “retarded”. If you truly, truly, believe that words are just words, respect people with intellectual disabilities and their ability to make their own decisions about what words they’d like used to describe them, and do an informal survey for yourself. Whenever you come across a person with intellectual disabilities (I use “intellectual disabilities”, by the way, out of habit more than anything else. The Self-Advocates Council of the national branch of an agency for which I once worked said that they preferred “intellectual disabilities”, and I’ve just gotten used to that terminology), ask him or her: “Is it okay if I call you a “retard” or do you prefer “retarded person” or something else?”

Or ask women, “Is it okay if I call you a “slut” or do you prefer “whore” or something else?”

You get the picture. If you really believe that words are just words, put your money where your mouth is. No agenda of politically correct language…the respect of finding out someone’s personal preference…and going by it.

Politically Correct or Personal Respect…What Do You Think?

Do you use the words “retard” or “retarded” in your daily life? Would you use them if if a person with intellectual disabilities was in the room, or ask that person if they’d be okay with you calling them those names? Why or why not? I’m genuinely curious…please leave me a comment…

I really don’t see the point of taking great pains to make a society accessible and inclusive if we’re then going to insist on using language that’s offensive to people (and this goes for language that may be offensive to any person, not just people with disabilities) just because we feel like we should be able to.