Rethinking “retarded”

Friday’s “Infidelity” post led to a moderately heated discussion re: my use of the word “retarded” in the intro. The charge: that it’s insensitive to use that word because it works to demean or insult those with mental disabilities.

It probably goes without saying — at least I hope it goes without saying — that it was not my intent to insult or demean anyone, and I don’t think that, taken in isolation (i.e. the context of that post) it could have reasonably been taken to have done so. As such, my initial response and the response of others to the criticism was to treat it as overly sensitive stuff worthy of dismissal.

But it’s now been about 48 hours and a couple of things have happened. Reflection mostly, leading to the realization that it makes little sense to argue from the “taken in isolation” position, because nothing really occurs in isolation, especially when you’re blogging. I can think of all kinds of words and ideas that, taken in isolation, wouldn’t technically be offensive, but that’s being too cute. If my strident attacks on Chief Wahoo establish anything, they establish that I kind of am trying to impact the general discourse here, so it’s disingenuous for me to cordon off selective posts and say they don’t count. It all counts, so I have to judge everything I say equally and not give myself free passes just because I’m trying to be funny or whatever.

So I’ve gone back and read everyone’s criticism, and I’ve read a lot of stuff online, and I’m convinced that, yeah, throwing around the word “retarded” as a synonym for stupid or idiotic is bad form and should be avoided. I was resistant to this argument at first because, hey, I’m human and I’m predisposed to argue against things which challenge my habits and assumptions. The clarity provided by a day or two, however, makes it seem obvious to me that, even if the word isn’t deployed to mock those with special needs, it does work to equate the idiotic (Braves fans doing the chop) with those who are retarded in the clinical sense of the term. And actually, using the term is a double offense of sorts: in addition to demeaning those with mental disabilities, it’s non-negative connotations mean that it’s nowhere near as rough as a term as could be used on the jerks doing the Tomahawk Chop. They are entitled to attack for unadulterated stupidity, and by using a murky, qualified term that isn’t always a negative lets ’em off too easy.

All of this said, I don’t think my or anyone else’s use of the term rises to the level of capital offense. There are worse terms with far less ambiguity about them than “retarded,” and their use implies far more ill will and nastiness than anyone using “retarded” ever has. I’m also not going to grant anyone the argument — as some tried to make in the comments to the post — that there is some moral equivalence to the Indians’ use of a racist caricature as a mascot and my unfortunate use of a given term. That’s baloney, and if you want to fight about, hey, let’s fight about it, because that’s what comments sections are for. Also, I’m not going to go back and change that post, because (a) trying to make something disappear on the Internet is a fool’s game; and (b) that post combined with this one might actually be useful to have around for people as they try to parse the use of troublesome terms.

To sum up: in hindsight I wish I hadn’t used the term “retarded” in such a fashion, and I will refrain from doing so in the future. You may now all continue arguing about whatever suits your fancy.

Craig


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Sara K
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Sara K

Well spoken, sir. I especially like your observation that the Chop, as an act of willful ignorance, deserves a harsher term. Turner Field attendees can, should, and hopefully someday will do better.

Bob Timmermann
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Bob Timmermann

Very well said, Craig. It would have been a lot easier to hold your ground and been defensive. But this showed a greater depth and understanding of the subject.

Bill B.
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Bill B.
Craig, I have to give you huge credit for being able to admit fault, something that far too few have the ability to do on the Internet. I didn’t happen to catch the particular post in question, so reading this was kind of a surprise for me, but nonetheless, it sounds like the P.C. crowd got to you. Frankly, I can’t fault you for what you said. The term “retarded” has a meaning other than the clinical one. The relatively recent colloquialism is, whether the P.C. crowd likes it or not, just as valid informally. It’s like if you called… Read more »
Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver

Perhaps the best course of action would be to leave your posts open to edits, like Wikipedia.  That way, everyone can eliminate all words, phrases, or thoughts they find offensive.  Then, after a rousing session of Kumbaya and hand-holding, we can read your latest offering, which, hopefully, will be wrapped up in three words or less and not offend anyone.  Ah, the things for which we humans strive.

Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra

Tom— I say plenty of things on this blog that are pointed and uncompromising. If it was simply a matter of not offending others I wouldn’t care.

My comments in this post are because I wasn’t, upon reflection, personally comfortable with what I said and how I said it. Just because it happens to flow with the offense of others doesn’t make this an exercise in wikiblogging Kumbaya nonsense.

Being reflexively anti-P.C. is every bit as stupid as being reflexively P.C.

KR
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KR

Yeah, it’s so lame when people use “retarded” like that.

(waiting…)

Dave
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Dave

As a father of a boy with Down syndrome, I appreciate this. Words shift and change in meaning. In another era (not so long ago), “idiotic” would have referred to people we now call retarded. My son would have been labeled a “Mongoloid idiot.” “Retarded” was brought in as a way to move away from the stigma of idiot, and now we use “delayed.”

And yet, recognizing that the meaning is but a product of recent social constructions doesn’t mean that the meaning isn’t real and potentially hurtful.

Anyway, thanks.

Ethan
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Ethan

Again, I don’t see the big deal.

You can find something offensive almost anywhere if you look hard enough.

If I got angry every time I heard something that could be construed as insensitive, I’d be in a perpetual state of pissed off. 

Take the comment in the spirit it was given, or just ignore it.

Keith Law
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Keith Law
I think part of the reason the word persists in the vernacular is the lack of a really good snarky replacement. “Lame” – nice one, KR – doesn’t have the same effect. Synonyms for “stupid” don’t have the same connotation as “retarded,” and really, the idiot/moron family of words is getting a bit played out. You can always escalate with the ol’ Anglo-Saxon gerund, but that certainly won’t fly on the site where I do my baseball writing, and I doubt Craig wants to head down that path either. So we’re left with “retarded,” or a substitute word that’s less… Read more »
Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra
Ethan—I’m sympathetic to the notion that, yeah, people can be offended by anything, but that’s not a position that provides much guidance unless you think that there’s NOTHING that is truly offensive.  Clearly I shouldn’t be dropping N-bombs, right? At the same time, saying that someone is “stupid” isn’t anything offensive (at least I’m not going to go through this exercise over it).  So where does that leave us? It seems like it leaves us in a position where we have to do our best to make choices on what is and what isn’t acceptable in our own conversation and… Read more »
Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver

Wait! I’m offended at PC! Where do I go to get satisfaction, Craig?  Isn’t that one of the new additions to the Bill of Rights? The Right Not To to be Offended?

Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver

My point is that if you believe you were intellectually lazy, fine.  If you did it because you offended people, don’t open your mouth because someone will be offended about just about anything.  Have some stones.

Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra

Tom—it was the former in my case. I didn’t write this because I felt the need to address any one person’s concerns in the thread. It was really a matter of not feeling that I could personally defend my use of the word retarded in that context, and I’m just wired in such a way that I have to be able to justify what I say.

YankeesfanLen
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YankeesfanLen

You can’t be blogging by thesaurus Craig.  Almost have to go back to W. C. Fields vocabulary which was really double-entrendre, wink-wink.
What prodigious digits!

Utpal
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Utpal

Bravo for finding that necessary but elusive middle ground between anti-intellectual/reactionary/lazy persistence and overly sensitive kowtowing.

Brian
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Brian

That this is an issue is retarded.  Free speech, retards.

Jon E
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Jon E

Good call on offering an apology of sorts and looking to not use the word again. It is a hurtful term that makes fun of a group of folks who truly can’t stand up for themselves.

Mike B
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Mike B
Brian, first of all, freedom of speech applies to government censorship of public speech, not to a private blog.  Second, even in the misapplied way you mean it, just because you have the right to act like a dick doesn’t mean you should.  Dick. That said, “retarded” is one of those words that, by the time we die, will be completely un-PC.  For now, the word as I believe it was used (underdeveloped) is in my opinion fair game, though if avoiding one or two sensitive seeds is the goal, there’s no real reason to go out of the way… Read more »
Bloggeroflamancha
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Bloggeroflamancha

When the movie Tropic Thunder was released there were protests about Robert Downey’s character’s use of the word retard. After watching the film it seemed like one of the least offensive things about the film and Downey’s character in particular. It was not used to demean disabled people. It was a criticism of Hollywood and the Oscar bait that it produces. I think it is important to take into account the intent behind someone’s words before getting too worked up.

Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra
Tom: “That is an intellecually dishonest position, Craig.  You said that it sparked a heated debate and you changed your mind after reflecting on everyone’s criticism.  Sounds like you get wobbly when people criticize.” If doing anything other than turning a deaf ear to criticism is to “get wobbly,” then fine, I’m wobbly. Back in the real world, however, the one in which things aren’t all in black and white, it’s more complicated: 1. I said what I said. 2. People criticized it. 3. I mostly dismissed the criticism. 4. I had a conversation about it with a couple of… Read more »
Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra
Bloggeroflamancha: I recall all of that. I didn’t see the movie and didn’t really have an opinion about it at the time. Based on what I read about it, though, it sounded pretty funny, actually, and you’d never find me on a line protesting about it. And I agree, intent matters. In the mouth of a character like the Robert Downey character and in a movie doing the things “Tropic Thunder” was trying to do, I can totally see the argument for it.  As I’ve said a couple of times here: I don’t think the word is an epithet, and… Read more »
Bloggeroflamancha
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Bloggeroflamancha
Craig, I appreciate your thoughtful response to my comment. My point was mainly that I think some people look for things to get offended about and that as a regular reader of your blog I did not find it likely that you meant any harm in your comment. Sometimes we use words like retard without giving them a second thought because we grew up using them in a different time. I can understand your rethinking using the word in such a casual manner. I think Tom Seaver is being a bit harsh, although what would you expect from a former… Read more »
BJ E
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BJ E

Very admirable actions Craig. It takes a pretty big person to admit you made a mistake with something like this. I’ve been fighting this battle for quite some time now. Mainly a losing battle. With the whole “retarded” thing, it seems like it’s very easy for people to write you off as being overly PC if you object. Ask anyone though, who has a family member with Downs Syndrome how hurtful it can be to hear it.

Very refreshing to see a mistake being owned up to, that could have easily been dismissed. Thanks.

jjbob
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jjbob

Kudos Craig, well said.

Eric/OR
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Eric/OR

Right-on all-around.  Hyphen-hyphen.

TC
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TC
As everyone in the the non-Seaver crowd, it’s good to see you, Craig, giving thorough thought to your use of words.  I came down on the side of your support originally because, well, “retard” is a word with a lengthy history of usage prior to its association with the mentally disabled, and, I’ll admit, it irks me to see language so severely limited in scope for the sensitivities of a few.  This said, because those sensitivities are so personal—the people who take offense to the indifferent deployment of “retard” are often thinking of family members who have suffered undue mockery—it… Read more »
Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver

Sorry to push a button with you, Craig.  Did not realize you had such thin skin. 

As you continue to show such a vapid intellect when engaging in a discussion about the use of a word, further discussion would be pointless.  I still think you should stick with the Wikipedia post idea.  Please everyone, Craig.  That way your thin skin will never suffer another blemish.

chattanooga
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chattanooga
Craig- It’s great to see someone willing to reflect on the use of their language, their craft, and their relationship to others in the society.  Changing your position after thoughtful reflection isn’t a sign of a “lack of stones,” rather, it is a quality of intelligence and emotional maturity.  Whether or not you agree with the “P.C. crowd” is less important than the fact that you have thoughtfully considered your viewpoint.  Developing that skill is one of the most important in life, because it means that you will be able to understand the positions of people who disagree with you… Read more »
Keith Law
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Keith Law

Tom, FWIW, I don’t see any evidence here of thin skin on Craig’s part. He just responded at length to your criticism.

Sal Paradise
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Sal Paradise

I love it when people argue that a group they are not a part of would be offended by something that they would likely have more difficulty taking offense to than you do.

Will you start telling us how hurtful it is to call a misbehaving dog a ‘stupid mutt’ even though they’re purebred next?

Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra
Tom—you’re beyond cute. You start a discussion with me, I meet it and raise a few points you apparently don’t want to deal with (e.g. how one person’s expression of a view you apparently disagree with “impinges” on your speech rights), and then you declare victory—a pretty damn false and ignorant one if it depends on thinking I’m out to please everyone—and vow to go away. Whose got the thinner skin? Here’s what I think: I think you fancy yourself a victim of a politically correct/liberal culture and have grown very comfortable painting your perceived enemies as weak, thin-skinned people.… Read more »
Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra

Sal—are you suggesting that everything you say and think is dictated by only what effect you think it will have on others? Do you not have any independent set of moral or ethics that steer your behavior?  Is it OK to steal $10 from a rich guy even though he’ll never know the money is gone?

Grow up.

Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver
Sure Craig.  Here you go.  With each person who surrenders a bit of freedom, it erodes the freedom of society as a whole.  There is nothing wrong with using the word retard, if the intent is to describe something that is hindering or impeding the grow or movement or change of something.  If you meant it as a pejorative, then you should apologize.  If not, it is a word.  So calm down and stop projecting your weaknesses onto me.  I am advocating for freedom to use words as they are defined.  You are apologizing for using a word.  So there… Read more »
Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver

By the way, Craig, despite our difference of opinion, have a nice Memorial Day.

Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra
“With each person who surrenders a bit of freedom, it erodes the freedom of society as a whole.” Then the difference between you and I comes down to how we each feel about my choices regarding the manner in which I communicate. I don’t consider choosing my words in a way that comports with my personal beliefs and sensibilities to be “surrendering freedom.” You feel differently. You use the phrase “projecting your weaknesses.” I suggest to you that in your belief that I am surrendering my freedoms, you are projecting your insecurities. Isn’t it fun to play armchair psychologist? “As… Read more »
Sara K
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Sara K

I am really shocked at some of the sniping in this thread, though I know I shouldn’t be.  The people taking swipes at Craig for his position must feel threatened by his position, that language is powerful and should used with thought and care. The intensity of feelings in the responses only serves to prove that point.

Sara K
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Sara K

@ David:  It sounds like you have some very strong opinions on what Americans need in their lives. Maybe you should start a blog or something?

Michael
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Michael
I’m going to say that using the term “retarded” is nothing like Cleveland’s team using the Wahoo mascot. As already mentioned, “retarded” is actually a legitimate word – for example, things other than mental capacity can be retarded. It’s essentially been twisted with time. Maybe we should be retiring “stupid” and “moron” instead, as they actually ARE only used as insults. Wahoo, on the other hand, started out as a caricature of a culture – in effect, more like the physical embodiment of the word “moronic” – and when this was pointed out, rather than being toned down it was… Read more »
Michael
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Michael

Tom: Learning and growing is a part of life. Choosing to paint that in politically negative terms shows that you, not Craig, are the intellectually dishonest one, if only with yourself. Stop patting yourself on the back for thinking you bested someone in an argument and try LEARNING something from the argument.

Craig (and BJ E): Notice I didn’t say “learning from mistakes” – I don’t think you made a mistake, you simply thought about how you honestly felt about something that you (and many of us) hadn’t before, and adjusted accordingly.

Michael
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Michael

TJ E: It’s not a matter of being “not wrong,” it’s being “better.”

David: Listening to those low-power rural talk radio stations again…?

David
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David

This is the American media echo chamber at its finest.  Here, self-referential analysis and an endless loop of inane arguments are all retarded Americans really want in their force-less, decadent lives.

I’ve always thought it was evil that the government, military, and elites were silently assaulting us by lowering men’s testosterone and women’s fertility because they think there are too many of us, (http://www.prisonplanet.com/billionaire-club-in-bid-to-curb-overpopulation.html) but maybe mosquitoes and dandelions really are more useful than people, after all.  Especially Westerners.

BJ E
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BJ E
TC – You’re right, not every person that has a disabled loved one is gonna be offended by it. Only 99% of them. I don’t think most people set out to be thin skinned or sensitive about something. Personally, I don’t stay busy trying to be offended by the use of the word “retarded” (or anything else). It does bother me though, and if I hear it used, I let the person know. There’s nothing wrong with that. Michael – Point taken. Although in my book, making an adjustment or correction means I was doing something wrong in the first… Read more »
Sal Paradise
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Sal Paradise
Sal—are you suggesting that everything you say and think is dictated by only what effect you think it will have on others? Do you not have any independent set of moral or ethics that steer your behavior?  Is it OK to steal $10 from a rich guy even though he’ll never know the money is gone? We should balance the removal of freedom with the harm that the freedom would cause. I think that’s generally considered fair in Western democracies. Overstating the harm of the word ‘retarded’ solely because some people are taking offense on the behalf of others doesn’t… Read more »
Craig Calcaterra
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Craig Calcaterra

Who’s forcing anything on anyone? What choice of yours is being eliminated? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I simply stated my thought process and my beliefs that are going to lead me going forward. Why does that bother you?

Tom Seaver
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Tom Seaver
That is an intellecually dishonest position, Craig.  You said that it sparked a heated debate and you changed your mind after reflecting on everyone’s criticism.  Sounds like you get wobbly when people criticize.  That is, when some people criticize.  Tolerance is simply a one-way street to get someone else to believe what you believe.  If you were torn by your use of the word “retarded” (defined by The Oxford Dictionary as “delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment”) after hearing criticism from people, simply don’t use it again.  Easy, case closed.  But for your attempt to… Read more »
Jamie Moyer's Grandson
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Jamie Moyer's Grandson

I agree that calling Braves’ fans that do the tomahawk chop “retards” is improper and offensive to those with special needs.  So what are we supposed to call those moronic idiots now?

Sara K
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Sara K
Craig didn’t write an apology.  He wrote about his thought process. Detailing a reconsideration and offering an apology are not equivalent acts. In Craig’s response, he shows his awareness of how language functions. The best word for the job is the one that is most accurate; this is why we encourage people to expand their vocabularies, so that they don’t have to overuse non-specific language. We also encourage writers to make specific claims that are not distracted by irrelevant side issues. Craig analyzed the use of the word “retarded” in the context of his intended message and decided that the… Read more »
The Common Man
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The Common Man
Damn, I’m never not checking your blog for a day again, Craig.  I caught your “retarded” response in the comments, and wondered if you’d catch flak. For what it’s worth, I applaud any person who thinks about what they say, not just before they say it but afterward, to make sure it has the intended effect and paints the speaker in the way they want to be seen.  Introspection is good.  So right on, Craig. Perhaps the Tom angle is all played out, but since Sal is bringing up the exact same argument…  It’s worth pointing out that Craig never… Read more »
Sal Paradise
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Sal Paradise

If Craig had simply stopped using the word, I’d be all for it. That would be a choice. But writing an apology makes it seem more than just a personal choice, and reflects on community attitudes within Shysterball rather than just a personal choice.

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