About Words

January 13, 2011


I can’t recall any other time in my life where I’ve seen so much media attention paid to words.

I believe that words are powerful, not everyone agrees.

Sticks and stones?  Perhaps.

For some, words can inspire greatness or positive change.

For others, the same words can incite violence or hatred.

Some will argue that mere words are meaningless.

Some will argue that words are everything.

A bit of disclosure for new readers, my youngest daughter is affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.  I’ll also add that I love her more than anyone could imagine.

Perhaps it’s the love that I have for this little girl that makes me sensitive to certain words.  Perhaps it’s some deep-seeded guilt that I have regarding something I did, or didn’t do, that caused her to be different than “societal norms”.

Whatever the real reason, I’ll admit that I’m particularly sensitive to one specific word.  That word is “retard” or “retarded”. (Feel free to “Spread the Word to End the Word”)

In many standardized tests, my daughter is indeed classified as “mentally retarded”.  It’s a technically correct diagnosis of her mental development and how it is slower than that of a typical person.  Unfortunately though, retarded is all to often used as a slur to belittle another person’s way of thinking or acting.  Sure, most intelligent adults know that retard means to slow.  But unless you are talking about a neurological diagnosis or using a chemical to slow an items propensity to burn (flame retardant), it’s the popular meaning of the word that matters.  Sometimes, it’s the perceived meaning that matters.

Words do evolve to have different popular meanings.  I doubt that very few people have ever used the word “terrific” to describe something the caused them to have a sense of terror or great fear.  However, that is the literal meaning of the word.   Technically, you’d be correct if you said “Those 9/11 hijackers were terrific!”.  Can you imagine backlash that would occur if a politician said that while campaigning for election?  That would be the ultimate “Macaca moment“.

Another word that “evolved” is gay.  Once a popular way to describe someone or something that was jovial, merry, or lively.  It didn’t necessarily mean happy, though it could be used to describe the outward appearance of happiness.  Stereotyping led to use of gay as euphemism for a person that was homosexual.  A euphemism was required because homosexuality was, and sadly still is, considered “wrong” by many in modern society. In an interesting turn of events, the people who were the subjects this euphemism adopted it as a label for themselves.  Unfortunately, gay is also used as a slur to depict something as the opposite of what would be described with words such as cool, stellar, and awesome.  The causal use of  gay as a slur also has an added negative implication when used towards a person.  An implication that something is so “wrong” about them that it would be prudent to question, or compare, their sexual orientation to that which is considered “right” .

Some words are slurs plain and simple, yet some people are granted a license to use them.  The “N-Word” is a perfect example of this.  A word that is rooted in slavery and racial segregation, is frequently used by those in the “Hip hop culture” to mean anything from friend to brother.  Some people struggle with the concept that a subset of a certain demographic can use words, that if used by people outside of this group, would be considered a hateful and racist slur.  I simply view the special license as vehicle for empowerment over prejudice and persecution.  However, most slurs don’t have a special license for use, nor a reason or desire to have one. Despite what Hollywood depicts, you’ll never hear a person with special needs, or those who care for them, say anything like “Yo!  Where my ‘tards at?”

In Monica & David, a wonderful film that documents the wedding and lives of a couple with Down Syndrome, both the bride and groom are asked if they knew what Down Syndrome was and whether or not they were affected by it.  Both said they knew what it was, though neither described it correctly.  I believe Monica said it had something to do with being in a wheel chair.  Both denied the fact that they had Down Syndrome.  Either they don’t see themselves, or don’t want others to view them as “different”.  They want what everyone wants, they want to belong.

What this tells me is that people with Down’s are just like everyone else. We all want to belong, and more importantly, we are all creatures of habit.  Things that differ from our “norm” make us uncomfortable, especially when we don’t take the time to fully understand what the difference really means.  Put slice of a “Supreme” pizza in front of a kid that has only ever had plain cheese pizza, and it will just sit there.  It’s different and this difference makes them uncomfortable, therefore it’s bad.  Race, religion, political views, sexual orientation, obesity, and disabilities are just a few of the things that can make someone feel uncomfortable about others.  Sadly, to get rid of this discomfort, it is easier to degrade differences than to understand them.  History has shown us that the more understanding and embracing of differences a society is, the more it thrives.  Likewise, the more a society practices degrading differences, the more isolated and polarized it becomes.  Modern American society definitely seems like the latter to me.

I have friends who often use the “R Word”, as do some people I work with. I know they are not trying to insult me or my child.  I try my best not to let their casual use of the word get to me, but I’d be lying if I said it did not.  Words don’t have to come from friends to hurt.  Even while an entire movie theater was in laughing fits over the “Ruh-Tard” scene in  The Hangover, my thoughts immediately went to my daughter. Granted, the humor was supposed to be about a mispronunciation of a word, but the subject of the mispronunciation was the character in the movie Rain Man, a man affected by Autism.  Of course, nothing I’ve experienced has caused hurt feelings or pain on the level that would bring about the end of a friendship, let alone drive one to resort to violence.  I’m not trying to play some sort of victim of society, I’m just trying to foster understanding.

In the past when I’ve challenged people on their use of the “R-Word”, they’ll usually apologize and admit to feeling embarrassed.  However, all to often, that embarrassment turns to defensiveness. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard “Oh come on, you know that’s not what I meant!  You know retarded means slow, right?” as a way to make amends.  Amends?  More like adding insult to injury.  If I am somehow hurt or offended because you chose to speak without thinking, implying that I have a lower intelligence level isn’t exactly the right approach to take.

Many people will dismiss the hurt caused by the use of casual slurs like the “R-Word” due to its prevalent use in pop-culture.  But let’s be honest, when a person or process is derogatorily referred to as “retarded”, it is meant to invoke imagery of those members of society who are affected by conditions such as Down Syndrome and Autism.  The point that is completely missed, is that I’m not hurt because I think you are intentionally being cruel to my child or that it will some how hurt her feelings.  I’m hurt because the use of this word as a casual slur is an just another painful reminder that someone I love, something I created, is different.  This difference makes them incapable of having, what most would call, a normal life.  A reminder that they are going to face a lifetime of challenges for which they do not possess the necessary skill sets to deal with, and probably never will.  A reminder that our society, as the widespread use of slurs and hate speech proves, is more often than not, cruel to those who are different.  Ultimately, it’s a reminder that I won’t always be around protect my defenseless child from harm.

If somehow I happen to escape these thoughts for a moment or two, whether at work or in social situations, it would be great if a casual slur didn’t end the brief respite I get from them.  Trust me, I don’t need another reminder about my daughter’s condition, the reality of our daily lives does a good enough job of that on its own.  Perhaps this can never be understood without experiencing it.

Since I wouldn’t wish a child with special needs on anyone, let’s use religion as an example that, at least statistically speaking, more people will identify with and be sensitive towards.

How would you feel if someone you loved was described as being like Lucifer?  Would you take offense?  Would your feelings be hurt?  Would you get angry?  Would you feel that your loved one was being called evil? Does your perception of the word “Lucifer” lead you to believe it holds the same meaning as “The Devil”/Satan/Beelzebub?

What if you were then told that “Lucifer” was a word from ancient Latin that literally meant the “bringer of light”.  A word that was used by the Greeks to describe or reference the “Morning Star”.  This “star” was actually the planet Venus, which was the brightest object in morning sky, right before the sunrise.  The appearance of Venus meant the Sun as about to rise, thus it was dubbed the “bringer of light”.  Would this make amends?  Would you just forgive the use of the word and how it made you feel?  Would you just laugh it off because, after all, you weren’t smart enough to understand the origin of the word?   Judging by my experience with people and religion, I doubt that would be the case.  Again, original or technical definitions rarely matter, only the popular ones do.  Perhaps it is now easier to see how the perceived meaning of a word can easily overshadow the original or intended meaning.

This past week, we saw a lot of people go from embarrassment to defensiveness trying to make amends over things that were said or posted before the tragedy that occurred in Tuscon.    Across the internet, embarrassing words and/or images that were perceived by some as suggesting or implying that it was acceptable to use a gun to solve political differences, were deleted as fast their opponents discovered them.  All of which was followed by defensive statements, that suggested(my perception) that any correlation or blame due to words that had been said in the past were somehow worse than the actual murders that took place.  Perceptions led to accusations about intent.  Implications of  low intelligence levels were made about the people that had these perceptions.  It got messy very quickly.  So quick in fact, that all of this started on the very same day that the tragedy took place.

Six people were murdered, yet arguing over words and images became the bigger story.  At the very least, I think that shows that the position of those who claim “mere words are meaningless” has been invalidated.  Words do have power, and how they are perceived is indeed “everything”.  Ultimately, each person chooses how they will react or respond to words.  Though it seems to me that whenever such a choice has to be made over words, they were either carelessly chosen or intentionally selected to provoke a reaction.

In a way, I feel fortunate that my first hand experience with Autism has allowed me to see that words are powerful and that the careless use of certain words can hurt, regardless of their intent.  Free speech is a wonderful thing, but it does not free one from the ramifications, repercussions, or responsibilities of their words.  I’m not suggesting that we should limit speech, but perhaps now would be a good time to start being more thoughtful and careful about the words we choose.  I’d like to think if everyone did this, we could get to a point where the use of violent rhetoric or hurtful slurs didn’t seem so acceptable.  I know I will continue to try my very best to choose words that focus on lifting other people up, because I know how it feels to be torn down by a word on a daily basis.