The R-word and the M-word (and the F-word!)

Lauren Beckham Falcone has a good column in today’s Boston Herald, criticizing White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel for using the phrase “fucking retarded.” Falcone, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, writes:

Here’s the deal: the R-word is not an innocuous euphemism. It’s as hateful and belittling and bullying as racial slurs and homophobic epithets and sexual harassment.

Now, of course, Falcone is not responsible for her co-workers at the Herald. But it’s long past time for editors there to ban the word “midget,” a demeaning term for people with dwarfism. I realize Howie Carr’s head might explode the next time he tries to describe Bill Bulger as something other than “the Corrupt Midget,” but he’ll get over it.

By the way, it’s nice to see that we’ve evolved to the point at which people are more offended by the R-word and the M-word than they are by the F-word.

40 thoughts on “The R-word and the M-word (and the F-word!)

  1. Harrybosch

    It is all much ado about nothing.

    Was a time when “idiot” and “moron” were also clinical and diagnostic terms.

    Perhaps we should begin a movement to ban their use.

  2. mike_b1

    Retarded has multiple meanings and not all of them refer to someone with mental handicaps. In fact, the way Emanuel used the word was completely in line with the recognized slang definition: a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way</i.

    Are we really going to allow all our good putdowns to by hijacked this way?

  3. Harrybosch

    Credit Limbaugh for getting off a good one. Media Matters reports the following excerpt from yesterday’s show:

    LIMBAUGH: If you want to look at how this is broken down, Emanuel compares Democrat activists to retarded people, then apologizes to retarded people, not to the Democrats. Normally if you call somebody a retard, you apologize to them for calling them a retard. But he has apologized to the retarded people for daring to lump them with Democrats. It’s hilarious.

  4. “Fat” as a demeaning adjective refers to something presumably within the control of the individual; I say this as a guy barely on the good side of obese; my Wii Fit says I’m only “overweight”, which makes me svelte compared to our national average.

    But “Fat is a feminist issue” is “stinkin’ thinkin'” as Stuart Smalley used to say. It makes the most sense when you are a morbidly obese feminist (Dworkin anyone?) with a bag of twinkies on your lap.

    Using “retarded” as an all purpose epithet for “stupid beyond belief” is quite hurtful to many retarded people who hear it as a term of worthlessness. In my experience, retarded people can occasionally surprise you by seeing obvious things overlooked by “smarter” folk.

    Trying to retroactively classify the morbidly obese as a protected class is not only wrong headed– it’s part of the problem with America’s obesity epidemic, and ultimately deadly for the obese.

    When I was in the schoolyard as a kid, anything or anyone we didn’t like or understand was either “retarded” or “faggot”. As a society we have abandoned the use of one slur, but many cling to the other. It’s easy to say “It’s much ado about nothing” when you and your family are not in the attacked class. Marriage equality can be “much ado” if no one you love is gay.

    People have no control over their retardation (or their sexual preference); their obesity is another matter.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Treg. Hmmm … not to be offensive, but you raise an important point. Perhaps there ought to be a regional exception.

  5. Harrybosch

    “It’s easy to say “It’s much ado about nothing” when you and your family are not in the attacked class.”

    How do you know I am not in the “attacked class?”

    Can’t someone who has a mentally challenged or developmentally disabled or whatever the hell you want to call them person in their family also be tired of this endless redefinition of words and political correctness in general?

    And shame on you for saying a person can control their obesity. Don’t you know there are genetic markers indicating a propensity for such things? Don’t you know that they are victims too?

    Rather insensitive if you asked me. I think maybe an apology is in order.

  6. lkcape

    The commentary should be on those that make such statements, and not the statements themselves.

    Emmanuel is arguably one of the most important people int he Obama administration.

    Are his statements reflective of the official view?

  7. Aaron Read

    @Dan: You ready for the government to pass a law about hate speech that includes “midget”? Oops, I forgot, you’re all about the First Amendment. (Bazinga!)

    Repeat after me, people: WORDS ARE NOT OFFENSIVE, THE CONTEXT IS. Remember when calling someone a “geek” or a “nerd” was considered mean and nasty? I sure remember it from when I was a kid (late 70’s/early 80’s). Ya don’t generally see those words being used as insults much anyone…these days it’s more of a resume bullet point. The words haven’t changed, just the context.

    If you just ban words, you do NOTHING to address the hatred behind them. Frankly, I prefer people’s hatred to be right there on the surface…makes it easier to pick such folks out of a crowd.

    To put a bow on this: this whole issue is (pun very much intended) f**king retarded. We shouldn’t care how offensive Rahm’s words are – pay more attention to his policies!

  8. Dan, I thought you were pretty much a first amendment absolutist?

    Why can’t people embarrass themselves into oblivion, if, as you write is true: “it’s nice to see that we’ve evolved to the point at which people are more offended by the R-word and the M-word than they are by the F-word.”

    If the majority of people are truly offended by these words, then let the others use them and mark themselves.

    Censorship … when does it stop? When does it start? Who makes the decisions? I say let culture evolve, people learn and make their own decisions about how they want to behave.

    Example: Dan, you taught me that the word midget is offensive. In my life I never had the opportunity to be educated about it, but now I am. Not really a big deal … now I don’t use it because I know better.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Bill and @Aaron: How on earth did we get to talking about government censorship? Newsroom standards are not a matter of censorship.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Nial: I can’t believe you trotted out that old warhorse. George Daher, the judge to whom you are referring, said it once. Howie has written and said it thousands of times since then.

  9. JD: “It’s easy to say “It’s much ado about nothing” when you and your family are not in the attacked class.”

    HB:’How do you know I am not in the “attacked class?””

    OK, I’ll bite. Who’s in your nuclear family that is retarded?

    HB:”Can’t someone who has a mentally challenged or developmentally disabled or whatever the hell you want to call them person in their family also be tired of this endless redefinition of words and political correctness in general?”

    It’s hardly “endless” to say we should not regularly use a birth defect as an all purpose epithet, efforts of the Right Wing Noise Machine notwithstanding. Your (devil’s advocate?) attempt to add “fat” to the protected class is precisely what you seem to be criticizing.

    Some African Americans will freely use the N word. This does not mean it’s fine for the rest of us to do so, because a small segment of the population takes that tack.

    HB:”And shame on you for saying a person can control their obesity. Don’t you know there are genetic markers indicating a propensity for such things? Don’t you know that they are victims too?”

    Are you overweight? I am, with a likely genetic propensity to be so. Yet, I don’t let that rule me, nor do I use it an excuse to eat or drink everything all the time. A propensity is not destiny. Any fat person who claims victimhood yet does not exercise deserves no sympathy.

    Are you morbidly obese? Do you have a retarded child or sibling? Or do you just enjoy being provocative?

    HB: “Rather insensitive if you asked me. I think maybe an apology is in order.”

    Go ahead if you want, but I won’t depend on it. 😉 I have learned not to take my cues on sensitivity from admirers of Rush Limbaugh. In fact, Sarah Palin recently called on Obama to fire Emanuel for his lack of sensitivity in using the word as an epithet. We’re waiting for similar outrage from her directed at Rush for the same offense.

    Rahm Emanuel’s comments likely grew out of personal distance from this profound heartache, which has never been minimized by retarded people or their family members I have met.

  10. Harrybosch

    “OK, I’ll bite. Who’s in your nuclear family that is retarded?”

    Hilarious.

    Just unable to imagine that someone who has a mentally challenged loved one might not be up in arms about this, are you? No, they all must all feel the same as you.

    Hilarious too that we’ve moved beyond “you and your family” to now my “nuclear family.” So if it’s a brother or sister, I need to be outraged, but if it’s a cousin, well that’s alright.

    “It’s hardly “endless” to say we should not regularly use a birth defect as an all purpose epithet”

    And yet you never answered my question about “idiots” and “morons,” terms once used to describe the same conditions, however are apparently acceptable now. You are not up in arms about them, anyway.

    Perhaps in a hundred years, this whole “retard” thing will have blown over as well.

    “Are you overweight? Are you morbidly obese? Do you have a retarded child or sibling?”

    Just can’t avoid personalizing these things, can you. I suppose nobody who has ever suffered what you have suffered has anything valid to offer.

    Or, perhaps in your mind, if they’ve never suffered the things that you have suffered, they’ve never really suffered at all.

    But I think it is the opposite. I think you are perhaps TOO close to these issues, therefore your opinion is to be discounted. You are apparently unable to think rationally and dispassionately about them.

    PS: Not sure your linked website contains spyware, however it took me a number of clicks to escape it, always suspicios to my mind. You may wanna look into that.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      I read St. Thomas More’s “Utopia” when I was in the eighth grade, so if I mangle this don’t hold it against me. But I remember his writing that God put mentally disabled people on earth to entertain us, and that as long as we treated them kindly, it was all right.

  11. mike_b1

    Gee harry, getting a little red in the Internet face over this one, aren’t you?

    Not everything need be taken so personally. Just saying…

  12. Harrybosch

    “Gee harry, getting a little red in the Internet face over this one, aren’t you?”

    I don’t understand. Not taking anything personally. Me and John are simply engaging in a civil, issues-based discussion per the commenting policy.

    What purpose your comment served, however, I do not know.

    Just saying…

  13. HB:”Just unable to imagine that someone who has a mentally challenged loved one might not be up in arms about this, are you? No, they all must all feel the same as you.”

    Actually, it runs counter to my experience, which includes scores of families and hundreds of individuals. I go more by real world than what I can imagine; your mileage may vary.

    HB:’Hilarious too that we’ve moved beyond “you and your family” to now my “nuclear family.” So if it’s a brother or sister, I need to be outraged, but if it’s a cousin, well that’s alright.’

    If you think the experience of having an affected cousin (that does not live with you) is comparable to a sibling or child, then your imagination is failing you again.

    JD:“It’s hardly “endless” to say we should not regularly use a birth defect as an all purpose epithet”

    HB:”And yet you never answered my question about “idiots” and “morons,” terms once used to describe the same conditions, however are apparently acceptable now. You are not up in arms about them, anyway.”

    Your comments about the terms idiots & morons came before I entered this thread. How could I know you anticipated my response to them? But if you need one, language evolves, and idiot & moron are no longer diagnostic terms, nor vernacular for disabled people. “Retarded” by contrast is in current use both ways and its use as an epithet unfairly stigmatizes people who did not choose their condition.

    JD: “Are you overweight? Are you morbidly obese? Do you have a retarded child or sibling?”

    HB:”Just can’t avoid personalizing these things, can you. I suppose nobody who has ever suffered what you have suffered has anything valid to offer.”

    Didn’t you personalize it when you asked: “How do you know I am not in the “attacked class?”

    I answered your question with a legitimate followup, to smoke out whether you are the exception to the rule and feel it’s just fine to stigmatize a retarded family member.

    It seems my position is based on real interaction with real families, while I suspect yours is based on preconceived notions of “anti-PC”.

    “… perhaps in your mind, if they’ve never suffered the things that you have suffered, they’ve never really suffered at all.

    But I think it is the opposite. I think you are perhaps TOO close to these issues, therefore your opinion is to be discounted. You are apparently unable to think rationally and dispassionately about them.”

    That is a logically absurd conclusion.

    Is a black person unable to think “dispassionately” about racism? Perhaps. Does this mean we should discount that person’s opinion?!

    That would be a peculiar world, where we only count the indifferent and racist opinions, and discount those of the people who were victimized.

    Suffering is common to the human condition, but not everyone suffers the same amount. As I age, I try to err on the side of not underestimating another’s suffering.

  14. CAvard

    *** Newsroom standards are not a matter of censorship. ***

    Precisely. Well said.

    Have fun at this year’s NENPA conference. Unfortunately my weekly was down from last year and we had to decide whether to go to the NENPA conference or eat, drink, and be very merry at our December holiday party. We unanimously chose the other. Good luck on the presentation.

  15. Aaron Read

    @Bill and @Aaron: How on earth did we get to talking about government censorship? Newsroom standards are not a matter of censorship.

    Dan, you know that generally you and I are on the same page, but I’m calling B.S. on this one. Once a class of people decides that it’s not okay for someone to call them by a given name, inevitably that thought process leads to someone demanding there be a law forbidding it. Just like the First Amendment, either you’re for censorship or you’re not.

    Sure, there’s the First Amendment, but there’s also the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the wonderful world of “hostile of offensive working environments”. (see Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, Patterson v. McLean Credit Union) Censorship is alive and well in U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

    By the way, I assume Falcone must have a terrible problem with all the Brits announcing they’re going outside to have a cigarette. She must think they’re all homophobes!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: I’m really surprised by how far off you are on this. If someone manages to slip the N-word into your local newspaper, people will be fired. But the government won’t care one bit. Nor should it. Do you really mean to say that if I want the Herald to ban “midget,” jackbooted thugs will inevitably follow? You can be sure that the Herald has banned all kinds of words, starting with the N-word and all of George Carlin’s favorites. For that matter, I ban the word “which” in restrictive clauses.

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  17. But the government won’t care one bit. Nor should it.

    Perhaps there’s a subtlety here that’s clouding my judgment. I’m coming at this from a perspective that there are laws restricting hate speech. Since they are law, they are de facto government censorship. But the more I think about it, I’m not aware of any cases where the government…as in, a district attorney or attorney general representing the state (or the local or federal equivalent) has prosecuted an individual or group because of hate speech.

    Hate CRIMES, certainly. And there’s been cases of individuals using such laws against other individuals, or groups against groups…but I honestly don’t know about the government using it for hate speech. Is there an easy way to find that out?

    And to answer your analogy, I wouldn’t expect jackbooted thugs if the Herald banned the word “midget”. But what I’m wondering is if the Herald printed “midget”, and the local district attorney then went after the Herald via hate speech laws…isn’t that the same thing? (again, that assumes that DA’s can actually do that sort of thing…something I assumed they could but on reflection I’m no longer sure)

  18. Aaron Read

    @Dan: Okay, mea culpa. You forced me to do what I should’ve in the first place and that’s really research this.

    There aren’t exactly hate speech laws per se, however, hate speech CAN be prosecuted if it occurs in the workplace and it’s part of a broader pattern of discrimination or creating a “hostile work environment.” I don’t like that concept, as life is a pretty hostile work environment, why should people expect the office to be much different? And upon doing more research it appears that the courts sort-of agree with me; it’s a pretty strict standard that complaintants have to reach to successfully sue under those discrimination claims. Moreover, I have yet to find a case where the government was the plaintiff in these cases.

    And in relationship to this discussion, it’s essentially meaningless. If the Herald employed a person with dwarfism and Howie Carr screamed “midget” at them every time he said said person, and did so while slapping them and grabbing his crotch…said person could probably successfully sue under workplace discrimination laws and the “hate speech” would be part of the larger case. If Carr wrote about the incidents in great detail in his column, that’d be just more fuel for the fire. But Howie can write that Bulger is the “Corrupt Midget” and Bulger obviously can’t sue him for workplace discrimination. Libel, maybe. (maybe?) But not discrimination.

    Now, in my defense, I work at a college and have worked at, on, or consulted for colleges for almost my entire professional career…and there’s been both numerous and increasing examples of “speech codes” which are essentially templates for hate-speech laws. It is true that speech codes rarely hold up if you manage to drag one before the courts, but it’s getting to that point that is the trick. There are many, many cases of college speech codes, some of which are positively Nazi-esque (oops, Godwin’s Law! 🙂 that have done a fine job of exacting a “chilling effect” on free speech at their campus…but haven’t been enforced in such a way that can get them tested in front of a court. (Of course, I’m talking about codes at public universities, which are considered agents of the government. Private universities, unfortunately, can pretty much do what they want.)

    I think basically what I did here was see the frequent and numerous speech code issues within my industry and erroneously equate that to a greater prevalence of “hate speech” laws than what really exists. So yeah, I screwed up on my facts and generally made an idiot of myself.

    Although pondering this more: one wonders what would happen if a hate-speech law was passed, challenged, and made it before the current Supreme Court, eh?

    Upon further reflection, though, I stand by my assertion that targeting words for banning is a stupid idea. I don’t like censoring words in any form, no matter how “hurtful” someone finds them to be. Like I said, one man’s homophobic slur is another man’s cigarette…context is everything and the law is rarely good at interpreting context. And hey, if the Herald wants to pander to insensitive boobs, I say that just makes ’em easier to spot in public when they’re standing there reading a copy.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: I agree with everything you have written, including the fact that there are no laws against hate speech.

  19. NEWSHOUND

    That is exactly what the mechanic said about my BMW motorcycle years ago when brought in for a tune-up and the timing was off due to wear on the points – said exactly that way, word for word.

  20. Bill Toscano

    Dan: The New York Times “Media Decoder” blog made a note on a couple of Super Bowl commercials in this way:

    Update | 7:49 p.m. For the second time in the second quarter, there were two spots in a row with common content.

    The last time, it was spots for CareerBuilder.com and Dockers that both had men without pants. This time, it was spots for Dr Pepper Cherry soda and a new series on the truTV cable channel, “N.F.L. Full Contact,” that both had mini-men.

    For Dr Pepper Cherry, the wee men were dressed as members of Kiss. For the TV series, there was a miniature version of the football star Troy Polamalu.

    Kudos to CBS if this is all on purpose.

  21. Aaron Read

    Yep, it was Mini-KISS. Check out their website: http://www.ghostshorty.com/minikiss/

    Even more sadly, there’s a rival band called “Tiny KISS”. I remember there was a story…either on This American Life or The Daily Show, I forget…a few years ago on the rather nasty feud between the two bands.

    And just like that, the entire discussion we’ve had just gets shot to hell. Any dreams we might’ve had about greater awareness and tolerance of people with dwarfism gets blown away by Gene Simmons informing us that there’s a “Little Kiss” of cherry in Dr. Pepper during the frickin’ Superbowl. (sigh) 😦

    And while we’re on the subject, was I imagining the rather high levels of misogyny in a lot of Superbowl ads this year? The Dodge Charger ad comes immediately to mind, but there were a few others, too.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: I think it’s more nuanced than that. There has always been a heated, ongoing debate within Little People of America over dwarfs in the entertainment business who take what some consider to be demeaning roles. LPA was founded by an actor, Billy Barty. And the problem with LPA trying to stomp out such things is that many of its members have taken part at one time or another during their lives. The argument would be that it’s not demeaning unless you allow it to be.

      Then there’s the cosmic question of whether it’s more demeaning to be a member of Mini-KISS or KISS.

  22. Bill Toscano

    Aaron: I read a large number of comments about the misogyny of the Super Bowl ads this year.

    Again, I recommend the NYT “Media Matters” blog. There were some specifics there.

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