Nothing annoys me quite like people who seem to believe that they have the right to decide what others can and can’t say. One of my facebook friends has taken a job with an Office For Disabled People, and apparently part of that job is posting her boss’s PR announcements on facebook – really, corporate shills, we can tell the difference between a press release and someone gushing over a job that she actually does love – and one of the things she posted was a cute little “flowchart” that was basically an order to all of society to stop using the word “retarded.”
Now, first off, middle school insults are, well, middle school insults, and adults are supposed to grow up and use more witty insults than “That’s so retarded!” (I thought it morphed to “that’s so gay” nowadays anyhow? Maybe some parts of the country are behind on the petty insult fads.) So there’s an argument to be made that using “retarded” isn’t a sufficiently intelligent insult. It’s not a recognizable part of my local patois; I don’t spend a lot of time around middle schoolers, though, so maybe they are still using it. The fascinating intricacies of elementary and middle school subcultures (as an example of why rigidly age-segregated schools shouldn’t exist) aside, I’m mostly annoyed that the Language Police always engage in ridiculous logic errors whenever they’re trying to convince people to “Respekt Mah Authauritie, and shut up.”
For instance, I think it’s a valid point to say something like: “retarded” is a medical term for a specific group of disadvantaged people, so using it in a flippant colloquial manner is inappropriate, because disabled people deserve to be treated with human dignity too.
Except: like “idiot” and “moron” falling out of favor beforehand, “retarded” has been replaced in the lexicon with “developmentally disabled.” Which is not likely to become adopted as slang, since it’s too long. So if the developmentally disabled are no longer identified by the term “retarded” any more than they’re identified by the terms “idiot” or “moron” (which did, in fact, have specific meanings as to mental age of a developmentally disabled person) then… there’s no cause to be offended if people are using the word “retarded” to mean “someone who ought to know better did something stupid.” And if you do get offended because you personally define “retarded” as synonymous with “developmentally disabled” then… you are preventing the lingual drift that was specifically engineered to disassociate the two. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot in the middle of a marathon: exquisitely stupid and self-defeating.
Another issue is that the human impulse to cruel mockery cannot be defeated by changing the language. The insult lies in the intent, not in the arrangement of sounds, after all. Add to that the human tendency to adopt slurs as terms of affection – see “African-American” use of the word “nigger” for an example – trying to make a word unspeakable is a losing proposition. The uncultured, crass population (developmentally stranded in middle school, FOREVER… on purpose) are not going to pay attention to Yet Another Rule of Polite Conversation. Also? Making a word unspeakable gives it power and weight – precisely the opposite effect one wishes to have when attempting to deliberately shift language.
Let’s face it: the kind of people who need to be told not to use potentially offensive words like “retarded” aren’t likely to toe the line because someone made a cute flowchart image banning all possible uses of the word. You know what might work better? Telling them that using the word “retarded” makes them sound like idiots.