Hey, Tim Shriver! Get off Rahm Emanuel's case for using the word "retarded"!

Media criticism.
Feb. 4 2010 6:13 PM

The Retarded Controversy

Lay off Rahm Emanuel already!

Rahm Emanuel. Click image to expand.
Rahm Emanuel 

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel earned a trip to the pillory this week after a Wall Street Journal story reported that he had used forbidden language last summer in a strategy session with liberal groups and White House aides. Emanuel, who knows his way around obscene, venomous, and cruel language called one idea presented at the session "Fucking retarded."

After the press and bloggers picked up the story, Sarah Palin used her Facebook page to call for Emanuel's sacking and equated the utterance with the "N-word." (Palin is mother to a child with Down syndrome.) Special Olympics Chief Executive Tim Shriver chastised Emanuel the day the Journal article ran, Jan. 26, and after a face-to-face meeting with advocates for people with intellectual disabilities—including Shriver—Emanuel kowtowed and his apologies were accepted.

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According to a press release put out over Shriver's name, Emanuel has promised that "the administration would continue to look for ways to partner with us, including examining pending legislation in Congress to remove the R word from federal law." The release also reiterates the activists' ambitions to eradicate the words retard and retarded from everyday speech because they dehumanize the nation's "seven million people with intellectual disabilities."

The quest to protect the vulnerable from ridicule may be noble, but if a Slate piece from 2001 by John Cook is any guide, it's an impossible quest—and the activists know it. In thrusting public scorn on Emanuel, the activists—no matter how high-minded they might be—are guilty of craven opportunism. Emanuel may have a big mouth, but he is no bigot, no torturer of the defenseless, and the language police that swarmed and handcuffed him, Palin included, should have their badges revoked.

Before you organize a torchlight parade to my office demanding that Slate fire me for defending Emanuel, give Cook's article a quick read. As he points out, the R word was "still a clinic term used, somewhat begrudgingly, by psychologists to describe people who score lower than 70 on IQ tests." Cook reports that while practically everyone in the field wanted to banish the word, it wasn't the first time the field had encountered this problem. Cook writes that moron, imbecile, and idiot were clinically approved words until 1959, when the approved nomenclature became mild, moderate, and severeretardation. The Oxford English Dictionary, by the way,traces the nonpejorative, medical use of retarded to 1885.

Writing from experience, Cook notes that whatever "new term comes into favor today will seem insensitive, or worse, tomorrow." He recalls that as a fifth grader, his classmates would insult one another for being LD, which was shorthand for the respectful label "learning disabled." The phrase currently favored by Shriver and his fellow activists is "people with intellectual disabilities," which any sassy third grader knows can be shortened to PIDs and flung in disparagement. Every "solution" to the retarded problem only re-creates the problem.

Shriver the word cop is every bit the oppressor that he imagines Emanuel to be. His organization sponsors a Web application that counts the number of times the R word appears on a Web site. Slate's count, according to the Shriver dragnet, was 11. That's wrong. The word has appeared on the site least 144 times, including mentions in "The Fray," our readers' forum. A quick review of some of the articles shows that Slate almost always uses the word in a respectful fashion or inside quotation marks. Slate doesn't have an R-word problem. Shriver and his overcalibrated app do.

No decent person—not even Rahm Emanuel—wants to deny the marginalized their dignity. All right-thinking parents discourage their children from grossly misusing the word. But declaring every conversational use of retarded and beating up on public figures who use it colloquially won't bring new dignity to the people upon whose behalf Shriver advocates. Instead of normalizing attitudes and perceptions, Shriver's scolding tactics shove everybody outside his circle into a crouch, begging for his forgiveness.

That—and I mean no offense to the infirm—is lame.

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The Oxford English Dictionary identifies lame as U.S. slang for a "socially unsophisticated person; one who is not skilled in the behaviour patterns of a particular group" and says that it is frequently used in black English. The earliest citation is from 1959 in Esquire. If you spot an earlier reference please send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. And for a good time, follow me on Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Thanks to Slate intern Jenny Rogers for research assistance.

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word retarded in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.