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Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context

So, this exchange. Shall we?

Some attendees said they were planning to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who were balking at Mr. Obama’s health-care overhaul. “F—ing retarded,” Mr. Emanuel scolded the group, according to several participants. – Peter Wallsten, Wall Street Journal

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking… No comment from his boss, the president? – Sarah Palin, Facebook

There are a few things that come to mind, immediately, when I look at this. I’ll tell you about them for a while, and then the shouting will start.

The first thing is that I started to eliminate the word “retarded” from my vocabulary a while ago. What happens, when you take any word out of your average everyday roster of words, is that you notice how much you use that word in the first place, and how involuntary it often is: you stop thinking about it for a second, and it just pops out, or you start reaching for a better word, and then notice that you are reaching. This happened when I stopped using “bitch,” “cunt,” “pussy,” all of it; you’re talking, and then there’s a hole in your speech where there wasn’t before, a new set of ellipses. She’s such a… I settled on “dick,” a while ago, because that’s funny. And now I’m back to using “bitch,” but never for other ladies and only in reference to myself, mostly with an absurd suffix because I want to make it a lighthearted and non-venomous word, which I can do because I am a lady and I own it. “Retarded” I don’t own, so it’s just gone. I had to come to terms with the fact that this bit of language was tied to ideas I didn’t want to support, and get rid of it. If anyone is listening, the official Tiger Beatdown Program is that we should not use retarded to mean “bad” or “stupid.” It is very gross, for reasons I will detail below.

But here is the other thing it makes me think of: a while ago, at a bar, my boyfriend was describing a movie that he found offensive and exploitative on the subject of intellectual disabilities. And he was detailing the many over-the-top and gross ways in which the movie exaggerated or dwelled on or manipulated the audience with the lead character’s disability, and focusing to some degree on the details of the actor’s performance, and laughing because bad movies are funny, even when they’re also offensive. And some douchebucket leaned over the separation between tables, and was like, “well, I hope you enjoy making fun of disabled people.” Which: thanks for listening in on this conversation, but would it have troubled you too much to just listen to all of it, Mister? Because, you know, the problem my boyfriend had with intellectual disability in this movie is the same problem that I have with mental illness in the movie K-PAX (or, you know, the character of Hurley on Lost): allowing a roomful of non-disabled people the chance to masturbate their own compassion by feeling sorry for an actor pretending to have some vaguely defined developmental shit, or positing that Maybe The Mentally Ill Simply Have Special Gifts, rather than being honest about the fact that they have what is in fact a pretty painful and life-altering disease, is gross and ableist, and masquerades as compassion when really all it’s doing is convincing you, the non-disabled person, of how very righteous you are. In much the same way that, say, hissing the proof of your superior compassion at a stranger in a bar does.

The Palin/Emanuel exchange makes me think of both of these things. And it opens up what is a continual question for me, which is that I can’t help but feel that this is one of the core problems with language debates: sometimes the game gets shifted around, the word itself becomes the problem and not the actual underlying attitude of which the word is a symptom. Because although the words are bad, and there are a million reasons to stop using them, they are also not even remotely the core of the issue.

So, you get a situation in which Rahm Emanuel uses the word “retarded.” He uses the word “retarded” like a whole bunch of other people have used, and still compulsively use, and do not think about using the word “retarded.” And then Sarah Palin gets to be the voice of sensitivity to the disabled. And fuck whether or not Sarah Palin’s policies are actually good for the disabled – they’re not, in fact; if she even had anything coherent enough to qualify as a “policy” it would be a systematic evisceration of the sort of social support networks that many disabled people need, because what she actually stands for (again: if she has ever given anything enough sustained thought to create a platform on which to stand) is a system in which the only people who are able to survive, with disabilities, are the children of really extraordinarily privileged rich people. You know, like the son of Sarah Palin. Because, you know, Mommy will pull you up with her own bootstraps and all of that, and just don’t look at all the other kids whose Mommies don’t have bootstraps to pull on, those Mommies are lazy-ass bitches who just never got around to being multimillionaires and so their children deserve to suffer. A woman who charges victims for their own rape kits, and who hollers “socialism” whenever someone suggests we have an obligation to all Americans, even the poor ones, is not a woman who is in any way qualified to occupy the higher moral ground in a conversation about disability. You cannot separate class, healthcare, or the fiscal responsibilities of the state to its citizens from the conversation about disability. You simply cannot.

But, you know: Emanuel used the word. She pointed out that it was a fucked-up word. It is a fucked-up word. So, according to one specific version of the game – the game played by people who have no investment in the actual process, the actual structure, the sort of game where people get their politics through soundbites and focus exclusively and obsessively on their own comfort and just basically believe that they are Nice People so they should take whatever the Nice Person stance is today, especially if it doesn’t require too much thought aside from shaking their heads about the bad word the bad man said, or maybe (maybe at most) not using that word any more themselves – according to this version of the game, Sarah Palin wins.

It’s not that I don’t get why we have political arguments about language. Words have power. Of course they do. Their power is to communicate concepts and define the reality of a situation. When someone uses “gay” to mean “gross and weird,” or when someone describes a person as “acting like a bitch” to denote that this person is being weak or over-emotional, or (if the person is a lady) not weak or emotional enough, or when someone casually appropriates the term “rape” to mean anything other than forced sex, I feel queasy. The reason I feel queasy is that using those words, in that way, is an act that relies on underlying concepts that are terrible. It relies on the idea that gay people are gross and weird, that women are and ought to be weak and hurtable, and that rape is not a serious enough crime for you to shudder at the mention of it, although Lord knows when a woman actually uses the word “rape” to describe her own experience you will start finding reasons why she shouldn’t be allowed to do that because, you know, It Is A Serious Crime And Let’s Not Trivialize It and all that. The words don’t mean anything unless you’ve got that structure of thought underlying them; if this weren’t true, people could just pick up the word “gay” from a “that’s so gay” statement and replace it with any given word in the English language, to the same effect. Yet I cannot start randomly going “that’s so coriander” if I want you to know what I mean. The reason people work to limit women’s ability to use the word “rape,” the reason that people work to defend the ability of guys to use it in non-rape contexts, and the reason that these are frequently the same people, is that words have power, and give their users power. Naming something is a way of asserting that you have the ability to define it. So, yes: your language matters. It makes sense to fight about bad language, because language is one of the most fundamental ways we use our power.

But language is also complicated. The reason a lot of people (thoughtful people, anyway) object to language debates is that they seem to oversimplify  or misunderstand how language works. I’m sympathetic to that argument, to some degree. It’s undeniably true that words get re-purposed all the time – “gay” itself being a really prime example. But it takes a long time, or a major paradigm shift, or both, for semantic shifts on that level to occur. You need what would appear to be centuries of “gay” picking up steam as a euphemism for “slutty,” you need people slyly re-purposing the word for their own particular variety of socially-unapproved sexiness so that they can hint at their sexuality without getting in trouble, you need that usage in turn to pick up steam, and you need Stonewall, and you need the decision to go with “gay,” this by now much-evolved bit of sound and code, as an alternative to other labels that are openly pejorative, either because they used to be clinical diagnoses of mental illness or because they are just plain slurs. And then – and then! – this word “gay” becomes a pejorative itself, based on the new meaning.

It takes a while, is my point, for the phrase “my, don’t you look gay in your new ensemble” to go from “you look like you are ready for a party” to “you seriously look like you are ready to put out at that party” to “we are surrounded by a room full of people at this party, and thus cannot acknowledge the way you like to put out, but I happen to be down with putting out that way my very own self” to “I hate your t-shirt, but am for some reason talking fancy.” The meanings overlap in a lot of different ways throughout the history, and it gets tricky, but the overall shift in meaning is clear – we can’t get back to the first stop from the current one. There’s no return, “gay” as “totally and asexually ready for a festive occasion” is just done.

So, you could argue, and people have, that separating “gay-means-weird” and “gay-means-dudes-who-find-dudes-sexy” is another step in the evolution of this word, and that sooner or later people won’t see the slur on gay people in the phrase “that’s so gay,” just like they don’t see the clinical diagnosis that turned into the slur that turned into the commonly used word “idiot.” It’s possible, maybe even likely. The word “gay” is evolving in a lot of different directions, I think; I’ve heard gay people use it in the pejorative sense to take the power out of it, and I’ve heard some young radical GLBT people actually use it in a different pejorative sense altogether, “gay” as in “aligned with a specific privileged yuppie kind of GLBT activism that I wish to distance myself from.” On this topic, my thoughts are: what are the chances that I, a lady who likes to do it with the dudes, can have enough history and personal experience to even talk about those usages without being a massive and annoying straightsplainer? “None” seems like an accurate estimation. But  if we are talking about the ways that I, a straight person, have been allowed or encouraged to use the word – the pejorative and the descriptive – the problem is, the semantic shift argument just doesn’t hold water. Because “gay” still means gay, and right now you can’t trace a definitive line of separation between the pejorative and the descriptive; the reason it’s pejorative springs from the thing it describes. They’re not homographs; they’re the same word. So I don’t use the pejorative sense. And that is pretty much that.

Maybe this is all troublingly wordy and Let’s Go To College of me, but the point is: I don’t say “that’s so gay” because, when I was growing up, it was part of an actual social context that included very blatant and scary homophobia and hatred of gay people. The kids, they didn’t separate the two, at least not until Eminem taught them that it was okay to say “gay” as long as you clarified that it just meant “awful;” “that’s so gay” was of a piece with gay jokes and the conception of all gay men as deviants or “effeminate” caricatures (who were so gross, right, because they reminded you of women) and people flat-out saying that they didn’t have a problem with the gays as long as they didn’t “act gay” and that they construed the phrase “act gay” to cover a variety of behaviors including but not limited to “doing it with other gay dudes.” I can’t separate the word from that attitude and that history.

And “retarded,” as a pejorative, springs from the same sort of history. How do you get a retard to kill himself? Hand him a knife, and then you slam your fist against your chest repeatedly, which is the punchline of this hilarious joke. It springs from a context in which the thirty non-disabled kids made fun of and tormented the four disabled kids who rode the bus with us, unless they’d decided to earn Good Kid Points or the bus driver was watching, in which case they were annoyingly condescending and intrusive and all up in the kids’ business, trying to “help” them to prove how “nice” they were even though their objective knowledge of what the kids’ specific disabilities were or what kind of help they might legitimately require amounted to precisely Zero. “Retarded,” in the pejorative sense, means “deeply, extremely, permanently stupid,” which is based on a misunderstanding or an unwillingness to understand what a developmental disability actually is. To compare someone who is stupid – meaning someone who, with all the chances in the world, is flat-out just too lazy or self-centered or thoughtless or wrongheaded to learn – to someone who has an actual disability which limits their ability to learn or display that they have learned certain things, is… well, it’s real real dumb, is what it is. You can’t enforce a boundary, at this given moment in time, between descriptive and pejorative – like you can do, right now, with “idiot” or even “hysterical.” The reason it’s a pejorative springs from the thing it describes, and although replacement words for “retarded” have been put forth, a lot of people still use the same word to mean both things.

So, no. Rahm Emanuel shouldn’t have used that word. People were right to call him out for the usage of that word. It might, for some people, be what I guess we have no option but to call a “teachable moment,” because that usage is so very very widespread, and because most people who do it aren’t operating from intentional malice, but from a sort of privileged thoughtlessness that prevents them from examining this word in context, and maybe – maybe – a few of those people will get the chance to do that examination now.

But maybe they won’t. Because here is the thing: it is the ability to communicate concepts and define the reality of a situation from which the power of words is derived. When they become pure noise – divorced from reality, divorced from concepts, used at odds to the concepts and realities they should be defining – that’s when this all gets hairy. I can’t say “that’s so gay” because it makes me sick, because I know what it means. I started working to eliminate “retarded” from my vocabulary a while back, because I thought about it and now I know what it means. But it’s when someone like Sarah Palin can score points by saying that the word “retarded” is wrong, although her career is based on a politics that is measurably bad for a lot of disabled people (and, you know, everyone else) that I start to get worried.

I mean, I have no doubt that Sarah Palin loves her son. Pretty much everybody loves their children, except for monsters, and even they usually think they love their children, disastrous though that love might be in effect. And I have no doubt that thinking about disability plays a large part in her day-to-day life – maybe specifically her son’s disability, though she does seem to spend a lot of time talking about parenting a child with a disability in general, and obviously the two are interconnected, so let’s not play percentage games with her intentions here, or give priority to rumors that she uses the word “retarded” herself in reference to her kid, because that is just gossip and we have better than gossip to back this argument up. Sarah Palin loves her disabled family member and so do I. Sarah Palin apparently thinks it’s pretty fucked-up to say “retarded” and so do I. None of that makes her statement any less cynical, or hollow, or gross. Because personal investments and language games can’t replace an engagement with the actual structure.

That would be the easy answer, right? It’s such an easy answer that it’s the answer a lot of people depend upon. If you just don’t use the bad words, we are in a safe space; if you just don’t use the words, you are on the side of good; if you just don’t use the words, you are an activist; if you just don’t use the words, you’ve done all that anyone can expect you to do. But language is a symptom, not the disease. Language is a product of thought, not the thought. Language is an act, not the motive underlying the act. Language is an effect of the structure, not the structure. And although language shapes thought, gives us the tools we have to understand the world and thus limits and informs what we can know – you can get all French-theory with me in the comment section – changing language isn’t going to take us anywhere unless we change the structure itself.

Which is not Sarah Palin’s goal. Not even remotely. There is no purpose, behind her Facebook post and her call-out of Emanuel, beyond continuing a program of obstructing a Democratic agenda and the current President. It’s precisely as duplicitous as the cries of “sexism” in the right during the primaries. Is there sexism in the Democratic Party, and in the treatment of Sarah Palin? Fuck yes, there is. Was Rahm’s use of the term ableist? Is there ableism in the left?  Was the response to the ableism handled poorly? Fuck yes, to every single one of those questions. But pointing that out when you know that your own party and/or political agenda isn’t going to prioritize social welfare programs which would help the disabled, when they’re trying to make universal access to healthcare impossible, when you don’t have a compassionate stance on the issues of unemployment and poverty to which disability is inexorably linked, when you are opposing abortion rights and charging victims for their rape kits, is just about the most disgusting corruption of these legitimate issues – these issues about which I care immensely – that I can imagine. Palin’s response isn’t about ableism, or about Rahm Emanuel; if it were, she would be talking about Rahm Emanuel and ableism, rather than sneakily using both subjects to get in a jab at Obama. Palin’s response is about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

But – again – if she knows how to use the language, she wins. Because she is able to sound, for a moment, like the people who are genuinely engaged in talking about disability, and the structure that punishes and hurts people with disabilities. Which is where language debate gets scary. Because if we put forward, for one second, a language debate that isn’t irrevocably tied to structure – if we focus on language apart from the actual change that needs to happen – everything we care about gets stolen and re-purposed in the service of something else. Words have power. For example, they can be used to tell a pretty enormous lie.


  1. Karen ^..^ wrote:

    I have a new favorite blog. Absolutely beautifully written.

    I’m guilty of using that word myself, but to me it is meant in a way that means this:

    to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.
    –verb (used without object)
    2. to be delayed.
    3. a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.

    4. Slang: Disparaging.
    a. a mentally retarded person.
    b. a person who is stupid, obtuse, or ineffective in some way: a hopeless social retard.

    As you can see, in the first few definitions, the reference clearly defines Sarah Palin’s actions as retarded, in trying to IMPEDE the PROGRESS of the health care reform that might benefit other mentally disabled people.

    However… I am trying to remove it from my vocabulary as well, as the meaning has become quite diluted over the years, from the second meaning.

    I remember my foster sister calling her biological father and my foster father, “retarded”. I was incensed, and yelled at her to not say such a thing about him.

    She opened the dictionary and showed me the literal definition of the word. I was astonished.

    so… the word retarded, as Sarah Palin took exception to, is actually a pejorative in and of itself, as the original definition means “slow to progress” or “to impede progress”. Noun or verb, same concept.

    She really should buy a dictionary before she gets on Facebook going off half cocked, because truly, the fact that she got so righteously indignant is actually an insult to her infant son.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt wrote:

    This was well thought-out and well-delivered, and I hope people continue to find it.

    My adopted sister suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, fetal malnourishment, and probably some pre-natal drug use. Her IQ is in the 40s, she’s bipolar, and it takes about seven different medications to keep her emotions level. It’s hard to think about how bewildering and frustrating and painful her life must be. She is a fundamentally broken person, and it breaks my heart to know that there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to make it better for her.

    So on a personal level, I really don’t like that Rahm Emanuel used the word “retarded” that way, and I really don’t like that it’s taken over the news the way it has. My sister knows that the “retarded” is a cruel and ugly word, and somewhere in the back of her head, she knows that applies accurately to her. I don’t like that she has to think about it every time the news comes on.

    Here’s the thing, though: there’s really no substitute for the word “retard”. There is no other word that means “deeply, extremely, permanently stupid”, and with the same connotation. Not even close. Some things really are just fucking retarded, and the idea that there’s an ENTIRE CLASS OF SITUATIONS that we’re not allowed to describe because my sister might overhear you just seems wrong.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  3. anti_supernaturalist wrote:

    ** rapid limitation of accepted meaning of ‘gay’

    ‘Gay’ about 60 years ago meant “bright” or “splashy” with an overtone of irreverence or outrageousness.

    In 1952, ‘gay’ appeared with sexual limitation in a slang dictionary with the meaning “australian: a male/female prostitute — a gay boy, gay girl.”

    After 1969 and the great outing of homosexual culture in NYC, ‘gay’ rapidly came to mean only “male homosexual”.

    It is easy to see how an irreverent flashiness in dress and behavior became applied to homosexuality only.

    It did not take hundreds of years for linguistic usage to alter, but a mere span of fewer than 20 years.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

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  1. Links « Stuff on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 2:01 am

    […] Inappropriate Language: Some Notes on Words and Context. […]

  2. Words and Meaning « Shadow Boxing on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    […] just participating in more partisan crap.  For a MUCH better discussion of this situation, read Sady’s post at Tiger Beatdown, and Sweet Machine’s post at Shapely Prose.   I’m not going to get […]

  3. […] still have resonance. And as Sady Doyle so elegantly explains in her essay on offensive language, context matters: When someone uses “gay” to mean “gross and weird,” or when someone describes a person as […]