This is a topic that has me feeling ambivalent at best. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll be mounting a halfhearted effort defending the word retard.
Hence the feelings of ambivalence.
But did you know that it’s been scrubbed from the law, government and medical lexicons? Neither did I. It’s been replaced by phrases such as “intellectual disability” and my personal favorite, “vulnerable adult.”
Let me state this clearly: I’m not vouching for the word retard. Christopher Fairman, for The Washington Post, articulates part of the point I’m getting at very well in an article titled The case against banning the word ‘retard’:
..restricting speech of any kind comes with a potential price — needlessly institutionalized taboos, government censorship or abridged freedom of expression — that we should be wary of paying.
Sing it, brother. I am also against anything quietly being censored out of the language (which is happening in slow motion), especially when it is replaced with a blanket term which can do more harm than good.
Which is exactly how I feel about the phrase vulnerable adult. I stumbled onto the phrase in this article, from CBS Minneapolis. FYI, the young woman from the article has been found. (P.S. It’s the second story of this kind in Cambridge, Minnesota. What the shit is going on in Cambridge, boys?) My problem is the wide net cast with phrases such as vulnerable adult and intellectual disability. Put it this way: I know plenty of people, not retarded in the 1970s-80s use of the phrase, that I would easily identify as vulnerable adults. Here’s a mean, unscrupulous downhill word game to prove my point.
Is a female graduate student roofied at the bar a vulnerable adult?
Is a soldier suffering post traumatic stress a vulnerable adult?
Is a compulsive gambler a vulnerable adult?
Is a Scientologist a vulnerable adult?
Is a student loan applicant a vulnerable adult?
You see my point. Suicide candidates, prescription pill poppers, Charlie Sheen’s goddesses, chronic masturbators and marks in a Three-card Monte game could all (however obliquely) qualify as vulnerable adults.
And *poof* just like that, the rebranding of the word retard to
mentally challenged developmentally disabled handicapped handicapable vulnerable adult is undone by one stupid blogger. How long will it really take for vulnerable adult to morph into a pejorative term?
Even worse, what if (and this is a big what if, bigger than What if Captain America had been elected president?) people without physical or mental handicaps begin to be identified as vulnerable adults?
Florida, Minnesota and Mississippi all explicitly contain the word ‘emotional,’ inferring a person with stunted emotional maturity is a vulnerable adult (The United Kingdom, North Dakota and Washington State do not), in their legislation defining the term. Do we really need to go there? How many people would NOT be vulnerable adults in that instance?
It doesn’t take more than a hack screenwriter to write a horredy (or comror) [a comedy/horror, for those who don't know] envisioning a dystopic future where government technocrats decide who is and is not a vulnerable adult.
The same logic holds with intellectual disability, but to a lesser degree. Taken from the CDC’s website explaining intellectual disability, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting some parts:
characterized both by a significantly below-average score on a test of mental ability or intelligence and by limitations in the ability to function in areas of daily life, such as communication, self-care, and getting along in social situations and school activities.
Many mentally and physically disabled adults would be covered by this definition. But as someone who deals in misinterpretation and conjuring things that are not there, well, that getting along in social situations and school activities sounds like a couple of roommates from college.
And that’s my point. How much does an idea like intellectual disability or vulnerable adult need to be nudged before whole swaths of people who are maladjusted or socially awkward or simply disgruntled are deemed vulnerable adults? Trying to alleviate the stigma of the word retard has the unintended consequence of creating a phrase that can describe anyone with any kind of unresolved mental, emotional or psychological issue. Is a crack whore not vulnerable adult?
Hey now, the word whore is disparaging to sex workers. I need some outcry on this!
Plus, there’s the flip side to the rebranding coin. As retard is replaced in the intellectual lexicon, we’re seeing a very strange criminalization of the word. From all places, New Jersey.
Northern New Jersey. OK, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. We’re derailing right into an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
Yup, same show that made the phrase “prostitution whore” famous.
In case you forgot. And, c’mon, that whole scene is hysterical.
Contrast that to this clip, which you need to watch on Bravo’s website for those zany housewives. It’s Melissa and Joe Gorga, discussing the turmoils surrounding some text messages. Notice specifically at 3:53 into the video, Joe says, “Calling me a re*beep*.”
Go and watch it, the whole scene at their house starts around the 3 minute mark. It’s really amazing when you think on this for half a second.
A cable television show rated TV-14, airing at 10 p.m. bleeps out the word retard. We’re not talking about iCarly dropping R-bombs, no. This is a show that obviously caters to adults, which revels in whoredom. Don’t believe that, Google Danielle Staub Raw.
Those are some staub wounds to which nobody should be subjected. Zing. And who am I kidding, I’d shag her, if only to plug Rhyme and Reasonable on TMZ or Perez Hilton. I’m no vulnerable adult, more an exploitative jerk.
My point is, a show for adults, airing after safe harbor hours, is practicing needless censorship. Of course, this is something not even the crudest Pop Culturist or TV blogger has noticed. And while that must please everyone pushing to abolish the R-word, that does not equal progress.
First, I’d like to hearken back to Fairman’s article from the Post. Here’s a quote I’ve plucked off the end of a paragraph. You’ll see why in a moment:
….stigmatizing the word has elicited new problems, including an overeagerness to detect insult where none is intended and the use of excessively harsh punishment against those who use the word wrongly.
This is in reference to an observation made by Randall Kennedy in his book, “Nigger.” I’m allowed to type that, because it’s the book’s title. But I can say no more than it is a book about the N-word. Well, that’s where people want to shelve the R-word. Next to nigger.
From the R-word website, um, yeah. This is serious. And, uh, I should probably be sorry for making light of this, but, you can’t censor everything:
The R-word is the word ‘retard(ed)’. Why does it hurt? The R-word hurts because it is exclusive. It’s offensive. It’s derogatory. The R-word is hate speech. See why supporters think the R-Word is hurtful when used in jokes or as part of everyday speech.
I did not even bold that. That’s straight from the website. The R-word is hate speech. I think the words slut and cunt have some gripe with you there, retard.
And not to be too prickish, but if we’re abolishing things that hurt because of exclusivity, how will all those American Express Black cardholders flaunt?
I am not supporting use of the word retard. I AM against banning the word retard. It’s also surprising the front line for this battle is cable television and news headlines. Cable television shows airing after safe harbor hours have as much latitude as possible, which makes the censorship on the Jersey Housewives (TV-14, so bitch and whore are kosher to say, but retard….not so much) startling. It’s not a daytime show, like The View or something. I’ll have to throw palms up on this one.
As for the phrase vulnerable adult, well, that is regrettably too funny to give up. Palms up. If the term made sense, that’s great. But I’m still unsure if a vulnerable adult is the man with down syndrome or the man going to the strip club ATM for the fourth time.
The rebranding is over and done. Mr. Obama signed Rosa’s Law in 2010 (hell, North Dakota began use of the term vulnerable adult in 1989. North Dakota, progressive on mental retardation rights!), it’s just time for popular culture and people to get wise that retard has been replaced by R-word.
Which has probably been deemed incendiary by the time I finish this sentence. Like the cleaning of a house……