What's Wrong with 'Retarded'?

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
 -Confucius, Analects
I admit that it's fun watching an adroit manipulator of political correctness get hoisted with his own petard and be forced to meekly eat his words. But to be fair, Rahm Emanuel's use of the word "retarded," and the general use of that word for someone who is (in P.C.-ese) "intellectually challenged," is inoffensive and honest.

First of all, the context shows that Emanuel used the word in a reasonable way. He was dismissing a proposal that the administration attack moderate Democrats in public ads. He was simply pointing out the stupidity of publicly offending people you want as future allies -- which is in fact a stupid thing to do. And he said it privately, not as a public insult. It took a backstairs gossip to make a public issue of it.

Next, his use of the "f-word" is lamentable but common in the debased milieu of politics, especially Chicago/White House politics. Nowadays, as someone once explained about the British use of "bloody," the f-word merely means that a noun or adjective will follow. I was brought up to believe that it should be avoided as being offensive to ladies. However, NOW does not seem to have complained -- perhaps because, as Judge Craig put it a century ago, they have ceased to be ladies but not yet learned to be gentlemen, and they probably use the word themselves. So let's give a reluctant pass to the f-word.

Now let's consider "retarded" carefully. According to my dictionary, it comes from the Latin word for "slow" and means "hindered from a typical or expected rate of change." For example, the term "retarded potential" is frequently used in physics, and no electromagnetic wave has ever complained about it.

This sounds pretty inoffensive. The connotation is that a "retarded" person will take a little longer to get where he is going, but that he will get there -- which sounds to me like a fair and hopeful statement of the situation. The alternative use of "slow," as uttered in hushed tones by teachers to parents, is a bit precious, but it really means the same thing. And so, from a logical point of view, there doesn't seem to any justification for complaining about the use of "retarded."

Unfortunately, reason has nothing to do with the decrees of P.C. Like the story of Al Smith at Sing Sing, P.C.ers have a ludicrous talent for replacing a fair term with a worse one. Consider "handicapped," a word once used for people with a deficiency in physical ability. It was a good word, honest and yet optimistic. As in its popular racetrack use, it implied that someone had a difficulty that others didn't have, but that with courage and perseverance, he could overcome it and win. But P.C. decreed that it could cause discrimination (another useful word that was exiled to verbal Siberia) and demanded that it be replaced by "disabled" -- a much more pejorative word that, as used in modern electronics, implies total incapacity. But then "disabled" was proscribed and replaced with "challenged," a condescendingly hypocritical euphemism that has become the butt of countless jokes.

In the same Pecksniffian spirit, "retarded" -- now called (I'm not making this up) "the r-word" -- is has been declared offensive. You may visit a website where you can sign a pledge to eliminate this word from your vocabulary. (A chastened Emanuel has already done so.) Attempts are being made to obliterate the word from all federal laws. I assume that this also means that thousands of physics and engineering texts will have to be recalled and reprinted.

What is the excuse for this idiotic lack of acumen? It's the fact that the word is used as a common insult. According to Special Olympics Chief Executive Tim Shriver:

Every day our community hears this word -- in schools and workplaces, in print and in movies, on radio and television. And every day they suffer its dehumanizing effects -- mockery, stigma, ridicule. This is a word that is incredibly damaging -- not only to the seven million people with intellectual disabilities in the United States, but also their friends, family and to all of us.

This distress is commendable but futile. I envy Mr. Shiver and his colleagues their miraculously sheltered childhoods. They seem to be blissfully unaware that we live in a harsh and unfair world in which any word they choose to use for the mentally handicapped will be used as a popular insult. If they insist on replacing the r-word with, say, "gungulous," then bullies will shout "gungulous" in schools and playgrounds and turn it into an insult.

This has already happened. Mr. Shiver's organization chose to replace the r-word with "special." This is an interesting choice because "special" is an auto-antonym that, like "sanction," has two opposite meanings. The term "special students" has been used for both ends of the I.Q. spectrum. But that ambiguity has not stopped "special" from becoming a nasty joke, used by the Church Lady in "Saturday Night Live" and, I fear, by many others. And Mr. Shiver himself has used "disabilities," which, as already mentioned, means something much worse than "retarded" or "handicapped."

The best you can do, Mr. Shiver, is follow the advice of Confucius and use the most honest and accurate word you can find -- perhaps a technical term. Above all, avoid circumlocutions, which make the user look silly, and euphemisms, which always smell of hypocrisy. You cannot stop bullies and louts from mocking your charges any more than we conservatives can stop liberals from unjustly jeering at us.  

In any case, thank you for humbling Rahm Emanuel and making him grovel. You made my day.