A Certain Word I’d Like to See Die a Quick and Public Death

5 Mar

As regular readers of my blog might have gleaned from my past three posts, I spent about a week in New Orleans visiting friends, doing thesis research, running a half marathon and running amok (totally didn’t know that’s how you spelled that word…learning!).  As a result, I had to switch around a few shifts both before and after to help not burden my coworkers or my financial situation.  One of the shifts I picked up on a trade was a Monday day.  It was a shift I worked for years and a shift that was, shall we say, not my favorite.  The main problem was that we have free wings on Mondays starting at 5pm (did you hear that?  Free wings!  Come one, come all!) and, to me, there is almost nothing more disgusting than chicken wings.  Well, maybe ribs.  Yea, ribs are more disgusting.  But really, anything on a bone that has to be gnawed off by whomever is eating it is really more than I can handle.  That is the reason, in fact, that I originally became a vegetarian.  When I was little I was never a huge fan of meat (well, except for my mom’s bolognese sauce, holy hell was that good).  I had a rather short-lived relationship with steak because, at age 8 or so, I was totally grossed out by the blood that pooled in that little moat around the outside of the cutting board that we had and simply couldn’t eat the stuff.  And then there was chicken.  And the gnawing.  Yea, so Monday’s are not my favorite.  I have to be in a room that smells like wings and then I have to pick up little pile of gnawed-upon bones off the bar because people are animals and seem unable to clean up after themselves.  Oh, and also, they eat the wings with their hands and then pick up their glasses to wash the food down without first wiping the grease off their hands and then the grease is smeared all over the glass and when I pick it up I get chicken yuck all over my hands and I want to hurl.

But I digress.  The point is, I picked up a Monday.  It was a very, very cold Monday.  Cold to the point that I was wearing my scarf and hat and dragged the space heater behind the bar with me so I could sit on it, figuring if my ass was warm the rest was soon to follow.  That, as it turned out, was faulty logic but live and learn, ya know?  Anyway, for the first two hours of the shift I was all by myself.  In the cold.  Sitting on the space heater.  I decided to entertain myself by watching CNN.  On this particular episode they had a few lawyers debating an upcoming death penalty case in Georgia involving a developmentally disabled man.  (Well, it’s no longer actually upcoming since this was over two weeks ago but at the time it was upcoming so we will just go with that.)  The basic issues of the case were as follows:

Warren Lee Hill was originally in jail for murdering his girlfriend and then, while in prison, beat another inmate to death with a 2×4 studded with nails.  How he got said 2×4 and said nails is really beyond me, but whatever.  Anyway, so as a result of the murder in prison he was sentenced to die by lethal injection.  Hill, however, has an IQ of 70 which puts him square within the range of someone considered to be mentally handicapped.  The Supreme Court, in the early aughts (2002?*), in Atkins v Virginia ruled it unconstitutional to execute someone with a significant mental handicap.  But, the Supreme Court left it up to individual states to designate what is considered a mental handicap and therefore who is legally able to be executed and who is not.  In Georgia, the state where this execution was to take place, an IQ of 70 places Hill in a class of people who cannot be executed in that state.  And yet, they were planning on executing him.  Totally fucked.  I mean, capital punishment is fucked anyway but this is just a class all in its own.

Anyway, the details of the case are not the most important part of what I am writing about here although it is absolutely rage-worthy so please, feel free to rage away.  I have been privately doing that for weeks now.  The particular segment that I was watching was one of those ones where you have the newscaster and then two expert people, usually with opposing opinions but not always, and they debate a number of topics.  So in this one, the newscaster was asking these two men, both lawyers, what they thought about this case.  The men both agreed that, given the law of the land, Hill should not be executed the following day (he wasn’t, for those who are curious) although one of the men seemed saddened by the law, all but saying he thinks that the law is crap and that this man who presumably cannot understand the difference between right and wrong and/or has limited impulse control and/or other possible things that I can’t think of right now because I actually know very little about the specifics of different types of mental handicaps and also I have a They Might Be Giants song stuck in my head and it is making me crazy and also sort of stupid, should actually be executed.  I did not like that man.  But the thing that made me dislike him even more than his rather, to put it lightly, tasteless opinion on the matter was his absolute insistence on using the word “retarded” over and over and over again.  It was a nationally broadcast news segment and this fucking guy was using a word that really makes me cringe.  A word that maybe when he was born in like 1882 was acceptable but which has become absolutely not acceptable in the century and a half since.  I was shocked.  And I wanted to write about it but I didn’t know what to say exactly other then to call my mom and be all,

Can you believe this fucking guy?  CNN is gonna get letters!  So, so many letters!

But really, I think what the problem is for me is that the R-word has become a slang that people just toss around.  Sometimes it is used to denote something positive, as in “that was ______ly fun,” but more often that not it is used as an insult.  What the word means to people now, and what it originally was intended to mean, have diverged significantly. It is no longer a descriptor of a condition, it is a way to other someone, to deride them, to question their intelligence.  I don’t think that when people normally throw it around they are actually thinking about mentally disabled people in a literal sense.  I don’t think they are aware, oftentimes, of the fact that before this word morphed into commonly used slang it actually meant something and that, as a result, it still means something.  Regardless of whether it has gotten miles away from its intended meaning it still has that meaning somewhere in its web, meaning that when it is used it is necessarily hurting someone, someone who does not deserve it, someone who is simply living his or her life. To use that word not only hurts its intended target, the one it is hurled at, but it also hurts those who, at some time, fell within its scope in simply a clinical way.  And that’s not fair.  It’s more than that, it is mean and thoughtless.

I don’t know if that made sense.  If not, then this article in the New York Times should make it a whole lot clearer.  It’s short.  And good.  You should read it.  But if you don’t read it, which would be a real shame, I will summarize it here.  Essentially, what author Lawrence Downes says is that words are mere “vessels for meaning,” and that the word “retarded,” has moved away from a clinical diagnosis and has become a “weapon of derision.” (I think maybe I just said that but it sounds way better coming from him.)  He then quoted an op/ed piece written by John Franklin Stephens, a man with Down syndrome from Virginia who is a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics.  Stephens wrote,

“The hardest thing about having an intellectual disability is the loneliness.  We are aware when all the rest of you stop and just look at us. We are aware when you look at us and just say, ‘unh huh,’ and then move on, talking to each other. You mean no harm, but you have no idea how alone we feel even when we are with you.  So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’?  I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

I have read that passage about 12 times and every time it makes me teary eyed and gives me chills.  It is a perspective that I had never thought of before and one that is incredibly important.  This is a piece that, if I had the presence of mind to write down the name of the man on that CNN segment, I would have found it in full and sent it to him again, and again, and again until I was sure he had caved and read it.  I want this word to go the way of the N-word and the C-word.  I want this word to illicit anger and outrage when it is used, relatively unchecked, on a national news show.  And I want someone to give Stephens a lifetime supply of whatever is his favorite thing (I would want mangoes but that’s just me) for this amazing take-down of an Ann Coulter tweet:

Alien-Spawn Coulter on election night:  “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard”

Stephens: After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.  I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

You can read his full letter here and you should because it is fucking awesome and maybe will make you, make all of us, take pause before using the R-word again.

*I just guessed 2002 because I was too lazy to search on the intertubes and I was right!  My super-smart law student friend told me so!

3 Responses to “A Certain Word I’d Like to See Die a Quick and Public Death”

  1. Debbie Hangemanole March 7, 2013 at 7:18 am #

    Hey, thanks for writing this! I had read that tweet, but not the article until now. I used to use that word when I was younger. But then my brave, wonderful, sweet friend (who had a brother who passed away from complications with downs syndrome) asked me to please not use that word because it hurt her feelings. Needless to say, I’ve changed how I think about words and their meanings. I agree w you about the C word and the N word, I also don’t like the word “gay” as derogatory slang. let’s enhance our vocabularies people, so we don’t have to use offensive terms to get our point across!

    • FranklyRebekah March 7, 2013 at 10:27 am #

      I also used to use it when I was younger until my aunt told me how hurtful it was to people. Prior to her saying something I had never even thought about it in a critical manner, never thought about what it might actually mean to people. So, it was nice to have someone open my eyes for me. The thing is, that there are ALWAYS going to be words that we can work on taking out of our vocabulary. The word “gay” as derogatory is certainly one of them. I feel lucky I never fell down that trap. And, actually, I don’t hear it too often. So, anyway, it’s a constant process but I think once we are aware and open to making the change it makes it less hard. Thanks for reading, girl!


  1. A dude told me not to trust the Jews. Funny thing is, I am one. | franklyrebekah - October 28, 2015

    […] like “gay” and “retarded” pejoratively. I even wrote a blog about it once. Here, read it. The thing is that it is incredibly important to realize the power of language, and to understand […]

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