Belonging

Intelligence Insults Should Insult Our Intelligence

Pejorative terms based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or appearance are not allowed in polite company. Words that insult one's intelligence ought to be treated with the same shock and disdain.

By Michelle Martin
Published April 17, 2012

Moron. Idiot. Imbecile. Feebleminded.

No, I'm not quoting a Python skit. I'm listing some clinical classifications, no longer in use, except as socially acceptable descriptors of individuals with whom we may disagree, or whose expertise we doubt.

Retarded.

As in, "That's retarded."

Socially acceptable? That depends. If you're a comedy host for the CBC, apparently it is:

CBC: Blubba Productions (Image Source: http://www.cbc.ca/laughoutloud/clash/competitors/blubba-productions.html, retrieved April 16, 2012)
CBC: Blubba Productions (Image Source: http://www.cbc.ca/laughoutloud/clash/competitors/blubba-productions.html, retrieved April 16, 2012)

Detail:

Blubba's videos vary from week to week. One week they might be posting a song parody to a new Justin Bieber song, the next they might be playing bagpipes in the mall, and in the week after that they might be posting a sketch comedy. Their style of videos is very diverse and there is no specific genre to classify them as. They're [sic] videos will always put a smile on your face whether it has you thinking, "Wow that was funny", or "Wow these kids are retarded". [emphasis added]

I came across this epithet (I want to call it hate speech, but I feel like many readers would think this is an over-reaction, more's the pity) when I was searching the CBC website for a video clip of an interview that George Stroumboulopoulos conducted.

Last summer, he spoke to a young actor with Down Syndrome [PDF], and they had a frank discussion about the word, which included a look at a public service announcement in circulation at the time (NSFW).

Here's another one for you: the Urban Dictionary definition of "retarded". Read it and weep, I mean really weep (I sure did), especially when you check out the thesaurus list.

We like classifying people, don't we? Sometimes, we like classifying them to the point of deciding others who share their traits shouldn't even exist.

The person who coined the word "moron" as a clinical term was the first English translator of the intelligence test designed by Alfred Binet (the precursor to the Stanford-Binet IQ test that is in use today).

His name was Henry Herbert Goddard, and his view that the so-called "feebleminded" should not be allowed to reproduce made him a favourite of the early twentieth century eugenics movement, a movement that came to full fruition in Nazi Germany.

Of course it didn't take long for the word to be popularly used as an insult.

Well, we don't live in Nazi Germany, and we haven't forcibly sterilized so-called mental defectives since the 1970s. The term "mentally retarded" is no longer used as a clinical classification. We speak, instead, of functional assessments and the kinds of support a person may need in order to thrive and to be safe.

But it is still socially acceptable to sneer at a person behind his or her back, whether it be a politician whose policies we dislike or a colleague who gets on our nerves. To accomplish this, we use terms that were once used to describe some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Lest you think I am being hypersensitive, I'll share that I have worked hard over the years on purging my vocabulary of any words like "dumb" or "stupid" even in reference to inanimate objects or ideas when I am at work, simply because I have seen people I've supported visibly cringe at those words that they heard as children, in the schoolyard, directed at them.

And lest you think we live in more enlightened times, I'll share that the high school students in our house tell me that the word "retard" is alive and well in our schools - not employed ironically, but actually directed at some of the most vulnerable students in the school.

Why should we feel superior to anyone because of our own native intelligence, which is, after all, a product of our genetic profile and the circumstances of our upbringing? It isn't any virtue or achievement on our part, though we may like to think it is.

There are plenty of aspects of ourselves that we think of as virtuous that simply are not. They are, rather, accidents of birth.

Insults based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or appearances are not allowed in polite company. Words that insult the intelligence of another (present or not) ought to be treated with the same shock and disdain, especially a word that was so recently in use clinically.

End the word.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

28 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 08:39:50

  1. I'm fairly certain that the blurb you quoted about "Blubba Productions" was written by them, not the CBC. Should it've been caught/edited? Probably, but it was probably copy & pasted by some intern, and hasn't been looked at since then.

  2. You lose a lot of credibility when you reference Urban Dictionary as any sort of authority on how words are used. The synonyms don't match up with the first page of definitions.

Permalink | Context

By the point -> (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 08:56:34 in reply to Comment 75989

wooooooosh

Permalink | Context

By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 17:02:47 in reply to Comment 75990

Irony woosh

Permalink | Context

By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:13:10 in reply to Comment 75990

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the point is that "retarded" is used as a word for "wrong," essentially, in the same way that "faggot" and "gay" were used in the 90s, when I was in school. I think she's right and I agree that it could/should be qualified as hate speech, depending on the situation.

I mostly take exception to this line:

If you're a comedy host for the CBC, apparently it is

A host/employee/staff member of the CBC didn't use the word retarded; the members of Blubba Productions did. I'm not saying that they were right to use that word, far from it. I'm just pointing out that the CBC didn't.

Permalink | Context

By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 18:52:06 in reply to Comment 75994

The CBC published it. That's from the CBC's site. You publish it, you say it. That's how these things work.

Permalink | Context

By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 09:46:53 in reply to Comment 76008

That is most decidedly not how these things work. Something being on a website you own does not mean that you said it, nor does it mean you necessarily agree with it.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Rich Gelder (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 08:59:27

mrgrande:

You are missing the point of the writer's reference to to the "Urban Dictionary". She never suggested it as a credible authority of etymology or proper use of diction. However, as one of her children indicated in her piece, it is a fairly reliable baramoter of how the word continues to be abused in common use in our schools. It is one of the last socially-acceptable manifestations of hate language (and, I agree with her assessment that it is hate language) still in use.

Permalink | Context

By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 17:04:32 in reply to Comment 75991

Rich,

I think you are missing MrGrande's point. Look at the examples of the definitions at Urban Dictionary and MrGrande's point should become clear.

Permalink | Context

By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:21:48 in reply to Comment 75991

I see what you're saying about Urban Dictionary.

Regardless of the article, you said:

It is one of the last socially-acceptable manifestations of hate language (and, I agree with her assessment that it is hate language) still in use.

I wonder how true that is. It probably depends on what you consider "socially acceptable," I suppose. I still hear "gay" used fairly often as a derogatory word. I hear stand up comedians use "faggot," and just about as many racist words you can think of...

(This isn't meant to refute your point by any means, it's more a curiosity on my part)

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 13:23:16

Thanks for this article. We all need to be more mindful of the words we drop casually.

What's most infuriating about topics that regard "intelligence" is how ill-defined it is. A standard "IQ test" (Full Wexler) has a ~20% margin for error, and they're always being called out for measuring factors which relate more to status than skill. There are many different kinds of "intelligence" (linguistic, mathematic, creative etc) and being very skilled at one doesn't always lead to any particular proficiency in others. I read an interesting article yesterday which suggested a "high IQ" for whatever it's worth can often be akin to a disability in itself. Statistically speaking, it tends to result in being less happy, having higher crime rates and a host of other problems.

It's hard to tell whether twisted metrics of who's a "better human" than others lead to or spring from unbelievably ugly authoritarian ideologies (like the fascists and forced sterilisations which Michelle brings up), but either way, I want no part of them.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By moylek (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 14:10:57

So, I guess "took the short bus today" is out, too. And presumably "brainless", lest we insult the Acephalic Community.

I'm reminded of something a German religious writer once wrote ...

First they came for the blasphemous terms, but I didn't blashpeme, so I did nothing; then they came for the racist terms, but again I didn't use them so I didn't say anything; then they came for the sexist and mentally-ablist terms, and again I said nothing. But then they came for the general metaphorical epithets of opprobrium, and there was nothing left to say.

(I'm not quite sure what I'm trying to say - only that the banning of successive waves of terms makes me slightly uncomfortable even while I recognize that it's intended to counter meanness of spirit and nastiness of expression).

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-04-17 14:13:49

Permalink | Context

By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:04:57 in reply to Comment 76000

No one has suggested a ban I believe? Just that people should think about the words they use.

Permalink | Context

By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 24, 2012 at 14:57:16 in reply to Comment 76031

...people should think about the words they use.

And grow thicker skin while they're at it.

Permalink | Context

By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 21:05:17 in reply to Comment 76000

I am familiar with that quote-- it was in reference to the holocaust.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 17, 2012 at 16:59:13

I can sympathize with the author's concern that the word "retarded" is being used to describe the more vulnerable student's at a school, but I disagree with some of the other points brought up.

First, the examples of the usage of the word that the author suggests we read at Urban Dictionary include:

"just act how you want to; dance like you don't know what you're doing"

"adjective used to describe something or someone that is pleasing to the eye, or looks good"

"Having really good qualities about yourself; havin a banging body... just that thang"

"In music, a down-tempo beat that is beyond ill: It is retarded"

"just another word for cool, dope, tight, chill, or whatever you say when you like something"

"The state of being high"

"a. Stupid, b. Messed up, c. Crazy, silly, goofy"

With the exception of the last example, I don't see anything to get upset about.

Secondly, it is important to remember that, like many words, the word retarded has several definitions. Before the word retarded was used to label people with poor brain capacity and/or Down's Syndrome, it meant (and still means) that something (anything) was slow or delayed.

When a person uses the word retarded to describe something that is slowing them down out of frustration such as "The new policy at work is so retarded", it makes more sense to me that they mean it is slowing them down, not that it resembles a person who has Down's Syndrome. Therefore, they are using a slang form of the english language, not making a derogatory comment about those who have Down's Syndrome.

Rather than attempt to abolish the word from existence and putting others down for using the english language properly, perhaps we should be celebrating that a word which was once used to label people negatively is now also being used to describe things in a positive way.

Comment edited by SpaceMonkey on 2012-04-17 16:59:55

Permalink | Context

By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2012 at 23:00:50 in reply to Comment 76004

"perhaps we should be celebrating that a word which was once used to label people negatively is now also being used to describe things in a positive way."

...but in the instances which you describe, it is being used ironically, so it's original, intended meaning is still intact, much like the word "sick" was used a few years back, when it was trendy to call something "sick" when it was desirable or very cool.

Permalink | Context

By mrgrande (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 09:42:13 in reply to Comment 76017

but in the instances which you describe, it is being used ironically, so it's original, intended meaning is still intact

Do you have any evidence of this, or are you just assuming it to be true?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Brandon (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 09:28:16

There are a number of words that are used innocently that have negative meanings to small groups of people.

The "paddy wagon". I used this term for years to describe police vans without ever realizing that it referred to a truck to take Irish drunks to jail.

"Gypped" is a term my sister used to me not too long ago. Means being taken advantage of by Gypsies. Hardly flattering.

I was having an argument with someone years ago and referred to a "slavish devotion to rules". He freaked out because he was of Slavic descent and assumed I was insulting him. I wasn't even aware that there were "Slavs" at that point in my life.

The point is that if you look for it you can be offended by anything you really want to be. Should we be more careful with our language? Probably. Can we go too far? Easily. What's the right answer? Not a clue.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:02:52

The point is that if you look for it you can be offended by anything you really want to be. Should we be more careful with our language? Probably. Can we go too far? Easily. What's the right answer? Not a clue.

Where are those little clapping smiley emoticons when you need them?

I have to say, I really dislike political correctness in language because I don't see any reasonable way to stop the use of certain words outside of strict censorship. However, I do have to admire you, Michelle, for role modelling the desired behaviour (i.e. acceptable word choice) rather than relying on censorship or shaming (which usually ends up reinforcing the original behaviour).

Showing people that a higher standard of speech is possible is maybe the best solution that doesn't run head-first into people's rights in a liberal democracy.

Permalink | Context

By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 08:38:24 in reply to Comment 76029

The point is not to be politically correct.

Many commenters have pointed out that the original meaning of the word 'retarded' is still relevent, and so we should be able to use it. This assertion misses the point that if a word has multiple definitions, you can't necessarily separate it's different meanings. Generally when one reads a word that could have several different meanings, they figure it out by the context. However, when one of those meanings is very hurtful to someone because of the way that word has been used towards them, it is inappropriate to use that word - and since you don't know everyone's past, it is prudent to avoid that word. Sure you could use the word 'retarded' to mean 'slow', but why wouldn't you just use 'slow', since it carries the same meaning?

Here is an example: currently you can subscribe to podcasts and videocasts. Imagine holographic displays became real popular, and someone wanted to do a 'videocast' but using holograms. You could call it a 'holocast', using the word hologram and combining it with the idea of a podcast or videocast. You could defend your use of the word 'holocast' using the same arguments for defending the use of the word 'retarded', and you would be right in an etymological sense - but every time you ask someone if they want to subscribe to your 'holocast', they are going to think 'holocaust'. Even though they can understand your meaning from your context, they are still going to think about 'holocaust'. Your usage may be correct, but your communication is utterly flawed.

Permalink | Context

By Borrelli (registered) | Posted April 20, 2012 at 11:24:35 in reply to Comment 76055

This assertion misses the point that if a word has multiple definitions, you can't necessarily separate it's different meanings.

Exactly: you can't control language, which is why censorship and political correctness is such a Sisyphean task.

Expecting everyone to know and respect idiosyncrasies in meaning is not fair (with some 'big no-no' words naturally transcending parochial knowledge and become akin to broader linguistic scapegoats), and neither is getting all huffy over the ignorance of these idiosyncrasies.

Personally, I like to think of myself as psychologically resilient enough to subscribe to a sticks and stones approach.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:11:21

Michelle - Dr. David Wright (formerly of Mac, now of McGill) has written an amazing book entitled Downs, The History of a Syndrome - he is a professor of Medical History (with a sister with DS) and has done a wonderful job throughout the book of unpacking the complex language issue surrounding intellectual disabilities. Watch for my review in RTH coming soon. :) It's a great read, and I know they stock it at Bryan Prince.

Permalink | Context

By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2012 at 19:01:07 in reply to Comment 76033

Jason thanks for the heads up -- i am looking forward to the book and to your review of it!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2012 at 15:32:59

>> Words that insult the intelligence of another (present or not) ought to be treated with the same shock and disdain, especially a word that was so recently in use clinically. End the word.

Which is exactly what your article does.

By implying that people should filter their speech through YOUR personal experience/beliefs system, you are claiming moral/mental superiority.

For example, I have been told my whole life that swearing is bad...

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/8458163/Swearing-can-help-relieve-pain-study-claims.html

However, as this article points out, spoken words have strong emotional/physiological effects on the speakers.

By telling others that they cannot use a certain word(s), how do you know you are not harming that person more than the person you're trying to help?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2012 at 19:36:24

I think there are times when the r-word may be used appropriately in intelligent company, like when referring to mainstream media skulduggery:

SOURCE - Put aback by Gibson's words, the interviewer retreaded into a kind of retardedness (popping up more and more these days); a sort of dream-like nothingness that hangs on people’s heads, like a hat- and then, aware of the tape recorder, the reporter retreats into the mantra of the numb when confronted with an outburst of sudden truth:

"This certainly sounds like a paranoid sense of world history. You must be quite an assassination buff."

Gibson: "Oh, f___. A lot of these guys pulled a boner. There's something to do with the Federal Reserve that Lincoln did, Kennedy did and Reagan tried. I can't remember what it was, my dad told me about it. Everyone who did this particular thing that would have fixed the economy got undone. Anyway, I'll end up dead if I keep talking s___."

Not dead, thank God. Although the New World Order is pulling all the stops to make sure his career will be.

The original Playboy interview is HERE - Don't visit this link if you are offended by strong words.

FWIW - Any internal combustion engine is gonna run rough if the timing is retarded and the word retard only appears 53 times in all of Raise the Hammer's documents and comments, albeit, the word Ryan appears 37,623 times.

Comment edited by WRCU2 on 2012-04-18 20:47:36

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2012 at 09:52:14

Well that was 15 minutes of my life I'm not going to get back.

If someone says something you don't like. Don't listen. Stop listening, walk away.

Hurting someone's feelings.... is not the same as hate speech and to argue such simply weakens the fight against things that truly are hateful.

Trying to tell people what they can say and worse .... think.... and have the government support it through kangaroo court human rights tribunals... is frankly frightening.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds