Walk in Someone Else's Shoes

The casual use of insults about intelligence can impede people with real intellectual disabilities, not only by contributing to stereotypes but also by deterring them from asking for help when they need it.

By Michelle Martin
Published April 19, 2012

The brief commentary following an article I wrote here on insults about intelligence has been interesting. I do get that there is a debate about language to be had. I guess what I asked, at bottom, is really for RTH readers to take a walk in someone else's shoes before they speak.

Some have argued for the creative use of the word "retarded" on the grounds that language evolves, since it is no longer in use as a clinical description - forgetting that there are many in society who are old enough to have had that clinical label applied to them.

I wonder if people who insist on waxing poetical in descriptions of what they presume are someone's intellectual shortcomings (whether directed at that someone or not) have really thought through the ramifications of having such words floating around the water in which we all swim.

These names and insults, so casually tossed around, so demeaning to real discourse (after all, why take the trouble to outline exactly why you think someone is mistaken when you can just toss out the word "idiot") really influence the atmosphere in which we go about our day.

The effect is so great that it can end up impeding someone with a real intellectual disability. Obviously, it contributes to stereotypes and prejudices against him or her, but it also hampers some from asking for help (even help that is urgently required) when they might need it.

We who stand on the confidence we have in our own abilities, and our history of relative successes, don't feel embarrassed and aren't afraid of being labelled by making such a request.

But people who have grown up hearing those names thrown about, often at them and sometimes as a criticism of others, can find it much more difficult to do something as simple as seeking some practical assistance.

One commenter suggested facetiously that we can't use the word "brainless", surmising that it is tied to anencephaly (the condition of developing in utero without a brain).

The word brainless appears to be a garden-variety, general insult without any clinical associations, likely because anencephaly causes death either before birth or shortly thereafter: there haven't been any survivors for whom society can make up interesting names.

Microcephaly, on the other hand, is a condition which individuals can survive; hence, a slang term was applied to people who have this condition: pinhead.

The most famous people with microcephaly were exhibited as circus freaks in the past, as, for example, "the last Aztec" or "the missing link." One man, Simon Metz (known as Schlitzie), was exhibited by P.T. Barnum. He took part in a movie called Freaks, so you can read about him on his IMDB page, which all too sadly uses the words "pinhead" and "mentally retarded" to describe him.

He was subsequently institutionalized for many years, but according to IMDB, he was taken back on the road on the sideshow circuit. According to Wikipedia, he was last exhibited in 1968, and died in 1971.

That's right: at least until as late as 1968 it was considered all right by some to call someone with microcephaly a pinhead and make a public exhibition of that person.

In 1968, I was 4 years old. Quite a few of the people I have had the privilege to support over the years have been as many as 25-30 years older than me. So they were young adults when Mr. Metz was last exhibited publicly, old enough to have experienced less enlightened times.

I wonder how much the meaning of some words has evolved for them.

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


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By TB (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2012 at 08:21:44

I have a 63 year old sister who is mentally retarded as a result of being born a "blue baby", having been deprived of oxygen at birth. It pains me every time I hear young people today toss the word retarded around, because I realize how often my sister must be within earshot of such conversations when she is on the bus etc. As you say Michelle, the meaning of the word has not evolved for my sister. The word shouldn't be banned, the term shouldn't be considered a hate crime, our language shouldn't be censored, but it wouldn't hurt if people were simply more thoughtful - more aware and more sensitive to the potential impact of the words they use.

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By Today (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 10:39:38

Agree TB. I don't like it when someone says this or that is "just a label", don't worry about it. Well if labels were not so important, why do companies hire marketing firms to really think about labels in many senses, from packaging phrases to advertising campaigns?

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By simonge (registered) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 12:29:02

Thank you for both articles Michelle. For me this brings up a related issue. Questioning someone else's intelligence by calling them 'brainless' or some such is really a way of shutting down discussion and debate. It seems to have become common and acceptable to attack the person and not their argument. I can completely disagree with your views or ideas without commenting on your intelligence. We need to hear more ideas and input from people, not less.

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By Bharat (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 15:01:20

I thought that the article the other day was very nice, and that it was a good reminder for everyone to take a bit more care when using language- it is not always possible to sanitize what you say to avoid offence to all, but a bit more consideration for the origins and original meanings of words is called for.

I also thought that the comment about anencephaly was kind of funny, and it made me think of extreme cases of hydrocephaly that I have read about (and possibly even joked about). I don't see why a relatively innocent-meaning comment should be highlighted like this, and I don't think this second article has a primary message like the first article did.

The article on Tuesday probably did prompt a few people to consider how they use language, so excellent. Not sure about the point of today's, except perhaps to reinforce the belief of the anencephalic fellow that we have to be correct in our speech at the expense of humour.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 19, 2012 at 15:24:31

There's a difference between censorship and taking responsibility for what you've said. Verbal and written communication isn't just about the person "sending" it, but also all the people receiving it. Words have meanings, histories and connotations, and they go along with every word you use whether you intend them to or not.

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By Kevin (registered) | Posted April 19, 2012 at 17:04:21

The English language is huge. What kind of person would choose a word which they know will offend others? In the previous thread, a RTH commenter suggested that swearing makes one feel better, so fire at will. I wonder if he would feel better about himself dropping F-bombs in front of children or his mother. Some words are offensive and shouldn’t be used. There’s no need for bans or censorship, just decency.

Comment edited by Kevin on 2012-04-19 17:08:02

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2012 at 05:22:32 in reply to Comment 76071

>> What kind of person would choose a word which they know will offend others?

"O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." -Matthew 12:34

>> Some words are offensive and shouldn’t be used. There’s no need for bans or censorship, just decency.

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