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The Potency of the R-Word

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It hardly comes as a surprise when Ann Coulter makes an offensive comment. The conservative commentator seems to make a career of spewing language that denigrates a different party practically each week. This week's off-color moment came when she tweeted about a cable news appearance by Christopher Barron of a Republican gay rights group called GOProud.

Wrote Coulter: "Great video: head of GOProud interviewed by retarded person on MSNBC."

She is hardly the first public figure to cause offense with the R-word. Earlier this year, Rahm Emanuel, the president's former chief of staff, called conservative Democrats "F----in' retarded." Rush Limbaugh piled on, calling Emanuel's subsequent make-up meeting with mental health professionals a "retard summit."

It's not just celebrities, though. As a high school student, I hear the R-word thrown around in offensive ways daily.

I'm in my trig classroom staring at a whiteboard that's crammed with brackets, exponents, and an array of colorful digits. I'm trying to understand the problem on the board, but I feel like I'm reading a foreign language. My classmates are just as puzzled. One, realizing the problem's complexity, sighs and lets out two words: "That's retarded."

Retarded. It's ubiquitous. I can't escape it. But I have never gotten used to hearing it. In fact, each time I hear "retarded" misused, I feel as though someone has stabbed a piercing blade into my neck. But as much as "retarded" pains me, something holds me back from confronting my classmate. The word renders me helpless and impotent. I can't challenge him because he's not out of the ordinary; everyone says it.

And not just kids. I'm standing at the checkout counter of my high school's student store, Rice Krispies in hand. As the register stubbornly refuses to dispense a receipt, a mom volunteering behind the counter becomes more and more flustered. Irritated, she expresses her frustration: "This thing is retarded."

Apathy has a major influence on the way my contemporaries use language. "Retarded" has become one of the go-to negative adjectives the Internet generation (alongside words like "gay" and "lame"). And while "retarded" is not usually spoken from a place of deliberate insult, it carries an insulting connotation: "Retarded" is used at the expense of a vulnerable group.

I'm at cross-country practice looking out at a long, rigorous course the coach has just ordered us to tackle. I turn hesitantly toward my teammate, whose exhaustion has clearly been exacerbated. At a loss, he resorts to the only adjective he can attach to his disappointment: "This is retarded."

The R-word is a blade in my neck. My body stiffens and my fists clench at the mere mention of the word. But hearing it is unavoidable. So I've developed a sort of sympathy toward the ignorant, an assumption that people don't know how their words hurt; that they're simply in the dark.

But it isn't sympathy alone that holds me back from the treacherous brink of confrontation. There's another layer--something simpler that moves me to evade saying "please don't," or "that hurts": 16-year-olds don't have much of a platform to stand on in the arena of language use. And, furthermore, I run the risk of seeming almost sanctimonious; lecturing my friends and family on their choices of words when I'm still trying to discover my own voice.

Nonetheless, I've had no such luxury of darkness. Down the hall from my bedroom, my autistic brother struggles to carry on a conversation, getting stuck repeating the same phrases over and over again. (Granted, there are differences between autism and the other sorts of developmental delays that once fell under the umbrella of "retardation.") Most of my peers have not witnessed the deeply rooted frustrations of missing out on a typical childhood. Few of them hear pleas like my brother's to "go to school with the other kids."

Sometimes I do leap abruptly at the opportunity to wag a finger. "Do you have a brother with a neurological disorder?" I'll ask, my tone dripping with disdain. "Tell me, what is it about that math problem that's mentally delayed?" But my discomfort with a generation's forceful linguistic trend has changed the way I've chosen to express my displeasure. Public scolding, I've learned, rings hollow and elicits little more than an awkward blank stare. It's not that I'm afraid or timid; but sometimes--even when I feel like my "retarded" bubble is about to burst -- I just have to ask myself, "Is it worth it?"

Like it or not, it is.

I wish my generation (and their moms, where necessary) would realize something: words can be both powerful and toxic. Some serve a variety of purposes; but some are meant to be attached to one exclusive definition. Those words aren't fit to be taken out of context and attached to scenario after scenario, ad nauseam. The movie you saw last night isn't retarded, the Christmas sweater your Great Aunt Gertrude knit you isn't gay, and your Monday afternoon SAT class isn't lame. The more often we hastily slap one of those labels onto something, the more often we denigrate, disparage, belittle, and inevitably rule out a magnificent portion of our population.

The math problem was challenging, sure. The cash register wasn't working and the cross-country course was disheartening. That MSNBC host may have asked some questions that Coulter didn't like . But do any of those scenarios entail any sort of neurological delay? Most certainly not.

To preserve the sanctity of language and defend the integrity of another population of otherwise easy-targets, thought should always precede action and compassion should inform language. The next time you want to express how awful, offensive or frustrating something is, try coming up with another word. My suggestion: Coulterish.

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