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John C. McGinley

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Spread the Word to End the Word

Posted: 03/02/10 06:52 PM ET

"The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become" -Goethe

I am a father. My son's name is Max and my daughter's name is Billie Grace. Twelve years ago Max was born with Down Syndrome. His journey has been complicated by infantile seizures, sleep apnea, dietary challenges and now, puberty! Max has also (somehow), managed to become a medium through whom other people are introduced to their own personal stories of compassion and love and heretofore undiscovered capacity to revel in joy. It is not entirely clear to me just how Max is able to perform this service. I can, however, attest to the fact that my son has made a gift of love and presented it to countless people. I have witnessed this phenomenon and I have been one of those people.

Twelve years ago, it never occurred to me that my son would some day be caught dead in the cross-hairs of painful hate-speech and insensitive language, leveled directly at a special needs population that Max was born into. With the distinct physical markers that identify a person born with Down Syndrome, my son (through no fault of his own), has inherited the unwelcome stigma that sadly accompanies the R-word.

Freedom of speech is to all Americans, as oxygen is to the human condition. It is a right that has been irreversibly programed into our hard drive. We are free to speak our minds. An artist's right to express him or herself as best suits their art, is the artist's prerogative and it is guaranteed. Even if a private citizen wants to burn an American flag? That person has the right to go ahead and do so. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution is a component of the Bill of Rights. Included in the First Amendment are protections that prohibit Congress from infringing on the freedom of speech.

Our right to speak as we see fit is sacred and not something that any of us are willing to relinquish. Nor should we.

However, when the words we are free to speak are aimed at specific populations of people and target that group in a harmful way, there are repercussions. There is a "tax" that will be imposed on those who chose to assault others with their hate speech.

This "duty" may be levied in the form of boycotts, marches, firings (see: Imus), or even a stiff right to the jaw! In other words, when the words that we are free to speak include racial slurs, epithets or sexist slander, there has been and always will be blowback. Groups like the NAACP, The Anti-Defamation League, NOW and GLAAD, will respond to derisive language directed at their constituents. The price paid by those who cavalierly chose to verbally disrespect the dignity of African Americans, Jews, women and homosexuals is steep. Those who insist on using words like nigger, kike, or faggot, will most often pay with their jobs and any shred of character that they may have been pretending to assume.

It is every Americans right to use words like nigger and kike and faggot. It is also the right of those who are on the receiving end of such hate speech to object to that kind of denigration. The objections exercised by groups like African Americans, Jews, homosexuals and women, have been largely successful in disincentivizing the continued, public, widespread use of disparaging language hurled at them. You are not likely to hear Rahm Emanuel use the words "stupid f-cking niggers!" You are also not likely to hear Rush Limbaugh use the words; "Kikes are kikes." Nor, for that matter are you likely to hear other media fixtures like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and countless others of their ilk, sprinkle their speech with words like; "faggot, wop or spic." If they did it once? They would be gone! It is really that simple. No questions asked.

The consequences for launching into hurtful language, aimed at powerful ethnic, religious and gender based groups, are profound and final (see; Michael Richards and Jimmy "The Greek"). The very real fear of a counter-punch thrown by the victimized party, is usually enough to scare away almost every single one of those who would otherwise toss about slander without a care. The fear of the tax or the very real cost, is a hammer that sometimes informs the speech that we are so free to express.

Verbally assaulting those who have done absolutely nothing wrong and cannot even begin to defend themselves, is an exponentially more egregious transgression. Only bullies and cowards pick on the defenseless. However, it does seem fair to assume that a vast majority of people who use the R-word (i.e. "Retard" and "Retarded"), are not even aware that their language is offensive and hurtful to members of the special needs community. And at the risk of being redundant, perhaps there is some value in setting the record straight: the R-word hurts! And it makes no difference that a person with special needs is not in ear shot when the word is spoken. Using the R-word perpetuates a negative stigma that belittles people with special needs. And the casual nature in which the R-word is now thrown about only makes the impact even more insidious and and the trickle down affect more persistent. The R-word hurts.

There are two relatively simply exercises that expose the R-word for the instrument of hurt that (in it's contemporary context), it has evolved into. First; is there a single instants when the R-word is used as compliment? Do we find ourselves showering our peers with the R-word after a great triumph or a significant achievement? Is the R-word the stuff that support and elevation are made of?

And second, whenever we are compelled to use the R-word, would the circumstances allow for substituting the N-word instead? Could the R-word just as easily be replaced by any number of pejorative slurs that would serve the same purpose? The answer to both these hypotheticals is; not in a million years!

The First Amendment protects every ones right to use the R-word. There is not a member of the special needs community who wishes to compromise any fellow Americans freedom of speech. That is certainly not the drill here. However, armed with the knowledge that the R-word is a source of pain and that using the R-word demeans a group that is not in a position to defend itself and who definitely never did anything to merit this kind of derision, the hope is that people will exercise some degree of compassion or at least a heightened sensitivity toward the continued use of the R-word. Again, this is not an invasion of the Bill of Rights. Rather, it is a civil call to integrate a simple change into the way we treat, regard and address the special needs population.

Wednesday, March 3, is our National "Spread the Word to End the Word" Day. We invite everyone to www.r-word.org.