Thursday, 9 September 2010

Why is the R word so offensive?

A few days ago an anonymous comment was left on one of my entries asking why the R word is more offensive to me than idiot or moron.

For some reason that seemed to be a bit of a difficult question for me to answer; I'm not sure why.  I think for me it's an obvious thing (not that I mean to suggest the person who asked the question is wrong, I should probably make my points clearer when I write).  I've been wanting to respond but not sure how to.

I think that both the I word and the M word aren't used as deliberate insults designed to target and hurt a specific group of society any more.  I'm not sure of their origins as words.  The R word however, that's no longer used in it's correct/original useage - to describe someone with a specific type of disability in a medical way.  It's used to ridicule and to hurt a specific group of people. Disabled people.  And it's unacceptable.

If you're going to take one thing away from this entry, you could take anything I've written above, I hope I've made it clearer than I did before.  But I'd much rather you went and looked at this post about a much loved daughter and the R word.  It says it much better than I ever could.

Or you could go and read about the battle Nicky Clark had with Ofcom and Channel 4 about the R word being used.  750 Mencap members gave evidence of the hurt and hate they'd encountered from the R word. Yet it still took a protest and multiple appeals before anything was done.  As Nicky wrote in her post, if the terms used had been racist or anti religion the apology would have been immediate.  This isn't a small problem, it's a big one.  Unfortunately however it's a big one not many people take seriously.

And I'm one of a group of people who want to change that.  That's why the R word bothers me more than the I word (idiot), the M word (moron).


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to consider and respond to my question. I found this post and the links very interesting but still don't really understand why it's so important to you (and so many others). I don't mean to cause offence; I'm genuinely interested and am a firm believer in 'if you don't know, ask'.

I think a lot of people don't actually realise the history of words like retard any more than they do idiot (btw, does it bother you when others write "retard" rather than "the r-word"? I feel uncomfortable self-censoring but I don't want that to prevent us having a discussion.) I certainly hadn't realised either's original meaning until quite recently (idiot/imbecile/moron etc were medical terms until they were replaced by degrees of mental retardation). As the first post you linked states:

"Let’s face it: retarded no longer means developmentally delayed. Its meaning has been leached out by decades of schoolkid use as a playground put-down." how is that really so much different or worse than idiot? I'm not saying I think it's okay to call anyone an idiot/retard, but I don't understand why the huge distinction.

I actually think if anything, Nicky Clark's case shows that retard isn't generally thought of as an abusive term.

Ultimately, I suppose what I'm asking is why not just let the roots of the word retard continue to be forgotten?

I'd appreciate any response you or other readers like to give.

Shiloh said...

Very well written, and I'm glad you addressed this issue. Not very many people know why this word is offensive in this day and age, and it's a slow process of getting the reasoning out, but we need to do it.

Anonymous said...

...So are only comments that agree with you allowed now?! :-(

Emma said...


1) Blogger for some reason moved your comment to it's new spam feature. I don't know why particularly as I'm pretty sure it was showing up on here before then. I have marked it as not spam so it should show up again. And I'll flag it to them as a blip too.

2) Not got time to respond just yet but do you have an e-mail or a blog or a name you can share? Would like to be able to call you something other than Anon, it feels a bit like "hey you" otherwise.

Sarah said...

Oh I see, thanks. I was thinking the same thing actually, didn't have an account or an website to give and wasn't really expecting you to respond, but I've made one now

Anonymous said...

Dumb word, offensive to some...give it up. Why not? If it hurts people. Seriously, there are so many words in the English language, after all.

Joshua said...

I've thought a lot about the "meaning leached out" issue since I wrote that post, Anonymous. I personally think 'idiot' and 'moron' are pejorative as well, but I don't expect anyone to associate them with their origins (as descriptors for levels of mental retardation, dreamed up in the early 20th century by Henry Goddard to bolster the case for forcibly sterilizing the mentally retarded).

But I don't think that anyone has forgotten where the word 'retarded' comes from. We've just stopped thinking of it in clinical terms and started thinking of it in pejorative terms, which is closer to what I intended when I said the meaning has been leached out. You can, I'm sure, easily picture the distasteful individual who spits 'retard' while slurring his speech and slapping his hand spastically against his chest. We all, all of us, when we use the word thoughtlessly, tie ourselves to that hateful creature. I suggest getting as far away as possible from him, and the best way to do that is to think before we speak.

Thank you, Emma, for the kind referral.

Sarah said...

Joshua: thanks for taking the time to respond, you make a very well reasoned argument. I'm still not totally convinced about the merits of campaigning against using 'retard', but I think you've convinced me enough not to use the word myself. (I didn't anyway but out of fear of not being PC rather than actual understanding)


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