Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Words Have Power

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

Words can be very powerful tools. Some words can bring harm ("I hate you") and some words can bring healing ("I love you") and many words fall somewhere in between. The proper use of words comes with a great responsibility. More on this in a bit.

Then we have labels -- words used to attach a specific identifier onto a person, place or thing. These too can be used to do evil, as in a racial slur, or to do good, as in an expression of endearment. Again, most fall somewhere in between -- and many labels can have multiple meanings, or at least wind up being used in a multitude of ways.

Our common language is a fluid and constantly growing thing, almost with a life of it's own. New words seem to spring up every day, while some fall idle due to lack of use. The advent of texting has enriched our language even further, with new words like "L8ter" (Later) and abbreviations like "LOL" (Laugh Out Loud.) Then we have words such as "Groovy" which sort of died out with the sixties.

So what does any of this have to do with disability issues?

A few weeks ago I talked about finding our own voice. Education has to be a part of that -- educating ourselves on the proper use of words, and their power, and educating others on the proper use of labels, and the perceptions that come with their use. Often the perception of the meaning of a word trumps its actual meaning, right or wrong. To deny or ignore that simple fact is folly.

Most of you are no doubt familiar with the fairly recent term, "political correctness." Simply put, political correctness (or PC for short) is a sort of enforced politeness intended to prevent us from using certain words, terms or labels which others may find offensive. Over the last 55 years I have seen the word "crippled" be replaced by "handicapped" -- then "disabled" -- then "differently-abled" -- and finally... well, I'm not sure what the polite (PC) term for us is anymore. It's so hard to keep up these days. Of course, we've had a fairly long string of negatively-charged labels to contend with as well. "Gimp," "Dummy" and "Retard" come to mind immediately. I'm sure you could add more to this list without too much effort. Our ability to use words to label is both rich, and creative. It also lends itself to cruelty, both intentional and otherwise.

Which brings me around (finally!) to the point of today's Blog posting. A man by the name of Randy Cassingham recently coined a new word, "tardwit" and used it in promotion of his own (and excellent I might add) weekly e-zine, This Is True. As you can imagine, the firestorm began almost immediately. How dare he use such a word (a combination of retard and dimwit, in case you were curious) to describe the "ignorant boneheads" (my words, not his) that he writes about in his e-zine? How positively... non-PC!

His argument, which you can read here (along with the story of how "tardwit" came to be) is that "retard" is a perfectly acceptable word. In this, he is correct. Retard means "to slow" (ex: "Pressing down on the brake pedal of a car will retard its forward movement.") and dates back to around 1840. The disparaging use of the word to describe a mentally disabled person came later.

For the record, I support Mr. Cassingham's right to coin a new word, if he so chooses, and use it in any way he sees fit. We have many rights here in America, but the right to never be offended is not among them. Where we disagree is in the way he has chosen to utilize this word. Clearly, it is not being used in it's original sense... it is being used disparagingly, and in a way that draws an inescapable connection between those in our society who are criminal, but stupid, and those who are (mostly) law-abiding citizens, but mentally disabled. This connection is not directly his fault, nor mine. It simply is. The word retard (or more recently just 'tard) has become ingrained into the lexicon of our society.

It is also his contention that he is trying to reclaim the word, to make it useable again without the burden of the "PC Police" coming down on us for doing so. A noble goal, and one I would support if I didn't know better. Sorry, Mr. Cassingham, but some words simply can not be redeemed -- "witch," "nigger" and yes, "retard" are all words destined to be forever sullied by our culture and our darker human natures. Try as we might, I doubt if we can ever fully reclaim them. You could, of course, attempt your own social experiment. Ask your family members to go around for a week and call every "stupid" person they meet a retard (or tardwit if you prefer.) The next time your wife burns the pot roast, call her a tardwit. I'll bet you the price of a premium subscription that you'll end up wearing your dinner before weeks end.

But that said, Mr. Cassingham, I sincerely wish you well, and I wish you luck with your freshly-minted word, tardwit. To repeat the opening of this post, words have power, and with power comes responsibility, and consequences. I hope yours are not overly burdensome.

To conclude, our words do have power, as do the words of others, but they need not define us, or incite us. When all is said and done, a word is just a word. You can accept it, reject it, ignore it, wear it proudly, or if you feel the need is just, act upon it... but when you do, please remember the old adage:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never harm me.


[Update: Randy Cassingham has decided to abandon his new word, tardwit, in favor of another word which is (in my humble opinion) more appropriately descriptive of the individuals for which it was intended. The new word? "Obliviot" (Oblivious Idiot.) You can learn more about his new word by following the same page link above. Oh, and Randy? Thanks for ruining my perfectly good Blog entry. (chuckle) ]

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