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Politics and the English Language

posted: 10.17.11 by archived

One of the realities of life for most teachers is that we sit in a lot of meetings. I meet with groups of distinguished academics or community leaders about once a week. The discourse is sometimes a bit contentious, sometimes a little boring, but always smart and fair and democratic. In these meetings, I am surrounded by people whom I respect and admire. Yet several times over the last few years, I have been surprised and upset by something a colleague said. Adults who care quite a lot about social justice, who understand prejudice in a deep way, still use words like “moron,” “idiot,” and “retard”—and I am shocked every time I hear them.

Listen, I’m not the language police. I am all for freedom of expression—but I am also all for examining the impact of what we say.

Some terms are truly distasteful.  “Moronic” is a word with a long and terrible history, as are the words “retarded” and “idiot.” Yet, it seems like these are all words that we’ve decided it’s now okay to use—for some reason, we even think they are funny.  Call some thing retarded, moronic, or idiotic, and someone is likely to laugh and agree with you.  Adding this word as a descriptor is a way to condemn whatever you disagree with and to add a slightly subversive edge to your comment.

Hopefully, we know that it is not okay to label any person with these words. But then why do we use them words at all?

To be labeled a moron in North America for most of the last 150 years meant that you would be institutionalized and perhaps sterilized. To be labeled a moron, an idiot, or retarded meant that you were not treated as a full person—in the legal sense or the conceptual sense. These labels, we clearly now understand, were the product of the worst kind of racist pseudo-science.

As I said, why do we use these words at all any more?

Oddly, many people defend the use of such terms if they are not being applied to individuals. But if you call a policy, a law, or a student essay moronic, you are in fact suggesting that the people who created these things are morons and thus less than human. Would you ever say that aloud? The use of the term in any context also endorses, however unintentionally, the existence of the term anywhere—to call anything moronic is also to reify the idea that moron actually describes a group of people. It doesn’t, it shouldn’t, it hasn’t for decades; and when it used to be used it was used abusively. Yet the continued use of the term is a reminder of the word’s dehumanizing power to people who lived through this label. It also recharges the negative power of the term.

It has been great to see recent public campaigns against the use of the “R word,” and video spots that give people the opportunity to really explain how hurtful the words are, when they are used in any context. I know it might be a huge leap to connect a few words to much bigger and more dangerous cultural attitudes. But ours is a culture in which people with disabilities are still treated in dehumanizing ways. I get upset when adults I admire use these terms in conversation. It is much more upsetting to see kids use these words on each other. The recent suicide of an 11-year old boy close to my home in Canada hit me pretty hard. Kids with disabilities are often the targets of bullying. Seems like one initial, easy, and important thing we can do is to stop using the words that are ammo for this bullying.

I realize this blog post may have been delivered from a soapbox. But as a teacher of writing and rhetoric, I really do care about words, and I try to understand their power. I am sure you feel the same way. How do you speak to your colleagues about this issue, or to your students?

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Categories: Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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