It was Saturday evening, and we're all sitting around the Lunatic's Sister's kitchen table. The cake has just been served, this day being her birthday (Happy Birthday, Dear Sister!). One of my nephews has just called another "retarded", as kids are wont to do.
What happened next was something that sent douchechills down my spine, and produced a violent urge to vomit.
"You know", The Lunatic's Sister says to her child, "you're not supposed to say 'retarded' to people, because it's hurtful. What did they tell you at school about that?"
"Why not?" asks the Lunatic, innocently, wishing he hadn't asked just as soon as the words are uttered, because it has just dawned upon him at that very second that he's about to listen to an explanation of why that word has become verboten that will be long, pointless, and...well...umm....rather retarded.
The Lunatics Sister, after all, is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But, he asked for it, the Moron ( I wonder: Am I allowed to use that word, if I apply it only to myself?), and by God, he's gonna hear it -- if only because My Sister sometimes behaves as if she's my Mother, as well. This pisses me off because:
a) I already have a Mother who lectures me (still) while having nothing intelligent or positive to say, and
b) Nothing pisses me off more than being lectured to in that annoying and condescending tone which both Mother and Sister adopt, as if they're talking to a wayward child, with that irritating habit they have of being unable to explain themselves without a lengthy pre-amble, a diversion to a parable which might only be tangentially related to the subject at hand, and that slow and deliberate diction that would make one believe that I'm a retard, too, if you'd ever heard it.
I can hardly wait.
It turns out that a child at my nephew's school is what they now refer to as "mentally-challenged". I happen to know the child in question; he's autistic, and is given to unpredictable outbursts. I disagree, strongly, with the label "mentally-challenged" when applied to the Autistic because of my experiences with several autistic people. I know autistics that would put the greatest mathematicians of history to shame, who hold down important and complicated jobs, or who are capable of doing anything most people could do, infinitely better, and with a level of precision that would give a German engineer a permanent hard-on.
I'm a fanatical believer in the theory that we, the Human Race, would not live in the world we do if it hadn't been for some autistic dude sitting in the back of a cave, spending hours and days flaking away at a pierce of flint to form the perfect spearhead. I believe that some of the greatest scientific, literary and artistic minds in human history were probably autistic, or at least possessed some of the same qualities that we ascribe to autistic people. Autism does not mean"challenged", nor does it mean"stupid". Anyways, back to our story.
So, The School recently had another of it's fund-raiser evenings -- why a public school, supported by tax dollars, requires an almost-continuous series of fundraising drives is a question that no one can adequately answer for me. It seems that while the City and State of New York see fit to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $14,000 per student per academic year, it does so without buying supplies for the classroom. The money raised, I'm told, often goes to buy the Basics: from art supplies to toilet paper -- and this particular child caused a commotion during the festivities.
This kerfufle caused the parent of another child to remark "I think that kid's retarded" , apparently whispered to another, but still within earshot of the autistic boy's mother. This observation, made by an ignorant clod with no social graces, apparently troubled her to no end because within days there was a PTA meeting where the subject of the word "Retarded" -- and the evil and incorrect applications and connotations connected with it -- became the main subject of intense debate.
Some observations on the 'debate', as it was explained to me;
1. The child in question is NOT retarded, he's autistic. Most people do not make the distinction, or even know the difference. Mother-with-a-Stick-up-Her-Ass wants everyone to know that her son is Autistic and NOT Retarded. In the often-confusing world of politically-correct causes, Autism somehow rates higher than simple Mental Retardation. Angry Mother is offended that someone may have used a word that somehow downgrades her son's condition. Like being Retarded is akin to living in the ghetto to Autism's Gated Community? Autism is to Mercedes what Retarded is to Ford Pinto? By what standard we say that this particular affliction is more worthy or honorable than another is beyond me, and I think my head exploded when I heard this ridiculous 'argument' about a distinction most people are incapable of making without conscious effort.
It all probably has to do with some sort of competition between "Special Needs" childrens' parents for state aid, I'll bet.
2. The word 'retarded' is hurtful, mean-spirited, and damages an already-fragile child's self-esteem, and shouldn't even be used to describe a child who is, you know, actually retarded. Unless, of course, you -- as the parent of a retarded child -- choose to wear your genetic failure as a badge of courage, shout "RETARDED!" at the top of your lungs in order to get to the head of the line at Disneyland, or use your child's affliction to get yourself some charity money, taxpayer funds, special consideration, sympathy, or fake affirmations of your 'courage'. Life, and the vagaries of Genetics, have handed you a veritable Lemon; make Lemonade. Love your child, by all means, but don't expect that others should have to give you a medal or some special accommodation because of his/her condition.
That Society often does so is a matter of courtesy; you don't get to elevate that into a special set of extra-constitutional rights.
3. Henceforth, sayeth the School, the word "retarded" is hereby banned from the vocabulary of all the Inmates..errr...Students...and there will be a 'Zero-Tolerance' policy regarding the use of the word. Penalties are not specifically discussed, but promises are made by the Gods of Education that they will, indeed, be harsh. Just what 'harsh' means in the context of children between the ages of 5 and 10 is an open question. I rather doubt flogging is going to make a comeback, and quite frankly, expulsion would probably do some of the students more benefit than real harm. After all, this is a school which has a janitor with a huge yearly budget, but somehow he's not allowed to spend any of it on cleaning supplies, because parents are constantly being asked to send the children to school with all sorts of anti-bacterial products.
'Zero-Tolerance' policies, mind you, often trip over their own self-defeating logic; if the original argument was over context (as in this case), then the application of the policy must, by it's very nature, also trip all over context. Since no one feels capable, or willing, to make a decision regarding context the easist thing to do is to simply avoid the discussion altogether. One hopes. This is not an enlightened policy: it is an abrogation of responsibility. In the context of educators guiding and shaping young minds, it is a surrender of the intellectual to the emotional, and ultimately serves no one well. This should have served as one of them 'teaching moments' I keep hearing about; why not take the time to instruct the children on the differences between retarded and autistic, stress a little understanding, patience and courtesy, and then tell Mommy-Run-Amok to shut the fuck up and deal, like an adult?
Anyways, I listened to my Sister relate the whole sordid tale, and wanted to reach across the table and strangle the life out of her, because she swallowed the whole 'Zero-Tolerance' nonsense completely, and was determined to enforce it within her own home.
Okay, fine. It's your house and they are your kids, so do what you like, but you have, Dear Sister, missed the Bigger Point (this is, indeed, my Sister's greatest talent, so I'm not entirely surprised). Actually, she's missed a bunch of points.
The first is that a greater mass of people are being punished for the thoughtlessness of another. Some asshole with no class mutters something he shouldn't, and gives offense. In the Old Days when people simply sucked things up and soldiered on -- or just got into a fistfight and solved their problems Mano-a-Mano -- this would have been taken care of immediately, and would not have required a public meeting and a censorship regime.
The Second is that it's kind of ridiculous that one person should be allowed to impose this sort of censorship over hundreds simply because she was offended. How it came to be that we, as a society, began to empower those with often-petty axes to grind is something I often wonder about, and then fervently wish we could reverse with a carefully-planned program of street executions. Unfortunately, there are some people who haven't learned the very simple lesson that Life Sucks, and that on any given day, you will probably be offended at least once, and then there are other people who haven't learned the lesson that once you allow a petty grievance to become a Federal Case -- and then crafted an all-encompassing policy to address that specific grievance -- you've opened the floodgates to all sorts of stupidity.
Today, it's the use of the adjective 'retard' in an offensive context; tomorrow, it'll be wearing a cross or yarmulke to school, wearing certain colors on certain days, a particular item in a bagged lunch, or a student's superior fashion sense which will make someone, somewhere, groan about 'unfairness' and 'offense'.
The simple truth is that the majority of people who inhabit this Blue Marble are dumber than dogshit; addressing their petty concerns in such a sweeping manner only leads to a coarsening and constriction of Life for the rest of us.
The final problem I have with this is that a word, which is perfectly valid and has a meaning outside the context of handicapped children, is being taken away from other children at a point in their educational lives where they are forming the primary abilities they will need to express themselves later in life. They are learning to expand their vocabulary, they are learning the lessons of context and contrast within language. The word 'Retarded', in and of itself, is not offensive; it's an adjective. The only power it has to offend is the power that people choose to give it.
Banning it's use may make Mother-Mind-Everyone-Else's-Business happy, but she has done, I think.a great disservice to the other children in the school. What, for example, would happen if it should turn out that Shakespeare, or perhaps a Great Poet, happened to use the word 'Retarded' in their works? Should we ban Shakespeare? Should we rewrite the entire literature of the Western World so as to remove all the words that are personally offensive to her? What if the word appeared in a scientific treatise? Should we develop a new way to teach sciences with an entirely new and non-offensive terminology?
No sooner did I hear this sorry tale then I went right home and broke out my copy of George Orwell's 1984.
In that tale of Political Correctness run amok, the Protagonist, Winston Smith, is a newspaper reporter (in a sense; what he actually 'reports' is not 'news', but rather Politically Correct lies and a continuous rewriting of history for political puposes) is having a conversation with a colleage who is involved in the recrafting of the English language (called Newspeak in the book).
This collegaue is openly bragging about his work, which is the destruction of words; especially words that have political signifigance. These words must be purged from the lexicon because they can be used to express discontent, to foment counter-revolution, or because they would expose some politically-inconvenient truths that The Party would rather keep hidden or obscured. This colleague postulates that in the future, the English Language will eventually contain but ONE word, and it's meanings and context would be rigidly defined and no other meaning or context could ever be permitted.
The ultimate purpose of the destruction of words was to deprive the people of the ability to communicate with one another, or to express dissent and discontent, as a means of keeping the directing brains of society (The Inner Party, i.e. The Government) in power forever.
Perhaps it is a great leap to make -- from the banning of a word in order to soothe one person's ruffled sensibilities to the loss of ability to express Political Dissent -- but the effect is the same. With each banning of a word, with each narrowing of the scope of thought, with each attack on the individual's right of free expression, we're one step closer to tyranny. Whether it's the tyranny of a panty-bunched school board, a hyper-sensitive Mother, or an overbearing Government, matters not: we're slowly being trained to avoid saying what we feel. When you forbid people from speaking freely -- even inartfully or meanly -- you no longer have the most basic of freedoms.
I can understand why a Mother with a difficult child might be offended by the insensitive comment of a total dipshit; I don't understand why it was that someone gave her the power to remove a word from the vocabulary of hundreds of children -- and though she may not have intended to do this -- given an unelected, and largely unaccountable, school administration the power to limit the way in which people might choose to express themselves.
I also don't understand how it is that my Sister swallowed this dangerous precedent whole without thinking about it's implications. She's not THAT dumb, after all, but perhaps she's just been trained better than I have.
Before I get a flood of e-mail accusing me of being indifferent to the plight of 'challenged' children and harried parents, let me make it clear that I am not without sympathy. Let me also make it clear that your Autistic child's 'limitations' are mostly of your own making, and ultimately speak more about YOU than about HIM. The child in question is a sweet, loving, beautiful little boy -- I know him personally -- and I'm convinced that if you (his Mother) didn't dote on him, and try so hard to 'protect' him, he'd find himself a nice little niche in this society and be far more useful, productive and relevant than a goodly number of so-called 'normal' people.
The first obstacle that you -- as a parent -- have put in his way is to hide the truth from him; that this world is inhabited by thoughtless morons who learned how to whisper in a sawmill, and who have no manners, and now that you've taught him that to get ahead all he has to scream louder and brandish his 'disability' like a club, don't be surprised when he starts doing the same to YOU.
After all, he's not stupid.
I would wager that he's smarter than any ten people you know combined.
I would, however, hope that one day Mommy Dearest might realize what she has done, and how she has behaved, and come to regret it. Unfortunately, when that day comes it'll only be after someone has dictated how she should live her own life in much the same way that she has just dictated that others should live theirs.
Such is human nature.
That's far a more offensive possibility, to me, than someone misapplying the word 'Retard' in a way that you find irritating.
UPDATE: Edited for spelling and grammar. My apologies!