Language Matters

On Monday, Colleen called me on using the term Nazi for something unrelated to the Third Reich and its horrors and rightly so. I should know better. People like me were the first to be gassed by the Nazis back when they were still doing it with exhaust fumes because it was easy to persuade others that people with disabilities weren’t really human and would contaminate the Aryan race. I should know better because my parents were children during the German occupation of Denmark and I grew up hearing stories about that. Not just from my parents, but also from the annual commemoration of the occupation and liberation, which included documentaries about the camps. Which was the reason Schindler's List didn't affect me the same way it seemed to have affected the rest of North America. I had watched documentaries about the reality and once you've seen those images, they don't leave your mind and dramatizations lose their effectiveness. But my point is not about movies. My point is that manners are about civility and kindness and in making a point about manners, I showed really bad ones.

Language matters. The words we choose to describe concepts and events matter. Using Nazi in the way I used it on Monday trivialized what the Nazis were. Not that I necessarily believe certain words should be rigidly taboo - I think there’s a time and place for using emotionally loaded terms - but in the context of a discussion of family dinners, it was lazy to not take the time to find a better description.

And I find it particularly ironic that I was that lazy (yes, I'll stop the self-flagellation in a moment), because I have my own version of a word that feels like sandpaper on burned skin every time I hear it. The disability movement has worked very hard to create awareness about appropriate terms for disability and dissuade disability-related terms used in derogatory ways in general conversation and for years, I barely heard this word at all. But these days, it's back in fashion and not just among the young - I hear it all the time, even from people my own age. And the word? Retarded. As in stupid, doing something boneheaded, expressing dislike of someone's actions, etc., usually with an inflection of irritation, disgust or amused condescension. And every time I hear that word used in that context, I wince.

I had a debate about it with someone who said that the work could also be used to denote delay, moving slowly and the like and that's true. Except when saying "that's retarded!" with aforementioned inflection, it's pretty clear that most people use it in the other manner. Besides, how often do we use the word retard to describe delay or suggest something is impeded? Not often.

It reminds me of a post I once did in response to Tiger Woods calling himself a spaz and me having a decidedly negative opinion about his choice of words. However, my entire comment box, the majority of whom did not have a disability, thought I was being ridiculous for having issues with the word spaz used in this way. And it's something I've thought about often since, because you know what? I don't care if other people think I am ridiculous or oversensitive, because with words like that, it's not the majority that gets to decide. If that were the case, we'd still be using the N-word, wouldn't we? What matters is that using spaz or retarded or the N-word may be painful to the people who are spazzes, retarded or… I can't even say it, which reflects how effective the civil rights movement has been in changing the way we use language. What matters is whether you would say this word if you were speaking to someone who had Down’s Syndrome or someone who’s the parent of a child with Cerebral Palsy, someone who was Jewish or black. Etc.

And if you wouldn't, then why use it at all? That should be the litmus test, shouldn't it?

Language matters.

p.s. I have a friend who's looking for a knitter to design a fairly simple scarf with two words in braille for a person badly in need of comfort. Possibly knit it, too, but she may have access to knitters already. No payment but copyright to the pattern, permission to tell the story behind it (with the people involved being anonymous, of course), general glory and knowing that you did a good thing. And a framed print as thank you. If you're interested, please e-mail me at landers5ATgmailDOTcom.