Monday, September 27, 2010

Stop the R word

Here's a little disclaimer / warning about this post before you proceed with reading it. First off, it is about a topic of controversy, and portrays some events that may be upsetting. Secondly, this post is from a much more personal standpoint than the posts on this cite normally are, and it is based primarily on my opinion about this topic and the reasons for that opinion.

I want to share a story that I recently encountered, told to me by someone very close to me who witnessed this happen. It is a story many people will familiarize with.

This person lives in a small town, where he works in a retail store. He happens to have an adult brother with Autism who also has co-existing cognitive delay. He was at work one afternoon when a well-known local came walking in exclaiming:

"You better lock up the store, there's a bunch of retards coming this way!"

He continued to talk in this manner, very loudly, warning the staff to close up shop to prevent these "retards" from coming in. Minutes later, the group of individuals he was referring to came into the store. My friend, the retail sales associate, saw that it was a group of students from the local high school out for a shopping trip as part of their community-based instruction. Many of those students were teenagers he knew from his work with a youth group at a local church.

What was amazing to me was that this one single retail employee in that establishment was the sole person who had seemed to be upset by the comment. Maybe it is because he grew up with a brother with a developmental disability, and so has greater sensitivity, but I would have hoped that a larger slice of society would react negatively to someone actually stating that a store's doors should be closed to a group of citizens because they happen to have disabilities.

Replace the R-word with the N-word in this story, and think it over again. Replace it with "fags" or "queers." Consider the point from that perspective - Anytime you label a group of people in a derogatory manner based on their race, disability, sexual orientation, etc, and actually proclaim that this group of people should be barred from entrance to a public business establishment, that is truly offensive no matter what the identifying "characteristic" (for lack of a better term) of the group is.

The "R-word" has become a term of insult in our society. Through use, derogatory words become part of the vernacular of our everyday language. Our "native language" within our society is developed through use. The vernacular is changing continuously as words are added through their common use. Think of how many times you may have heard the phrase "that's so retarded" or "you're such a retard" in context of something that has nothing to do with actually having an intellectual disability. Such phrases are used to insult someone, by drawing an disparaging comparison to a person who is considered "less than" because of an intellectual disability. This implies that to be "retarded" or "a retard" is something unpleasant, bad, appalling; something to be shunned. Through this use, the "R-word" becomes an insult. It becomes, or has become, a "bad word."

Words really do have power. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" may have been drilled into us as kids, as a mantra to ward off the affects of verbal bullies, but it never seemed to me to have much truth. Words do have power, and words have the ability to hurt. Name calling, derogatory comments, racial remarks, insults, etc can all humiliate a person or cause emotional trauma.

Not only does an insult hurt the person you are insulting, but when the words used are derogatory to a larger group of people, based on their race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, etc, words perpetuate hate. We use the "R-word" to mean something bad, even despicable, and then when we refer to the actual group of people that the word "retarded" was intended to include, it is now associated with hate, with shunning those people from society.

Here's what I think is the best way to explain this:

Words/speech are the first rung of the "ladder of prejudice," leading to a cycle of hate that perpetuates further and further discrimination. In the first phase, or "rung," people in society engage in derogatory speech against a group of people based on their race, disability, religion, etc. As discussed above, through use this hate speech becomes a part of the accepted vernacular of that society. The next step, and natural progression if you really think about the link here, is avoidance. The words we've used have become derogatory; they carry the connotations of something bad or even dirty. So we as a society avoid the people that these words describe. The third rung is more overt discriminatory acts. At this phase, we have as a society developed the accepted behavior of avoiding certain people, so it is natural that society would accept actual segregation. This is the "not in my backyard" phase. Let's just put "those people" somewhere else; institutions, segregated neighborhoods (concentration camps?). The fourth rung is violence, and here we hope it is no longer behavior that is acceptable to the community at large, but yes, society as a whole has a part in this phase. Violence and physical attack may be engaged in by a small minority of people, but it happens because of the "no one cares anyway" attitude. If society has labeled, insulted, shunned, and segregated certain people, who would believe those people to be protected? The final rung, the extreme, is "extermination." And before you jump to exclaiming that would never happen here, in the U.S., consider the broader meaning and applicability. We aren't just talking about genocide (although that certainly is caused by prejudice and discrimination). Consider the practice of sterilization. Historically, here in the U.S., involuntary sterilization of women with intellectual and developmental disabilities was actually considered acceptable at one time, partly in order to prevent such persons from reproducing more disabled persons.

These theories are commonly discussed in Sociology articles, textbooks and classrooms. You can read another explanation of the "Ladder of Prejudice" or the "Cycle of Hate" on the Stop the R-Word Campaign website, or in this excerpt of a Sociology textbook.

So when I heard about the situation I started this post with, the incident my friend witnessed and experienced, I thought back to these concepts from my college Sociology classes and from law school discussions about equal protection. I thought about what we learn from elementary school onward about how segregation, discrimination, etc is not acceptable. We're "taught" that, but we have so far to go before it is reality. This "incident" is a perfect example of the cycle of hate, in my opinion. Here was a person using a derogatory word to try to insult and make fun of persons with disabilities, in order to marginalize them and shun them from society. He even went so far as to assert that the doors of a public establishment should be shut to them. Sounds like all of the first three "rungs" to me - speech, avoidance, segregation. Degrade people, shun them, separate them from society.

At the end of this, I am writing this because I believe that this isn't just about being overly politically correct, or about anyone being overly sensitive. It is about real prejudice and real hate speech that goes on every day in our society. Maybe for people who don't see, as I do, first hand examples of how non-inclusive our world still can be for people with disabilities, it doesn't seem like a big deal. But I think everyday of a little boy I once knew whose father fought everyday for one simple goal that was never realized, which was for the child to be able to go to his neighborhood school. And I know that discrimination, even segregation, still happens.

So I pledge that I will not use the words "retard" or "retarded" to mean "stupid." I will be careful with my words, and I will try to remember to pay attention when other people use these words, and to ask them to stop.

(Note: the original "R-Word Pledge" can be found here. I hope you will take it too.)

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