Monday, January 4, 2010

Mental Health Mondays- The Power of Words Pt 1: "Retard"

"That's fucking retarded."
"Are you demented?"
"Are you a retard?"
"What's wrong with you? Are you crazy?"
"You know, those two girls, what were their names? The gimpy ones?"
"Let's get retardedly drunk!"
"Where's your psychotic girlfriend?"

The Power of Words Part. 1: "Retard"

Hey Athenites,

Both this blog and my next blog will be about the appropriation of words concerning what I would describe as debilitating mental states. I used this term to signify phenomenon affecting the mind that might compromise an individual's ability to interact with themselves and their world. This means mental illness as well as physical and mental disabilities.

As someone who has friends and family members affected by learning disabilities, and mental illness, any rhetoric surrounding these issues affects me personally. Slang words that are disparaging to people with either mental or physical disabilities have creeped their way into our daily speech, and seem to be doing this without much resistance. Many people are vaguely aware that incorporating words like "gimp" and "retard" into casual conversation has a stigma surrounding it, but as there are no clear lines about this, it's mostly up to the individual to decided whether or not to appropriate* these words, and to what degree it will be done.

*Side Note- The Word "Appropriate": In this case, I am using the word to describe adapting something for one's own, usually without permission. This has been done artistically, culturally, politically, socially, and personally. However, the word "Appropriate" has another meaning: that which is suitable, that which belongs to someone. The word is therefore its own antithesis in a way, and can describe both an ownership and a removal of ownership.

But is this appropriation even a decision anymore? Chart-topping artists The Black Eyed Peas used the word "retarded" in Let's Get Retarded to describe getting drunk. After public backlash, they changed the title of the song to Let's Get It Started. Although the word "retard" is defined as "a slowing down or impeding," and also means being late in French, it has been appropriated in two ways: one as a disparaging way to refer to someone who is mentally disabled, and another to refer to someone who is socially inept. In the latter case the word can be used in a casual context; however, when it is thrown around it becomes even more disparaging to those with a mental disability as well as their families, who have to cope with constant challenges and barriers. As someone who believes that those in position of influence should think critically about what they say, as they have great power, I was disappointed.

This being said, the Black Eyed Peas are not the only ones to use the word "retarded" casually. Who hasn't heard a friend, classmate, family member or co-worker toss one out to express what they see or qualify an emotion? Here I am stuck between being a wet blanket who ruins the fun by challenging the usage of a word, or passively accepting what is being said even though I don't agree with it. This is a very delicate matter; I know that I can't fight every battle (nor do I want to) but I still desire to speak up for what I believe in. The closest I've come to a conclusion on this front is to let the word slide in contexts where I don't know someone very well, or in large groups, but to bring it up with my friends and people I see frequently in private. I'm open to suggestions, though!

Love and respect,


"Retard" defined by

Black Eyed Peas controversy


  1. I agree; it's hard to know whether to call people out on their word usage or to roll with it, for fear of being the "stick in the mud." Same goes for "that's so gay." Some people argue that the words "retarded" and "gay" have just changed meaning now, and can be used because they don't really refer to people with mental disabilities or homosexuals. That sounds like a lazy way out, though, a refusal to really interrogate privilege and find out why these words are damaging. Like you said, those in power have a responsibility to be more aware of the way their words/actions affect others.

  2. I'm the mom of a child with an Intellectual Disability. Even if it's difficult for me I always speak up when I hear the word retard. If I hear someone say it on tv or in a film I write to the writer or actor. I think it's important to be heard. Most people just use the word retard without thinking about who it hurts. It's important to speak up even if you offend the offender. People need to be taught about the word and the only way is by speaking up. I always politely say that I didn't realize until I had my child how demeaning the word retard really is. Most people get it right away.
    Thanks for writing about this.

  3. Thanks for your comment, V. I can't believe that I completely skimmed over the word "gay!" Maybe I'll have to do an entry on that one as well.