Some time ago, in my Theory of Rhetoric graduate class, I left very upset over an argument that ensued over the use of the word “retarded.” It was brought up in one of my classmates’ weekly written responses inspired by Rahm Emanuel’s comments this past February. One of my other classmates actually said, upon hearing all of this: “You know, I was reading all of this stuff in the news, and the only thing I could think was: ‘How retarded is this?!’” And all I could think or say was: “How insensitive can you be?” Then, the typical arguments that people use when defending their right to use ableist language ensued. (For a rundown of those arguments and excellent responses to them, read this post.) I, of course, stood up for what I believe, which is that the use of the word “retarded” in this way is wrong, but it wasn’t enough, and the argument was cut short in the interests of time.
So, for the next week, I wrote my required written response on just this, and I mean it to serve as an argument against the use of the word “retarded” to mean undesirable or useless. What follows is my response, meant to use the readings from that week to support my position and extend my argument.
I’ve been looking for a way to write about our discussion at the end of last week’s class about the word “retarded” for an entire week now, but haven’t found the words. I think after reading I.A. Richards, I have a clearer sense of the argument that was posed.
Richards spoke quite a bit of words and their meanings in this reading. It was stated in the readings that “Much of Richards’s perspective on rhetoric is concerned with how words come to mean what they do. Richards sees meanings of words as central to a theory of rhetoric not only because they are essential components in the function of language but also because of the ways in which meanings serve the users of words” (Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric 24). In fact, he seemed to think that words and their meanings were at the root of rhetoric and his problems with it. He especially rejects the notion of several classical rhetoricians that there is one correct word with one correct meaning that is to be used for a given situation. In his lecture on “The Philosophy of Rhetoric,” he states:
Most words, as they pass from context to context, change their meanings; and in many different ways. It is their duty and their service to us to do so… We are extraordinarily skilful in some fields with these shifts of sense – especially when they are of the kind we recognize officially as metaphor. But our skill fails; it is patchy and fluctuant; and, when it fails, misunderstanding of others and of ourselves comes in. (Readings in Contemporary Rhetoric 5)
In other words, he argues that if we didn’t allow words to change their meaning if their contexts have changed, we would be doing language a disservice and allowing for more misunderstandings. Therefore, from this quote, it might be said that Richards would defend the use of the word “retarded” with a meaning of unappealing or useless or undesirable because, over time, that is what this word has come to mean. This is the root of the problem with the word “retarded.” There is a faction of people who want to allow for the meaning of the word to change from a name for a disability to another word for unappealing/useless/undesirable and there is a faction of people who say that this use of the word is offensive because people with this disability are not unappealing/useless/undesirable, and using this word in this way has negative implications toward people with this disability.
However, this argument only works if you can argue that the context surrounding the word has changed. Richards also says: “Some words and sentences still more, do seem to mean what they mean absolutely and unconditionally. This is because the conditions governing their meanings are so constant that we can disregard them” (Readings in Contemporary Rhetoric 4). The most important question, then, is this: Has the context around the word “retarded” changed enough to allow for a change of meaning? I would argue no; the only reason the word “retarded” came to mean unappealing/useless/undesirable in the first place was because people with this disability were seen as unappealing/useless/undesirable, and the word was then used to describe anything that was unappealing/useless/undesirable. The word is now widely used incorrectly in this way, and correctly used not only in a medical and educational context, but people and families do still choose to use the word when it applies to them. The context has not changed, just the usage of the word, and the context surrounding the word does not change just because it is widely used in the wrong way. Therefore, I believe Richards would argue that our contemporary use of the word “retarded” to mean unappealing/useless/undesirable is not correct. Rather, the contemporary use of the word “retarded” is in and of itself a misunderstanding; it has been used to denote an incorrect meaning for so long that people have been led to believe that the context surrounding it has changed, but that’s not how it works for Richards, or for the world as a whole. The context must change before the meaning can, not the other way around.
For more on the topic of ableist language, please refer to this excellent blog post written for a blog about disability: http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/11/23/o-language-again/
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. “I.A. Richards.” Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2002. 19-49.
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp. “The Philosophy of Rhetoric: Lecture I.” Readings in Contemporary Rhetoric. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2002. 1-9.
Special thanks to meloukhia for help on this post!