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LeBron Using The Word "Retarded" Was A Subnormally Birdbrained Thing To Do
May 9th, 2011

At a training seminar that I once attended, a portion of the afternoon was devoted to a discussion of bad words. In one of the hottest days on record, a dozen of us gathered in a cramped five foot tall training room, sat around an overhead projector and a laptop whose audio output was speculative at best, and then, via the medium of Powerpoint, ran through a list of words that were unacceptable to use in our workplace. None of which was patronising in any way.

Of course, the reason for such a discussion was because of the line of work in question. We were attending said seminar as a mandatory part of our training to become support workers for the learning disabled. Inevitably, in that line of work, training for sensitivity towards the learning disabled is essential. We had to go. (You know, just so that we knew not to call them names. Just in case one of us was going to take the hitherto untested insult-comic approach to the job. Seemingly, companies must plan for that ridiculous eventuality.)

It doesn’t take much guesswork to know that on that day, we learnt – or rather, were reminded – that use of the word “retarded” was not permitted. It wasn’t just not permitted in its more popular, irrelevant use as a generic word for “dumb” – it was also not permitted as a means to term, address or endear those that we would encounter in our work who were actually mentally retarded. The same was true of “demented,” which was not to be used to describe those with dementia, despite its obvious origins from doing so. Even when done with the best of intentions, these words was not to be used under any circumstances. And the reasons they were not to be used were because of their associations with their more commonplace usage as pejorative slang.

LeBron James either didn’t know or didn’t care about that last night, though, when he mumbled coherently and stupidly that a question from a reporter was retarded. He covered his mouth, so that we wouldn’t see him do it, and then said it loud enough so that we would hear him. It was certainly a pretty “dumb” thing to do.

In addressing the incident, and the discourse it has inevitably provoked, Kevin Arnowitz writes the following:

Incidents like the one surrounding LeBron’s use of the word “retarded” generally fall into a rote, unfortunate pattern. A few folks will yell that the PC Police are on the rampage or that the whole thing is a media-generated controversy. Some on the other side will tar James as repugnant for using a word like “retarded” as an insult.

And it’s true. That’s happening. The PC police are on the rampage, and a counter-movement (that could perhaps loosely by termed the “Oh Shut Up” movement) have taken to arms as well. It was predictable, hence why it was predicted, and it’s not wrong. Both parties have a right and a point.

Ultimately, though, it will lead nowhere.

If we kick up sufficient of a stink, maybe using the word “retarded” as a synonym for “stupid” will no longer be considered an acceptable part of day-to-day vernacular. I don’t think anyone other than the most unnecessarily pedantic freedom of speech-types will lament that move. But if that were to be the case, another word will be used. Just as “gay” has become a synonym for “bad”, “retarded” has long since been used to mean “stupid.” It is done so without reference to those which it would otherwise reference if used in its initial context. It is no defense, of course, but it is what it is. This is what language does. It changes to suit times and trends, and this is no more true than when dealing with adolescent terminology. This is why “bad” now means “good”, particularly if you follow it with “ass.” We all know that to be true, and LeBron’s public Prince Philiping brings to the fore something that happens all the damn time. It just does.

Uproar doesn’t make the problem go away, or reverse that change. Uproar serves only to make the problem further evolve. For this reason, it must not become that big of a deal. When the new words are developed, more half-baked scandals such as this will develop too, and more stiflingly sneering sensitivity training seminars will be run to ensure we don’t run into the professional pitfalls that we so rarely encounter as amateurs. Rinse and repeat, repeat to fade, etc.

Hypocrisy of the creation of this post notwithstanding, too many words and too many column inches have been, and will be, devoted to the subject of an immature young man using a word that immature young people use. The views of both the PC Police and the Oh Shut Up movement are both largely correct and unfortunately inexhaustible.

LeBron James said a stupid thing in a childish way at a crazily bad moment because he doesn’t have much concept of basic human interaction. Given enough backlash, he probably won’t do it again. But someone will. And when that happens, we’ll do it all again.

A summary of this entire subject can be found here.

Posted by at 9:01 PM

4 Comments about LeBron Using The Word "Retarded" Was A Subnormally Birdbrained Thing To Do

  1. jirimania9 May, 2011, 9:45 pm

    I agree. Not because I don't think the word can be hurtful. But because it seems as if nothing is to be gained or lost by chastising lebron. He is guilty of a lack of tact, rather than being a bigot. Punishing him through any convential sanctions would be ridiculous. Just as it was with kobe. I consider myself part of the "oh shut up movement" I guess.

    While atheletes can be role models, it should not be a blind following. This should be an opening and opportunity for those otherwise awkward parents out there to open a dialouge with their children. Not about specific certain words, but about the power of words. It should not be "see jimmy, lebron got put in a timeout and the same will happen to you". It should be a reflective exercise. Kobe bryant said he learned more from reading about the pain and suffering of those gay individuals that were crucified (for lack of a better term) out of ignorance and misplaced hate. Let's not perpetuate a world of ignorance by blindly punishing lebron, but encourage future generations to be thoughtful, so whether they grow up wanting to be atheletes, doctors, astronauts, or police officers, they can appreciate their impact on the people and world around them. – @reardonw

  2. 0c925542-7aa4-11e0-bef5-000f2098044010 May, 2011, 1:23 am

    As someone with a developmentally disabled brother, I hate the word "retarded" being thrown about by people as if it just means "stupid". But I just accept, albeit reluctantly, that some people are immature and don't understand the hurt that a word can cause. It's not so much of a "PC police" situation because I'm not a politically correct person by nature and I still find the term offensive in its use. LeBron has not, I would imagine, had much experience with those with mental disabilities and probably didn't think anything of it. I agree with jurimania in that he's not a bigot for saying this, but honestly, I am ok with him being told how hurtful it can be to use a word that is insulting to people who are unable to fight back.

  3. ppk10 May, 2011, 10:38 pm

    Mr. Sham,

    Any idea why the word 'dumb', which you yourself use pretty matter of factly, has never made it into the not-to-be-spoken lexicon? Its primary definition is 'lacking the human power of speech', yet we aren't discouraged from using it in a generically negative manner out of sensitivity to the mute.

    Did the instructors in your retardation seminars ever discourage you from saying 'dumb'?

  4. Mark Deeks (Sham)10 May, 2011, 10:44 pm

    They did not.

    I think "dumb" is that rare beast where the once alternate pejorative meaning has become so prevalent, it has supplanted the original medical vernacular definition. Dumb certainly does mean one that can't talk, and most people probably know that, but no one THINKS that. Dumb means stupid now more than it means someone who can't talk. Whereas retarded still primarily means those with mental retardation, and its use as a pejorative is thus explicitly obvious, unlike with dumb.

    Maybe with more incidents like this, retarded will do a dumb and jump the insult shark. As we've seen, these things happeb.

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