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 defence, 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.