The R-Word, Intended Meaning, and Social Impacts
Good intentions don't neutralize slurs.
Claims of over-sensitivity and excessive PC culture have been prevalent in recent years, especially in defense of the use of inflammatory or derogatory language. The term retard (hereafter referred to as the r-word) is a good example of this. In addition to claiming naysayers are too sensitive, people will also try to argue that the r-word isn’t really a slur, or that they don’t mean it “like that” and so it’s okay for them to use it.
But these arguments oversimplify the issue, or else entirely miss the point. It can be hard to explain why, exactly, the r-word and others like it are still considered slurs and are harmful, especially if you’re explaining on-the-spot and off-the-cuff. I’m going to do my best to break it down here so that in the future I (and hopefully you) have something to point to when trying to explain these issues.
Intended Meaning vs. Source of Meaning
There are people who use the r-word without intention of it being a slur against the intellectually disabled. The argument I’ve heard is that it instead means ridiculous, stupid, or ridiculously stupid.
Intended meaning has to draw its roots from somewhere, though, and in this case the word is still drawing on its history as a slur. The r-word was historically a medical term to describe intellectually disabled people, though it spread outside the field of medicine to be used as an insult synonymous with idiot. So even when you use the word without the intention of targeting an intellectually disabled person, you’re still calling on ideas that intellectually disabled people are ridiculous, stupid, or ridiculously stupid to give the r-word meaning. (Mauro 2019)
Intended Meaning vs. Understood Meaning
What you intend to say is not always going to be what others hear. That’s one of the flaws of language and human communication, so it can’t be avoided entirely. But that doesn’t mean you should disregard this potential confusion entirely.
For example, most people know the word bicker and understand that it means argue, but that’s not the word’s only meaning. However, if I say someone bickered away from a fight or bickered in fear, it’s unlikely that the average person would recognize those instances as synonyms for sprinting or quivering, respectively. (Settle 2009)
While a misunderstanding over the meaning of a word like “bicker” probably won’t be a big deal, miscommunication matters with the r-word. People are more likely to hear the slur than understand it as anything else. So regardless of what you intend the word to mean, there is a high chance that everyone around you will still believe you’re demeaning intellectual disabilities.
Intended Meaning vs. Microaggressions
Perhaps the bigger concern in all of this is what happens when someone hears a slur being used comfortably and casually. If someone who is genuinely prejudiced against intellectual disabilities hears it, it could subconsciously be read as support and reinforcement of their views, which can in turn lead to more hostile behaviour. Conversely, if an intellectually disabled person hears this language, they will likely feel shunned and unwelcome at best, or potentially in danger at worst.
The Continued Prevalence of Prejudice
We can’t have this conversation without acknowledging how prevalent prejudice against intellectually disabled people remains today. In a study reviewing nearly 50 million social media posts about people with intellectual disabilities, it was found that “over two-thirds of posts were negative and nearly 29 million contain slurs (i.e., using the R-word or other words combined with “-tard”).” (Special Olympics) Moreover, verbal assault and hate crimes against disabled people, including intellectually disabled people, is still a very real problem. In fact, between 2018 and 2019, there was a 22% increase in disability hate crimes. (Reeves 2019)
Even if someone uses the r-word in a manner that’s intended to be non-derogatory, even if they’re just using it as a descriptor or a superlative, that usage doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t get to decide that a word’s historical meaning has died when there are still far too many people using it in those contexts, and we don’t get to decide that the communities it affects are no longer hurt by it. Most importantly, we need to take ownership of the fact that continued use of language like the r-word only helps perpetuate the hate and abuse intellectually disabled people are still struggling against.
Mauro, Terri. 2019. ‘Why Use of the R-Word Needs to Stop.’ Very Well Family. Retrieved January 3, 2020 (https://www.verywellfamily.com/what-is-the-r-word-3105651).
Reeves, Joshua. 2019. ‘Hate Crimes Against Disabled People Are Growing and Abusers Are Getting Away With It.’ Metro. Retrieved January 3, 2020 (https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/10/hate-crimes-against-disabled-people-are-growing-and-abusers-are-getting-away-with-it-10890615/).
Settle, David. 2009. ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ The Word Maven. Retrieved January 3, 2020 (https://thewordmaven.wordpress.com/category/uncommon-definitions-of-common-words/).
Special Olympics. ‘The “R”-Word Remains Prevalent Across Social Media.” Retrieved January 3, 2020 (https://www.specialolympics.org/discriminatory-language-about-people-with-intellectual-disabilities-particularly-the-r-word-remains-prevalent-across-social-media).