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Defending the word 'retard' is not heroic

The media is least attractive when it offers the pretense of fairness to cover a desire for self-serving controversy. “Tonight, the issue is cannibalism. Taking the pro-cannibalism side is Dr. Littleknown Academic, professor of cultural and culinary studies at Unjustifiably Prominent University….” As G.K. Chesterton said, some viewpoints are not just minorities but monstrosities. Giving them equal time accords a legitimacy they entirely lack.

In this spirit, Professor Christopher Fairman of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University takes to The Post today to defend the word “retard” against taboo, censorship and other forms of social repression. He argues that the r-word must be rescued from the terrible fate of the f-word. Even the n-word has “varied and evolving uses.”

There are many intentionally offensive elements of this case. But the most disturbing is a dismissive attitude toward the struggles of the disabled. The comparison between the r-word and the n-word, according to Fairman, is “overblown.” “’Retard,’ however harsh, pales in comparison.”

I’d recommend that Fairman and others who hold this view take a look at War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edwin Black -- one of the most disturbing books about America ever written. It recounts efforts by distinguished scientists, academics, industrialists, health officials and jurists through much of the 20th century to “direct human evolution” by waging war against people with developmental and physical disabilities.

Black points out that early last century, the American Breeders Association -- supported by generous grants from Andrew Carnegie -- created a committee to study “the best practical means for cutting off the defective germ-plasm of the American population.” The panel included doctors, economists and attorneys from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago.

Black continues: “During a number of subsequent conferences, they carefully debated the ‘problem of cutting off the supply of defectives,’ and systemically plotted a bold campaign of ‘purging the blood of the American people of the handicapping and deteriorating influences of these anti-social classes.’ Ten groups were eventually identified as ‘socially unfit’ and targeted for ‘elimination.’” Among those groups, according to Black, were the “feebleminded,” epileptics, the “insane,” the “deformed” and the “deaf.”

Eugenic sterilizations did not end in the United States until the 1970s, endorsed by a decision of the Supreme Court. Citizens with Down syndrome and other genetic challenges are increasingly rare in America, because of prenatal testing and abortion. And as such genetic perfection is pursued, those who lack it are subjected to increased prejudice.

Given this history, the r-word does not seem so innocuous. And defending it does not seem so heroic. Fairman can have his cherished f-word, which merely soils and trivializes the sex act. But defending the r-word is not the protection of free expression; it is the defense of bullies.

There is a long tradition of religious and moral reflection on the words we choose to speak. According to the Hebrew scriptures, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Jesus of Nazareth argued, “It is not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”

There is not an exact correlation between vileness of speech and vileness of character, but there is a rough correlation. Words such as the r-word and the n-word often reveal aggression, contempt and hatred. They are a form of verbal violence. In these cases, what Fairman calls “self-censorship” is really kindness and moral judgment. And what he regards as free expression is just rude, abusive and cruel.

Yes, the meanings of words change over time. Epithets gain and lose currency. Which means that standards of morality, respect and tact must be constantly reapplied in new circumstances -- not that standards should be abandoned entirely.

Yes, government involvement in the censorship of words is dangerous. But what the Special Olympics is proposing – encouraging people to take a personal pledge against the derogatory use of the r-word – is not government censorship, it is social stigma. In this case, such stigma is a sign of moral maturity.

I have signed the pledge at I hope you do as well.

By Michael Gerson  | February 14, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
Categories:  Gerson  | Tags:  Michael Gerson  
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What a retard.

Posted by: merelymyopinion | February 14, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: askgees | February 14, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

It's a long way, Mr. Gerson, from defending the use of a word to eugenics. And your diatribe against "elitists" from academia is pure populism. You, too, have an education (I presume), so get off that particular bandwagon,

A word, in and of itself, holds deratory meaning only to the degree that the intent behind the use of the word is one of derision. To deny the validity of a word is ridiculous -- what needs to be addressed is the attitude of those who use the word in a pejorative sense. And good luck in trying to change the hearts and mind of those who would use "retard" as an epitaph rather than as a medical designation.

Actually, Mr. Gerson, I would blame you and those of your ilk who try to convince the rest of us that your judgment is superior than that of other. In your quest for Christian perfectionism, you forget that the Christ who taught you to love your neighbor also said not to judge your neighbor. You, sir, do much of the latter and to little of the former.

Posted by: marmac5 | February 14, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I believe you miss one of the main points of Fairman's article. It is not the use of "retarded" which is obscene, it is the meaning behind it. People who believe in eugenics will not cease simply because they are deprived of a single word of expression. The goal of a just society is to bring bigotry and hatred to light and extinguish them, not drive them underground by creating false mores about words. The words are not the problem... humans are. Let's change ourselves, and worry about the words later.

Posted by: denial1 | February 14, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

A couple of days ago Gerson defended the torture of people who "may" be terrorists. Now he gets all bent out of shape about the use of a word. I hope Fred Hiatt is happy about what he has done to the Post.

Posted by: oldabandonedbeachhouse | February 14, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Typical hypocrisy from Gerson. How long has Limbaugh been using this word?? And yet none of you rightwingers made a peep about it until Emanuel used it - ironically against the left, so it's doubly comical to watch you twist and spin this.

No, I don't use the word and I don't think it should ever be used. I find it offensive but unlike you hypocrites on the right, I find it offensive no matter who uses it. I think Emanual is a nasty thug but nobody on the right has the guts to make the slightest criticism of Limbaugh for anything, because you are all hypocritical cowards.

So spare me your outrage. It's nothing but sheer hypocrisy. You don't care if people die because they can't get health insurance and you expect me to believe you care if these same people are called retards?



Posted by: solsticebelle | February 14, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

This snarky commentary would indicate the term "elite" when used in describing an educated man should be banned as a perjorative that is hurtful. For some time now the less educated and erudite people have been writing commentaries and often use this term. We should consider a citizens movement to ban "elite" .Surely some euphemism can be found.

Posted by: sauerkraut | February 14, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I agree that "retard" as a noun is nasty and mean-spirited. But not "retarded". The latter is a valid adjective for slow or behind schedule or not as smart as others. And guess which one Rush used repeatedly? And which one did Rahm use?

Also, Palin thinks "libtard" is funny, not obscene.

With Palin, it's all about phony outrage to score political points. Bonus points if you can get mileage out of your own children.

Posted by: hitpoints | February 14, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Word banning, like book banning, is doubleplusungood.

Posted by: tiger_caddy_31 | February 14, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

This is similar to the ever-changing words that are commonly used to describe people of color. Every one of them at the time (with a few mean-spirited exceptions) were at one time considered polite, but then as time went by, the "correct" word changes.

This is no different.

If you think about it, no matter what you call people with lower intelligence it will be derogatory, since that is a primary factor in judging humans. You can't get around that.

Thus, any word that is used to indicate lower intelligence is going to be insulting. You can't get around that. Change the word, it will mean the same thing.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 14, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The use of "retard" as a noun is very offensive and goes in synch with racial and ethnic slurs.

The medical and social service professions should be more then happy to expunge "retard" from the texts and never use it to describe a person who has less than usual mental capabilities.

An argument that insists that a "ban" on the use of "retard" constitutes governmental censorship to free speech is overstating the issue, attempting to feed off emotional pretexts that we need to be able to say anything, anywhere and anytime we please. We do not, atleast in a civilised society. Common sense dictates we respect the feelings of others and "retard" will always carry a nasty connotation and have a negative impact.

Personal freedom hinges on our ability to exercise self-restraint and have inhibitions. Inhibition enables us to suppress our worst impulses. It's simple civility. "Retard" has no place in our vocabulary.

Posted by: misterbumbles | February 14, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I respectfully disagree. This is not about eugenics, not even close. This is about stopping yet another form of social thuggery in the name of civility. It's about stopping the power-hungry from demonizing an innocent's innocuous reference to someone with Down syndrome as being "retarded," which is an accurate reference. If the meaning of this word changes to something wicked, it is because the arrogant but ignorant political elite feel the need to crusade against something, anything. Enough.

Yet I do not write in concurrence with the cowards on this board who call you names simply because of your party affiliation. Those people are simply cowards.

Posted by: HookInMouth | February 14, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"and never use it to describe a person who has less than usual mental capabilities."

Bingo!--that's NOT meaning of "retard."

"Retard" is reserved specifically for a person with usual mental capabilities acting like an idiot. But sometimes "idiot" just won't suffice. Like in Michael Gerson's case.

Posted by: merelymyopinion | February 14, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Unless you know both the context AND the speaker's actual intent, it's ridiculous to assume that they mean to disparage another person with the use of a word or a phrase. This is why any movement that seeks to ban specific words is irrational and without foundation.

While I would never speak hurtful words to or about anyone for things they cannot change (e.g. skin color, IQ), I have no problem calling someone a name (e.g. moron, a**hat, etc.) when they say or do something egregious that they should not have said or done. In the first instance it would be a personal attack. In the second instance, it is calling someone out for their bad behavior.

We have entirely too much PC muzzling of free speech our increasingly thin-skinned society. And then we have the double standard of who is and who is not allowed to say certain words. Just look at who uses the "N" word. It's part of their "jive talk" and they mean no harm. But if someone not of their ethnicity uses it, it takes on a completely different meaning and is labeled offensive, as it should be.

There's simply no pleasing everybody when it comes to language and usage. Some people even want to rewrite history and ban books like Huckleberry Finn because it contains a specific word that was accepted in its time but is abhorrent in today's world.

I just think we all need to lighten up a bit...

Have a nice day!

Posted by: potomacfever00 | February 14, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

It would be interesting to see the Gerson's response to some of these comments, in particular the one by ombudsman1. By the way, has he been this sensitive on all issues involving "political correctness"?

Posted by: rdm539 | February 14, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I find Gerson's views of the world retarded. He and his ilk need to step into the 21st century.

Posted by: HillRat | February 14, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

An utterly reflexive and brainless piece of self-righteous moralizing by someone with better intelligence than that. The Fairman piece was insightful and thought-provoking (as opposed to offensive) for anyone not already Palinized. But then, this must be one of those pieces where Gerson feels compelled to strengthen his street cred with the rabid conservatives. If this is the best Gerson is going to do, then the already ridiculously low standards for the Op Ed section at the Post drop even lower. God save us from the reflexive, self-serving, and hypocritical of the world!

Posted by: lloydamy | February 14, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Gerson is a partisan, opportunistic robot. My guess is he thought little to nothing about the word 'retarded' before Rahm Emanuel uttered the term. Why are political hacks like Gerson and Sarah Palin always so boring and obvious?

Posted by: smc91 | February 14, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

No Gerson, the D word is a vile word.
D as in Debt.
You know, the $9 trillion Debt Reagan, Bush, and Bush ran up for the sole purpose of giving tax cuts to the rich (that would be themselves).
Babbling on about politically correctness of the R word to be politically divisive is another form of your ignorance.

Posted by: chucky-el | February 14, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I work with persons who have developmental disablities and from my experience they are hurt when others use the r word. For all the criticism for being politicially correct, my comment is something that has been around a long time, it came from my grandmother: if something is going to be hurtful to someone else, don't say it.
The over all impression of some people is that people who have developmental disablities don't understand when someone uses the word retard or retarded. It is my experience that they are very sensitive to what is being said around them because they are very aware that they are some how precieved as different.
So, academics can play thier games of theory all day long, bottom line, there is no defense of this word.
We do have free speech in this country, people say things that offend me all the time. I also have free speech and when you pick on people that have already been margainalized by society I will speak up and call you a bully. No one has asked the government to step in and make the word illegal, Special Olympics have asked people to stop using it because that it the right thing to do.
Go on and be rude and be a bully all you want, but know that thoughtful people: liberal/conservative; educated/uneducated; etc. will think less of you as a person.
I hope we are teaching our children to be caring and civilized. They are watching.

Posted by: tlusk58 | February 14, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Many websites block the use of the word "retard" as contrary to community standards. I used the word as a verb, meaning to "hold back" as in "these policies can only retard progress..." in a comment respecting a WSJ article recently and my comment kept getting bounced as contrary to community norms of conduct. It took me about ten minutes to figure out what was wrong with my otherwise benign communication.

Posted by: hunsky | February 14, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

We don't live in Lake Woebegon. Everybody can't be above average. Any word used to refer to people below the mean will get turned into an epithet. Therefore we must keep the word we have, retarded, which seems kind of benign or invent another, which will again get turned into an epithet over time, calling on another word generation.

Alas, we cannot wave a wand and eliminate all mental disability so when we talk about people with such disabilities and their social problems, we require a word. Retarded seems to be about as good as it gets.

Posted by: edbyronadams | February 14, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

"Defending the word 'retard' is not heroic" - nor, apparently, is defending freedom.

Posted by: whizkidz1 | February 14, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Bravo tlusk58! That was the fairest comment in this discussion. There is simply no defense for using words that insult the weak and mostly defenseless population of mentally disabled people.

The epithet means dumb or acting dumb like a mentally disabled person. It goes unnecessarily out of its way to be offensive to mentally disabled people when the English language has so many rich words for being dumb or stupid that do not have to single out this population. I guess we need a word for dumb or acting dumb like a mean, insulting person who has a limited vocabulary.

Posted by: poncedeleroy | February 14, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Both Mr. Gerson and Mr. Fairbank miss the point, although I think that they are both aware of this.

The aim is not to ban the word "retard" from all public use. Rather, it is an attempt to stop using it as an insult.

Mental Retardation is a valid diagnosis. These people cannot all be lumped into one diagnosis. For example, all people with Downs Syndrome are mentally retarded. However, many mentally retarded people don't suffer from Downs.

And Fairbank's attempt to compare this to the use of the "N" word is off target. There is NO acceptable use of the "N" word, it is vile and vulgar at it's core.

The issue is taking a word such as "retarded" and bastardizing it into meaning something vile and vulgar.

Tim Shriver often corrects people who use "retard" as derogatory simply by saying, "Please don't call so and so retarded, it's not fair to the retarded people."

Rham Emmanuel was wrong, he has been vulgar in many situations. It is time he get's held to a higher standard.

Posted by: jimbo561 | February 14, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

A word's meaning is indeed defined by the intent of the speaker. And times do change.

For example, it used to be high praise to refer to someone as a "journalist."

Posted by: qoph | February 14, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

This is stupid. Sure, if I call you a retard, that's bad (and childish). But if I charge that Sarah Palin is intellectually retarded -- for the simple reason that when faced with facts that are contrary to her statements and beliefs, she continues to state those views as if they are correct -- well, that might not sound pretty to you, but it's fair (and accurate).

Posted by: wkristol | February 14, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

While Mr. Fairman's article shows an invitation to comment, for some reason, it won't allow comments.
Does that make me computer-"retarded"?
Rather than rail against the use of a word, I wish Mr. Gerson could bring himself to realize that there is in our country a distinct discrimination against people with mental disabilities, including insurance coverage for treatment and defunding our state schools, where many can find refuge, when their families cannot care for them.
Something tells me Mr. Gerson, with his "compassionate conservatism" is secretly waging a war against protection of those with mental disabilities to protect his precious investment income.
The same is true for ethnic slurs.
Adult, mature people not only don't use those slurs, they rise above that low level in their thinking.
Considering the level of discourse today, I recognize I'm not saying much about the maturity of our populace.
Just consider the Tea partiers and their signs.
We have a lot more to worry about -- falsely and unfairly labeling people -- than we do about the use of one word.
The truth hurts.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | February 14, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Rich - Gerson, former propaganda minister of a party with Rush Limbaugh as it's current leader and whose lemmings think anti-discrimination is godless socialism.

Posted by: coloradodog | February 14, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

As a person who grew up in the South during the 50's and 60's and is now the parent of a person with intellectual disabilities, and a teacher of students with ID, I understand the power of words to dehumanize others. The N-word was used to insinuate that African Americans were less than human. The use of the word "retard" and its variations implies that people with ID are less than human. Ditto the use of the word "gay" as a derogatory term. Any term used in a derogatory manner dehumanizes the target population and is an attempt to justify desparate treatment of a population based upon supposed deficiencies.

All God's critters got a place on the wire...

Posted by: MargaretDaigle | February 14, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Get a life are the worst conspiracy theorist..its not even entertaining

Posted by: reddy531 | February 14, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Michael, if you really were a man of principle, the name "Rush Limbaugh" would appear somewhere in this article.

Posted by: fmjk | February 14, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

This article hijacks the retarded/retard controversy to argue for Gerson's propagationist beliefs. He stretches the debate over these words to equate abortion with eugenics. So, it is wrong to call your enemies retarded, but OK to imply that those who do so are not just rude, but closet eugenicists.


Posted by: ARLinsay | February 14, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

The word has no place in medical or other textbooks, journals, or other professional writings.

It's inappropriate and thoughtless to use it to offend others, just as an upset customer loudly using the "f" word at Walmart would offend most people.

Freedom to say what we want, doesn't mean having to ignore the feelings and sensibilities of others. Our society has become just plain nasty.

Posted by: misterbumbles | February 14, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Fairman's point was that there is something absurd about the way words such as "retarded" progress through an inevitable cycle of being mainstream/"correct" ways to refer to something, to being used as insults by children, to taking on a broader negative meaning, so that they eventually become unacceptable and a new word has to be found and sworn into office as the polite way to say whatever it is, until that becomes an insult too. When the phenomenon is having a mental handicap, it's probably just inevitable that people are going to use whatever word it is to insult non-handicapped people they think are being stupid. Rather than setting up trendy websites and "campaigns" to stamp out whatever the non-PC word of the week is, resources are probably better devoted to substantively helping the group in question.

It kind of reminds me of how middle to upper class white southerners (and I am one, so I know of what I speak) traditionally expressed extreme disdain for the "n-word," because it was something associated with lower class white trash. That didn't mean my grandparents had any more enlightened racial attitudes about actual black people.

Posted by: jlp858 | February 14, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

It's not the word. If you change the word to something else, then 20 years from now, you'll want to change that word.

Posted by: observator1000 | February 14, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

"Retard" is a vile word?
So is republican - I think we should ban them both.

Posted by: jeffc6578 | February 14, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

So libtard, Nazi, accusing the President of wanting to kill poor children, and other words are fine if used by conservatives, and retarded is bad if used by Democrats but not by Republicans.

Have I got that right?

Posted by: Hillman1 | February 14, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm with Gerson on this. No peaceful democratic society is possible without habits of mind that include a decent respect for the feelings of others.

What's at issue here is not a government effort to restrict what people can say but a private effort to encourage people to voluntarily be more considerate of the feelings of others.

It's not even a campaign against insulting people you intend to insult (which would be a fine enough campaign in its own right). It's a campaign against using a particular term as a form of insult because that use has the side effect of hurting people the speaker had no direct intention of hurting - people who through no fault of their own face disadvantages the speaker doesn't.

We Americans have sharp enough elbows as it is without vilifying voluntary efforts to encourage basic human decency.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 14, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

It appears to me that Mr. Gerson did not read Professor Fairman's article very closely. That article had some very interesting historical remarks, for example on the benign origins of the phrase "mentally retarded." It pointed out some subtleties in our use of offensive language that need to be considered when applying political correctness. It was a pleasure to read, and was thought-provoking.
Gerson, on the other hand, contributed nothing. But that's pretty much par for his course.

Posted by: bertram2 | February 14, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

"It's not the word. If you change the word to something else, then 20 years from now, you'll want to change that word."

Posted by: observator1000 | February 14, 2010 4:40 PM

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

observator1000, right you are.

Trends come and go. Just look at the underpants bomber... he's from Nigeria. How many more terrorists or terrorist wannabes hailing from Africa will it take before the term "African American" will be considered an insult and therefore have to be replaced? I'm guessing we'll see that happen in my lifetime.

Posted by: potomacfever00 | February 14, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Gerson is a hypocrite of the worst kind, because he has the power of the media behind him. Gerson rails against political correctness, then demands that everyone be politically correct. Gerson says not a word when Limbaugh uses the word in a mean and nasty way, says nothing when Palin and other conservatives run around screaming "libertard". No, Gerson only gets riled up when a liberal uses the word. Gerson also forgets that if the Republican party had its way, there would be no government programs to help the mentally or physically challenged, becuase they don't fit under the umbrella of "small government". Under the kind of regime Gerson wants to institute, there would be no abortion, so the numbers of mentally and physically handicapped persons born would be much, much larger, but there would be no government programs to help these poor people, or their parents. But, that's the conservative, survival of the fittest way!

Posted by: Chumbo | February 14, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

What a sped you are, Gerson!

Posted by: AmericanLiberalElite | February 14, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Heaven forbid refer to an obstinate, obese person as a fat retard. What's next, burning crosses made of Snickers bars?

GET OVER IT..... people can only hurt you if you allow them to.

Can someone please send this guy to reform camp for politically correct retards?

Posted by: Dive4Blood | February 14, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Gerson is retarded, hence a retard. That is factual and nothing more.

Posted by: MyCut | February 14, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Gerson is probably upset because the adjective "retarded" has been applied to so many of the policies of his former employer.

I would hardly be surprised if Gerson next takes aim at the phrase "Bush League," on the grounds that it insults the 4e POTUS.

As for me, I plan on using a newly-coined phrase in my responses to right wing-nut posts:

"That is sooo Gerson."

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | February 14, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Typical of Democrats they can't speak aloud without the "F-bomb", and that's what really happened.

The evil geek Rahm Emanuel prefaced "retarded" or "retard" with the "F-bomb".

Although the WarshPost automated style book won't let us enter the word to discuss it, the Democrats want to focus on "retard" and "retarded" and not on "F-bomb retarded" ~ which is the real issue.

You people need to see a neurologist to find out if your Tourette's is a temporary phenomenon related to your excess use of hard narcotics, or permanent.


Posted by: muawiyah | February 14, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I looked and looked but never read Mr. Gerson criticize Rush Limbaugh for his vile use of the word. If "some viewpoints are not just minorities but monstrosities", why doesn't Gerson man up and take on El Rushbo? Wait... I think I answered my own question.

Can't the Post do better than this?

Posted by: CardFan | February 14, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

This snarky commentary would indicate the term "elite" when used in describing an educated man should be banned as a perjorative that is hurtful. For some time now the less educated and erudite people have been writing commentaries and often use this term. We should consider a citizens movement to ban "elite" .Surely some euphemism can be found.


Try the word "gay".

Posted by: oldno7 | February 14, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse


I agree whole heartedly with your underlying concerns, and don't even like it when people call others, who may be a little slower, even stupid, and speak out against it often.

but this view of yours here is out of control. the word is a slang word,it does not impugn the mentally disabled.

Is it potentially offensive or sensitive in some instances? Yes, but so are lots of words. Taking pledges of social stigmatiziation against words, is a dangerous, and even reckless, path, for a free society.

Trying to encourage civility, courtesy and where appropriate, sensitivity, is one thing. But trying to attach a politically correct officially recognized derogatory stigma to a common slang expressions, is creeping social authoritarianism.

It has no place in America.

You should deeply rethink your view

Posted by: MarkTwainsBro | February 14, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Gerson is a vile boy

Posted by: daveque | February 14, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

"'Retard' is a vile word"

But not so vile that Gerson can use it for political gain.

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | February 14, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry. The association of the use of retard with eugenics is about as valid as comparing health reform to the concentration camps. This is a completely manufactured event solely for political purposes.

Levi Johnston mentioned in an interview that Sarah Palin referred to her child as a retarded baby. She has no problem with Rush Limbaugh using it. Rush obviously has no problem using he.

To throw on how pathetic the GOP has become I see today that they found someone to criticize Michele Obama for encouraging overweight children to exercise, eat well and lose weight.

The GOP has become nothing less than repugnant.

Posted by: James10 | February 14, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

MarkTwainsBro wrote, "Taking pledges of social stigmatiziation against words, is a dangerous, and even reckless, path, for a free society."

How so, when the coercive power of government is not involved?

I'd argue the contrary - that when civil society doesn't stigmatize indecent behavior, the clamor for big government to step in and outlaw it rises to an irresistible fever pitch.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 14, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Although not defending the use of the word retard in describing politicians(The mentally challenged have cause for being upset at the comparison)I become absolutely giddy at the hypocracy of conservatives being outraged at derogatory remarks. Leaving aside the
outrageous diatribes about Barack Obama, I have never been in the company of my conservative friends when derogatory language used to descibe African-Americans, hispanics, and other minority groups is not freely used.

Posted by: bobtich | February 14, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

When the 1995 movie "Babe" led to a precipitous plunge in pork sales while the National Pork Producers Council was sticking with its "Pork, the Other White Meat" campaign, some pig farmers revolted, withholding dues from the council. One media wag wisely suggested that the council might do better to adopt "Pork: It Can't Really Talk" as its slogan.

I'd suggest that when it comes down choosing whether to act in a way that causes people who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own to feel stigmatized, or to act in a way that stigmatizes a word, I'm all for stigmatizing the word. Words don't really have feelings.

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 14, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Someone who gets it...thank you.

Loved this quote in the article: "...against the derogatory use of the r-word – is not government censorship, it is social stigma. In this case, such stigma is a sign of moral maturity."

So very true.

Posted by: mdbeau | February 14, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

At least Gerson didn't say it is okay for Rush Limbaugh to use it.

Good piece, Gerson. The "R" word will continue to be used... because people know what it means and like to insult people by calling them it. When those people use it, regardless of their ideology, they use it to hurt their target and demean the handicapped. Simple.

Posted by: steveboyington | February 14, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

You fit the Chesterton citation very well. ... And why do you say handicapped, when surely you mean challenged?

Posted by: aarthur2 | February 14, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

The most retarded part of the whole retard debate has been retard Sarah Palin's retarded defense of the fat retard Rush Limbaugh's use of the word retard to describe the same retards that Palin retardedly attacked Rahm Emanuel for calling effing retards.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | February 14, 2010 9:12 PM | Report abuse

muawiyah: "Typical of Democrats they can't speak aloud without the "F-bomb", and that's what really happened."

I didn't know Dick Cheney was a Democrat, you effing retard.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | February 14, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

One day, the R-word will stand for Republican. No one will dare utter it for fear of ridicule.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | February 14, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Gerson and his party are the ones who call out liberals for "political correctness" and yet they rally around a word when it suits their cause.

Make no mistake, this editorial is about Rahm Emmanuel's comment, even though we didn't see anything similar when Rush Limbaugh labeled liberals with the "r" word.

The hypocrisy on the right knows no bounds.

Posted by: arancia12 | February 14, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

God was niggardly with the brains when it was time for Gerson to get his.

Posted by: koolkat_1960 | February 14, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Did you know that the White House once a conference on child health that issued a report recommending sterilization for the unfit. The president declared that civilization and the family would march forward "...on the feet of healthy children."

Who was the godless liberal social engineer who promoted this unsavory solution. Why, it was Republican President Herbert Hoover in 1930.

"Popular eugenics: national efficiency and American mass culture in the 1930s" By Susan Currell, Christina Cogdell page 21 (read it up on Google)

Posted by: maggots | February 14, 2010 10:24 PM | Report abuse

"Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce"
President Theodore Roosevelt, Republican

"The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate"
Winston Churchill, 1910

Posted by: maggots | February 14, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

It's ironic, to put it mildly, that the Christopher M. Fairman column purporting to advocate free speech makes no accomodation for comments, while the Gerson column does.

Sometimes Republicans are exactly right. Even a visually challenged pig sometimes finds an acorn .

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 14, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Since I retired to the south, I thought retard was a southern pronunciation of retired.

Posted by: leokasel | February 14, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Somewhere in the 1970's the Democratic party sold its soul to a feminist movement which argues that biological facts are political injustices.

Since then people who depend on their labor for a wage have had no reliable political party, Democrats have won increasing numbers of votes in prosperous suburbs, and Republicans - once clearly the party of Wall Street - have been winning ever more votes among decent, ordinary working people.

I don't particularly like that history, but to quote the ubiquitous NFL saying, "It is what it is".

Posted by: douglaslbarber | February 14, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

Before there was "mentally retarded", there was "idiot" (IQ 0-25), "imbecile" (IQ 26-50) and "moron" (IQ 51-70). These were actual medical terms. Today, they are no longer medical terms and are used exclusively as insults. Are people with real intellectual disabilities offended when someone uses these words? If not, why is that? It seems like the evolution of these words was that medical people stopped using them, others continued to use them as insults, and disabled people stopped being offended by them.

Posted by: didnik | February 15, 2010 12:32 AM | Report abuse

I'd be happy with this...for about instead of using the word retard/ed or idiot or "pick your word for the day", find out what that fellows name is who happens to work in the mailroom or lives down the street from you. Then, feel free to call each other (inculding Rahm Emanuel) whatever the heck you want...

Posted by: zoomie95 | February 15, 2010 1:29 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to be satirical here, 'cause Sarah says it's cool:

Gerson is a f****** retard.

Posted by: mason08 | February 15, 2010 3:00 AM | Report abuse

Gerson is slow to incorporate new facts and ideas into his outlook. Thus, he's a retard.

Posted by: mason08 | February 15, 2010 3:02 AM | Report abuse

Yep, but of course one would expect every Republican retard to say the same thing since they are incapable of understanding this week's ABC/Washington political poll reporting that 71% of Americans think Sarah Palin is unqualified to be president. The GWBush administration was headed by two retards and hired mostly retards including Gerson.

Posted by: dsrobins | February 15, 2010 3:07 AM | Report abuse

Retard is as retard does. That means you, Gerson.

Posted by: Gatsby10 | February 15, 2010 5:01 AM | Report abuse

I am so tired of PC language. This debate would be worthwhile if we were talking about care facilities, training,jobs, what have you for people with development problems. We need pretty language to hide the reality of lives which has led us to a head in the sand mentality about the real problems in the country. We can't see coffins or bodies of those we kill in foreign countries, etc. but we can wax patriotic in PC language. America needs to grow up

Posted by: DLN1 | February 15, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

There are several issues here which get tangled up together during this discussion. First is a freedom of speech issue. In addition small groups which have a political agenda then tend to substitute other terms which are less exact. Then when those terms don't resolve the issue they then want to ban those and change the words again. This has been done for years in describing people of different races. It also keeps ones opponents on the defensive because the one who chooses to control the terms can then decide that the term is wrong and in doing so can distort the discussion by saying the speaker is wrong in expressing an opinion because they used the wrong term. Pretty cute.
Secondly, in this discussion we have a problem in which Ms. Palin who reportedly calls her son Trig "the retarded one" now chooses to take Rahm Emmanuel to task for calling liberal Democrats "retards". Incidentally she didn't complain because her son was compared to a bunch of foolish politicians. Maybe she should have.
In addition Palin excused Republican commentators for using the same term because that was used as satire.
Ms. Palin's criticism is particularly disturbing because she has decided who gets to use the term "retard" and how.
Now we come to Rahm Emmanuel's use of the term. He ment it as an insult incidentally. This is a complicated issue here. Do we deny our politicians the right to use insults? Ask them to be more civil to one another? Maybe.
Could Mr. Emmanuel have used more creative language. Undoubtedly. Would his insult have had the same cache if he had called his opponents foolish and stupid. Probably not. If he had called his opponents "antidiluvian troglodytes" you can just bet that troglodytes everywhere will be up in arms.
In this country our forfathers and mothers paid a very high price for freedom of speech. Let's not allow anyone to take that away.

Posted by: OhMy | February 15, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Where do these issues come from? Only brainless twits use offensive language, something clear to all. This column is really pointless,

Posted by: smoke111 | February 15, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I read these comments all the way to the one that complained the Gerson column was "not even entertaining." This defender of the worst and vilest use of language could think of nothing worse to say about Gerson! I also found out from the comments that Gerson is considered a conservative. Three cheers for the conservative with the intellectual honesty to call for other conservatives to clean up their acts!!

Posted by: tughillb | February 15, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Words are just words, my entire lfe I have been called things for being Jewish. My mother taught me,

"sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never harm me."

I think this whole discussion is really stupid ( retarded, in its true meaning.)

Posted by: honeybee1 | February 15, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Defending the word 'retard' is not heroic

Palin defended using the word - she said it's ok as long as it's satire (or Rush).

Posted by: FauxReal | February 15, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Gerson, don't take it personally. In general R-word goes to describe the mental attitude of the people like you who are anti-intelligent & condemn all Ivy league educated people. You, Sarah Palin & the like of you, use superletives to condemn whatever Obama does. Now, that is retard. You can all join & form a fraternity of "R"s & make Rush Limbaugh & Glenn Beck life time president & co-president.

Posted by: sarvenk63 | February 15, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Let's see, first we got, "Why are Liberals So Condescending?" and now an editorial defending the "r-word." What next? I can only guess. Does the Washington Post want a tabloid type readership? Who reads such trash?

“It is not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Yes, and "out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh." The "r-word" never, even comes out of my mouth because I don't think that way. Neither does any kind, reasonable person.

Thank you, Mr.Gerson.

Posted by: martymar123 | February 15, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

So your moral issue is use of the word "retard." How about helping our citizens who have physical or developmental challenges? How do you defend the 17 Republicans who voted against the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Paul Broun (GA)
John Capmbell (CA)
John Doolittle (CA)
John Duncan (TN)
Jeff Flake (AZ)
Scott Garrett (NJ)
Louie Gohmert (TX)
Jeb Hensarling (TX)
Jack Kingston (GA)
John Linder (GA)
Kenny Marchant (TX)
Ron Paul (TX)
Ted Poe (TX)
Tom Price (GA)
Tom Tancredo (CO)
Dave Weldon (FL)
Lynn Westmoreland (GA)

Posted by: FauxReal | February 15, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Gerson, it's hard to imagine that you're serious about this when you never mentioned your outrage regarding Limbaugh's usage of offensive words like this over the years. I realize you and every other Republican are scared of Bully Limbaugh, which is a spectacle that's downright comical to watch, but if you want to piously quote the Bible and be taken seriously on this point, you'd better demand that Limbaugh quit spewing this particular form of hatred. By the way, I have a Special Needs relative and would never use the offensive "R" word. It's disgusting and hateful. But you use it as a partisan weapon, as does Mrs. Palin who ought to know better.

I don't trust or believe your outrage under the circumstances. Why should I?

Posted by: cturtle1 | February 15, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

FOX Off Gerson

Fei Hu

Posted by: Fei_Hu | February 15, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

I have always tried my best to respect those that the good Lord made different.

Whenever I would hear someone call W a "retard", I would explain that he wasn't a "retard", just an ignorant @sshole that ACTED like he was a "retard". An effin' retard.

Then I would ask the person what developmentally disabled people ever did to them to get lumped into the same category as W. Or any of his cabinet, appointees, speech writers, etc., etc.,....

By the way, is it true that W. and the Republicans always want to cut programs that help the developmentally disabled because they're afraid of those that are smarter than them ?

Posted by: dennissuper | February 15, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Geez, give this NON controversy a rest. Mostly kids and some grown-ups whose venacular have not caught up with their age use the word "retard." 99.9 percent of them are not even thinking of, much less targeting, mentally handicapped persons. Kids these days use the phrase, "that's so gay." They do not mean homosexuals. Sarah jumped on what Emmanual said in private months earlier like a flea on a dog, not because she was particularly offended, but because she loves to keep herself front and center in the media.

Posted by: creatia52 | February 15, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Barack Obama is more politely not a "retard," but a "special needs" child.

Posted by: Jerzy | February 15, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Reality can be dressed up by changing what we call it, but you still can not take it out in public. Stuff still smells bad if you call it ice cream.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | February 15, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

So, is "Stupid Idiot" better?

Or how about "Moron?"

"arguing about this is retarded."

"arguing about this is moronic."

...but now, what about all the poor morons I've offended?

What to do when we're no longer allowed to criticize reality.

Posted by: Thinker_ | February 15, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Yep, but of course one would expect every Republican retard to say the same thing since they are incapable of understanding this week's ABC/Washington political poll reporting that 71% of Americans think Sarah Palin is unqualified to be president. The GWBush administration was headed by two retards and hired mostly retards including Gerson.
Posted by: dsrobins | February 15, 2010 3:07 AM | Report abuse

So it’s safe to assume from your post that you are a liberal. It’s also safe to assume that you are as sharp as a bowling ball. You are aware that Gerson works for the Washington Post and is not a member of the Fed. Gov. nor was he hired by Bush. So I would then have to assume it is fitting to use the word RET@RD to describe the majority of LIBERALS. This may also explain why they take such offense to the word. You can’t fix stup1d.

Posted by: askgees | February 15, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

So, Gerson, the suggestion that equating the word retard with the n-word is overblown makes you feel so faint that you have to resort to a writer's trick to deal with it. Actually, I'm giving you too much credit. You pull this trick because you have no real rebuttal, so you have to answer an argument that wasn't brought up.

But let's play in your yard for a moment, Gerson. Some scientists and academics considered eugenics seriously for how many years? What did they actually do in the US to that end?

Now to slavery, where the n-word came from. Slavery lasted 246 years in the US, academics, businessmen, congressmen and presidents owned black slaves, they were legally allowed to, and did, beat, starve, rape, break up families, and kill slaves at will.

Does that still sound equivalent to you, Gerson? For a couple of decades some crazy people thought eugenics made sense, and it reached its nadir in Nazi Germany. Little was actually done here, though, in the name of eugenics. Slavery brutalized how many? Left how many American blacks still suffering 150 years after its official end?

Would you still think retard is such a bad word if President Obama was the one who called for banning the word, instead of Sister Sarah? I just don't think you'd give a fig in that case.

Posted by: WaPoSucksBig | February 15, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Hmmm. I wonder where Gerson's outrage was after all the times Limbaugh used the word "retard." Now Rahm Emanuel uses "retarded" and Gerson's up in arms about it? Please.

Never ceases to astonish me how conservatives demand perfection from everyone except themselves.

Posted by: conioplik | February 15, 2010 6:57 PM | Report abuse


Ever more HYPOCRISY and mendacity from another spineless, self-righteous, right wing hypocrite pharisee.

To Gerson: Why don't you have the spine, courage or backbone to speak directly to the worst of the hypocrites and apologists including Palin & Lardbaugh and their lemmings?

Just another piece of crap/trash for all the world to see. You're continuing and extending the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Dobson-Falwell-Bush-Delay-Vitter legacy of lies, shame and hypocrisy, that's for sure.


Posted by: demsRwimps | February 15, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

To link the use of the word retarded to a eugenics campaign is an astonishing non-sequitor. In fact, its almost as funny as the amount of intellectual energy that has gone into debating the use of the word retarded. Another furore over ephemera. American newsparers are fun.

Posted by: gwhyte1 | February 17, 2010 11:47 PM | Report abuse

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