Friday, November 06, 2009

Mind Your Language?

Yid. Poof. Paki. Retard. No, don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles or done away with my brake mechanism. Ian Birrell has written an interesting article in today's Independent about the modern day useage of the word 'retard'. This word seems to be acceptable in modern parlance in a way with other words are not. Ian is the father of a daughter with learning disabilities and explains how he is cut to the quick every time he hears the word. He explains...
Sticks and stones break bones, but words wound. This explains why there are such howls of outrage when a low-rent celebrity makes a joke about "Pakis", or when a newspaper columnist delivers a diatribe against homosexuals. Casual racism, crude stereotyping and abuse towards a minority is not just offensive, but corrosive.

So why is it acceptable against people with disabilities? When did they become such a forgotten minority that they ceased to matter in the battle against bigotry? A group so exiled still from mainstream society that it has become acceptable to fling around hateful words such as "retard" and "spazz" without a murmur of disquiet. Not just in the playground, where these words and many more like them are commonplace, but online, in the office, in the home and in Hollywood.

This week, we had two of the hottest young actors, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, describe rumours of their romance as "so retarded". Last month, Guy Ritchie used the same word to describe his former wife. Previously, it was Lindsay Lohan, Courtney Love, Russell Brand and Britney Spears. Imagine how their careers would have nose-dived if they used language offensive to gay or black people.

Go on to YouTube and look at all the videos of people dancing "like a retard". Or go on to MySpace and find an oh-so-funny gallery entitled "Adopt Your Own Retard". Or go on to any one of dozens of internet sites and laugh at the jokes about "retards". Or go on to the most popular political blogs and see the word bandied around as a term of abuse; one left-leaning site failed to spot the irony of a rant about "homophobic, racist retards" in a recent posting on the BNP.

But then, even the first black president makes derogatory jokes about the disabled, while a leading French politician yesterday used autism as a form of political abuse against the Tories, and a supposedly-liberal newspaper splashed it across its front page without comment.

As the parent of a child with profound mental and physical disabilities ... it is deeply upsetting to hear words once used to describe my daughter thrown around as a casual insult. But far worse than my own bruised sensitivities, language reflects how we view the world, reinforcing the exclusion of people with disabilities from the rest of society.

When people with physical disabilities are figures of fun and mental incapacity is a term of insult, is it any wonder my daughter gets unpleasant stares wherever she goes? Is it any wonder parents complain over the appearance of a children's television presenter missing part of one arm? Or a major fashion chain insists that a similarly-disabled worker is hidden out of sight of customers? Or that a college allows classmates to hold a vote to ban a student with Down's syndrome from a barbecue party, as happened this summer?

We are retreating in the fight to offer respect and inclusion to more than one million of our fellow citizens. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, admitted to me that the promotion of disabled rights had fallen back in the past decade while schools concentrated on racism and homophobia. And as the struggle for inclusion in society gets harder, the stares get more pronounced, the insults more widely heard, the harassment worse – and more and more people with disabilities will abandon their personal battles and withdraw to their ghettos.

Is this really what we want? Or should we at the very least start to mind our language?

This i s obviously a plea from the heart from a father who cares deeply about his daughter and hates to hear words which insult her. We must all empathise with that. But as the PCC pointed out yesterday in their judgement in favour of the Daily Mail, the right to offend still exists, and rightly so. Where do we draw the line? How do we judge whether society finds one word acceptable and not another?

I think what Ian says is true - that society finds the use of the word 'retard' far more acceptable than any of the others which I list at the beginning of this piece. If Ian's wish for the word to cease being used is to be realised it is not something which you can legislate for. Society, in the end, will make it so. If it wants to.


Paddy Briggs said...


The language on your blog has improved a lot recently - I'm not insulted nearly as much as I was! I manage to write here and elsewhere without needing to resort to insulting epithets. Mind you what is insulting is subjective. I was really offended when you called me an "appeaser" once because it is the opposite of what I believe myself to be. And in honesty you do use some pretty nasty insulting words from time to time. I really don't think it's necessary - a bit like the 100% true principle that the first person to use a swearword in an argument always loses that argument!

Doubting Richard said...

We should draw the line short of where the NUT does. We should not be 'concentrating on racism and homophobia', we should be making it clear our disapproval of people who are unpleasant and rude. It should not matter how they express their unpleasantness, but schools should be coming down hard on any bullying.

My uncle has cerebral palsy. As a child I also knew a great girl my own age with a much more severe case, and I hated people using the term "spastic" as an insult. When I mentioned my uncle most people would actually respond very well - they had no real animosity or intent to be offensive, they were just thoughtless.

I think that in society while specific rudeness (against non-whites, Muslims or homosexuals (unless the offender is Muslim)) has become almost a political offence, general rudeness has become socially acceptable. While I will argue to the last that there is no right not to be offended, I argue equally vehemently that rudeness and boorish behaviour should not simply be accepted, but should be challenged.

simon said...

Yes, Ian is right that these words wrongly lack the stigma of terms involving race and sexuality. You're right that it is a matter for society to decide on rather than to be brought about by legislation.

But the change in culture since the 70s around racial and sexual terms was driven in large part by organisations such as councils, employers, schools, the BBC and so on adopting policies that banned the use of these terms. It's fashionable to stigmatise this sort of thing as "political correctness gone mad" but the impact of removing comedians like Bernard Manning from our screens, making it clear that employers who racially insulted other employees faced disciplinary proceedings etc was significant. It's time organisations took a similar stand over words like "retard".

Nigel said...

Your post seems to have inspired a welcome outbreak of civility*, Iain.

(*Not to be confused with political correctness.)

Dungeekin said...

I can sympathise with Ian Birrell, and would agree that the casual use of words like 'retard' is unpleasant.

But. . .

As with all these things, if you get rid of one then another will come up. The line of 'offence caused' is a constantly-shifting line in the sand that, taken to extremes, would limit speech to nothing but the emptiest, most vacuous platitudes.

Everything - everything - offends somebody. And this will always continue.

How far will it go, in pursuit of pleasantry?


Gareth said...

It amuses me that, in my son's primary school, the word "special" is used as a the default insult.
Referring, of course to "special needs"!

DaveA said...

I hate the PC culture, as I believe that if you insult someone we as a society should judge you, not the law.

I have a Downs Syndrome son who is now 14. Some people wish to insult others with "Mong" and as Derek Draper referred to the Trolls on LabourList as "window lickers." Downs Syndrome children have relatively large tongues which adds to their speech impairment and is where the urban myth comes from.

Can I say I am not offended and if people wish to continue using these epithets, they are welcome.

Adrian said...

Birrell is right. Adults who know the implication of words like "retard" (and the way schoolkids use them to bully other kids) ought to know better than to use them, and if they stop, eventually other people will stop using them too. This isn't a simple issue, since words like "idiot", "moron" and "imbecile" are used so generally. My advice though would be the same that is given to teachers: get out of the habit of using such words to describe people. If necessary, say "you did something stupid", but never say "You are stupid."

Sean Haffey said...

This is an area where people need education.

The way we treat the most vulnerable in our society is a measure of our civilisation. It's bad enough using racist or sexist epithets but mostly these people can fight back. Disabled people often cannot: they are, often thoughtlessly, victimised because of who they are and often unable to defend themselves.

People need to be made aware of how much hurt they may cause, especially as in my experience this is often unintentional.

Katey said...

I'm disapointed in you Iain, you are using the other article to back up your own disapointment over the pcc not upholding your complaint. People like the writers daughter cannot speak for themselves they must rely on others, that is why there is no outrage about words like 'retard' but there can be outrage over the word 'queen' or similar.

A marginalised section of society, who can be bullied and abused because they have no voice, unable to speak for themselves, they rely upon people like that dad to speak up for them. They could do without you jumping on the bandwagon....

People with LD are even being marginalised further in their own area, in NI changes are coming so that those who cannot speak english as a first language, and those who are socially disadvantaged are treated as 'special needs'. How dare they treat a social disadvantage with a life long condition, and push those with genuine needs even further in to the margins of society.

I welcome that article, and this parent of a Learning disabled adult would like to say thanks to him. We need more like him, lets hope David Cameron does more to help the learning disabled.

This bandwagon isn't able to carry your disapointment at the pcc, the use of the word 'retard' has become much too acceptable. Its not snide, its outright offensive.

Plato said...

I grew up in the 70/80s when spastic and retard were commmon terms of abuse. I haven't heard spastic in yrs as it is a specific medical condition - retard isn't.

But where does it stop? Idiot, stupid and cretin?

Boo said...

So true about the "special" people.
Truth is a turd by anyother name name will still smell as sweet.

People will insult people, and if they are denied one word they will shift to another. You use polite words to cover up what you mean and those polite words will be shifted and used just as special is.

I figure an insult is an insult, calling someone an idiot because they are acting like a moron is ok cos people should not be stupid if they can help it. Taunting a person of lower than average mental capacity (or idiot) for their idiocy is just cruel because they can't.

Gordon Brown's Moral Compass Swinger said...

You say that following the PCC people do not have a right not to be offended.

I beg to differ. SOME people (eg pakistanis, gypsies,negroes) are protected from certain words that may be deemed to be offensive. They are protected by a raft of PC diversity thought police who will root out anyone that utters the P or N words or mentions golliwog.

Unfortunately, people with "special" needs do not have such guardians and so mong, spaz and other such terms may be considered distateful but acceptable.

Reflect on this the next time someone is pilloried for referring to a paki, pikey or nigger and ask whether their sensibilities are any more important and need greater protection than someone with downs, autism, etc

Frugal Dougal said...

Possibly people with disabilities are seen to be fair game because there are big fences around other minorities. In my work, there's a poster about reporting racist and homophobic abuse. It's the only poster about discrimination.

I must have missed the story about a children's presenter missing a bit of their arm; I'll ask my kids when I get home.

DaveA said...

You may of seen my previous post on having a Downs Syndrom child, but I thought I would add there is one group of people in the UK which has government sanctioned discrimination and insulting rights. I am fighting for these rights to be returned.

Europe describes us as "evil", the government says we should be "denormalised." People think we are "dirty, smelly,and filthy" and many wish we "would die of cancer."
Not forgetting "child killers."

Is your blood boiling yet and can you guess which group?

Yes I am a smoker.

However my shoulders are broad.

jojoko said...

Sticks & stones....... Say what you want or bow down to the politically correct. And as soon as a word becomes politically incorrect and it is replaced by an "inoffensive" word, it is only a matter of time before the "inoffensive" replacement is no longer acceptable. Those who are verbally inept and think in a line are the ones who scream for a lockdown on free speech.

Jules said...

yes, words do wound - when used with malice. ree-tard? ugly, clumsy transatlantic slacker import. cripple? harsh, pitiful, never use it. cretin? cruel, joyless, never use it. flid? tragic, jars awfully, best forgotten. spastic? the JDAM of stigma insults - humourless and damning; reserve only for craven politicians, the current chief mandarin at the MoD and communists.

deacon? spazz? joey? tongue-inside-lower-lip-forearms-at-90-degrees-wrists-bent-down-with-shaking-hands-and-sound-effects? part of the eternal playground; very amusing in the right private company; each sum up many public figures adroitly and succinctly; but always deploy thoughtfully. like learning to swear appropriately instead of indiscriminately, less is more and context is all.

what's more concerning is the cultural sense of humour bypass and unending, perspectiveless attempts to sterilise pungent expression. it's pungent for a reason. as select graffiti about gordon brown on the walls of army ablution facilities in helmand will testify.

Anonymous said...

French are happy to dis autistics

Jez said...

It's upsetting to hear these words used, not just because they demean and bracket together all people with learning difficulties and disabilities, but also because they display people's quickness and willingness these days to dismiss, insult and belittle each other without real cause.

You can't, as Simon points out, legislate against the use of words, especially when others will just fly in to fill the vacuum (plus freedom of speech has never been so important). However, people who cringe when they hear words like 'retard' being unimaginatively thrown around can (if they don't mind coming across as a bit right-on) ask the perpetrators to explain their choice of language, and perhaps point out that they sound like nasty bullying children. Failing that, look them in the eye and say 'my son / brother suffers severe learning difficulties' and watch them squirm. They'll deserve it.

tory boys never grow up said...

Re the French Foreign Minister using the autism jibe, I think that you will find that someone nearer to home used it a lot earlier. A shame on the lot of them.

Max Atkinson said...

I have a daughter-in-law who works in a residential home for autistic adults, who are not 'patients' or 'residents', but 'service users'.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had no qualms about using the word 'Negro', who later became 'black', then 'persons of color' and now seem to be 'African Americans'.

I find the way these things change over time and what they might be telling us about changing cultural attitudes a constant source of fascination.

Yesterday, for example, I came across a 'political speech' by Rowan Atkinson (no relation) from 30 years ago, in which he said things that comedians would never get away with saying on television today.

It's worth watching to see whether it makes you laugh or cringe:

Chalcedon said...

Ah, but terma like idiot, and cretin are used with wild abandon, yet these were medical terms. Even moron has it's place in the medical dictionary. They are just used as variants of stupid, which is not a medical term. The term retarded is so old fashioned it is not used in medical circles now. If I had a child like the author has I would be wounded too. I really admire parents who ccope with the difficulties of raising a disabled child.

Jimmy said...

That's nothing. Apparently there was a French politician yesterday who referred to autistic people as conservatives.

no longer anonymous said...

"This is an area where people need education."

You patronising clown, who the Hell do you think you are? People like you only encourage the use of words like "retard" due to your smug and condescending attitude. No doubt you write letters to the creators of South Park asking them not to use the word so much in their show.

no longer anonymous said...

"However, people who cringe when they hear words like 'retard' being unimaginatively thrown around can (if they don't mind coming across as a bit right-on) ask the perpetrators to explain their choice of language, and perhaps point out that they sound like nasty bullying children. Failing that, look them in the eye and say 'my son / brother suffers severe learning difficulties' and watch them squirm. They'll deserve it."

And you'll end up looking like a self-righteous tit.

Anonymous said...

"Oh I say Fawshers, why do you tweet me so cwuelly!"

Name calling is a very old game. The rhyme parents used to teach their children who ran home weeping because the other horrid boys and girls had been beastly to them, name-calling and all, was

"Sticks and stone may break my bones,
But calling will never hurt me."

Nowadays parents tell their children to report a hate crime.

I was told by muumy and daddy that name calling was a substitute for intellect.

That is what seems to be lacking these days in those who want all words and insults they do not hearing like to be hate crimes.

Toughen up whimps!

Old Holborn said...

You have no right "not to be offended"

End of. No matter how many times you (very publicly) complain to the PCC

Sean Haffey said...

@no longer anonymous

Who do I think I am?

Among other things, the father of a son diagnosed as autistic.

I certainly didn't intend to be patronising, smug or condescending but to point out that people can be thoughtless or unintentionally hurtful.

Joe Shmo said...

@ No longer anonymous

hear hear!

Charlotte Corday said...

I have a child with both a physical disability and a learning disability and I cringe when I hear such terms bandied about.

Yet I admit that I often use such terms as "nutters", "nutty" or "loony" (usually when talking about politicians)when I have a close family member with mental health problems.

I suppose that when we feel strongly about something we might use intemperate language but that is different from using offensive language directly at certain groups in society to mock them.

Plenty said...

One question:

Why is the word Paki so offensive now than in the 70s, 80s or even 90s?

I blogged about this last week when Carr made his comments, and made the point that in Only Fools and Horses, they were using potentially offensive language that you would not be able to get away with now. So what's the difference now? Is it because we have become too politically correct under a Labour government?.

Anonymous said...

'Spaz' hasn't been an acceptable (or much used) insult in Britain for about 25 years. In the USA of course it's different - spaz being a pretty common insult and not considered taboo.

The noun 'retard' as an insult is I think an Americanisation that may have become popular here through its widespread use in TV shows. Personally I would only refer to a person as being retarded if they were indeed retarded. Which in old-speak is an IQ under 70 - thick, in other words - but in new-speak is more about mental disability around functional skills. But either way, I wouldn't use it as an insult; American insults are pretty feeble to my ear ('yo mamma' etc). Clown/idiot/wally/prat/thicko/numbskull/feather-brain/dipsh** etc. are all much nicer terms of abuse to my ear and probably more insulting: people who use the noun 'retard' pejoratively are generally pretty thick themselves ('Nincompophical Ignoramuses', as my primary school teacher would have put it) so their insults can safely be ignored.

Seriously though, whatever happened to 'sticks and stones...'?

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read remarks about offensive terms being replace by inoffensive ones, only for the inoffensive terms to themselves become offensive. Time and again we've seen this with race - negro, black, coloured, people of colour, black again... etc.

On the Nick Griffin show the other week, a woman in the audience said that, "Every time I hear Jack Straw or other politicians using the term Afro-Caribbean I cringe and wonder what century we're living in. It's AFRICAN Caribbean".

Well, sorry love, but I think most of us outside the capital missed the memo on that one.

javelin said...

Interesting to compare with the "overtly gay" jibe.

I would classify "Retard", "Paki" and "poof" as insulting but factual.

I would classify "overtly gay" and "mentally retarded" as not insulting but factual. .

Anonymous said...

Ian Birrell's article isn't the least bit interesting, it's a self-indulgent exercise in political correctness.

I have a mentally retarded older sister, a loved member of my family no matter how difficult she can be. My parents are long gone and it's up to her siblings to look after her. We do.

I do not, ever, on hearing or seeing the words 'retard' or 'retarded' used carelessly make any connection with her. I have a good deal more common sense than to do so.

Grump to Inspire said...

As a Father of a disabled child and a member of the Armed Forces I was not sure how I would approach this topic. Before my son was born I would have been probably one of the people using these words, now I am the last person to use them, do I object to them? Well that depends on the situation and location but more often than not I will. But that isn't out of the ordinary for a parent.

To be fair they are the different 'class' (not my words) that nobody can understand and at a young age we are fascinated by their being different (how many of my generation actually remember Joey Deacon, or more importantly, were using 'Joey' etc before they knew who he was), but they don't have the protection that we all have of being necessarily aware of what is happening around them and so hence need our protection. Maybe that is where I differ, I won't feel or look like a self-righteous tit because I am entitled to my opinion and whilst the people I serve with can be harsh in the banter they understand the sifference.

And in case you were wondering "no longer anonymous" that is aimed at you. I do believe that a good discussion of interesting opinions from all sides delivered in good grace has been dragged down to an intellectual level that that the rest of this forum have been easily surpassing

Clive said...

Re DavidA @ 6-Nov-09 11:23am

"I have a Downs Syndrome son who is now 14. Some people wish to insult others with 'Mong' and as Derek Draper referred to the Trolls on LabourList as 'window lickers'."

I think you'll find one G. Fawkes aka Paul Staines used the latter description with gay abandon long before LabourList. Staines also had a fondness for the 'Anonymong' epithet as well.

DaveA said...


You may well be right about Paul Staines, who I have met.

However Paul does not get on a high and mighty PC trip, while Draper belongs to the thought police Labour Party.

Adrian said...

Plenty asked:
"One question:
Why is the word Paki so offensive now than in the 70s, 80s or even 90s?
I blogged about this last week when Carr made his comments, and made the point that in Only Fools and Horses, they were using potentially offensive language that you would not be able to get away with now. So what's the difference now? Is it because we have become too politically correct under a Labour government?"

Seeing as you're too dim to work this one out for yourself, this is how it happened:
1. Whites call Asians "pakis".
2. Asians are upset but don't complain.
3. Asians are upset and do complain.
4. Whites take no notice.
5. Whites take notice.