Reclaiming Retarded

Words give meaning to our thoughts, emotions, expressions; everything we do as writers. They shape the experience of our readers. The art of the craft of writing is choosing the words that will shape our readers' experience to match our intention. Easy? Ha!

Words are used to build up and break down. Their meaning changes. Sometimes the change is small and slow; other times it is quick and intentional.

Let's look at the word gay. Originally, gay meant happy. Then, it morphed into a derogatory description for homosexual. Then, the derogatory meaning declined as the homosexual community "reclaimed" ownership of gay. In another tug-back by the opposition, gay was taken to mean lame or stupid.

Similar paths have been seen with words like queer, bastard, cunt, and nigger. The groups the words are used to demean reclaim the words and strip them of their power.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

During the Special Needs panel at BlogHer, an audience member, Stephanie Klein, asked if using the word retarded was an offensive word choice for referring to her son. There was visible cringing in the room, much like I would have expected in a panel on gender identity 15 years ago. One panelist, Jennifer Graf Groneberg, eloquently pointed out that our words do have impact, do effect our children, and either honor them or demean them.

My own son has been known to use the word retarded to mean lame or stupid, much like the current meaning for the word gay. Since he is my child, who would have been called retarded not so many years ago, I had to explain to him what that meant, how that word's power would have been used against him.

But, I wonder. Is retarded just another word that's being reclaimed by the community it's been used to hurt? Will it come to lose its power? Has it lost it already with the younger generation? In our house, it is often used to mean lame or stupid, but it's origins are not forgotten. Would I use it to describe a child...hell no. I would not give it back its power in that way.

Can a word really lose all of it's hurtful power? I'm not sure. I think if the demeaned group uses the word themselves, it can work, but spreading the use out to the masses...that seems like a slow and complicated process, often back-firing. Think about the word nigger or even nigga. It's still not cute coming out of a 15-year old white boy's mouth. I don't think it ever will be.

Some words have caused so much pain, been so hurtful, had so much power, that time is not enough to return them to a safer place in our lexicon. Some words remain charged and off-limits.

Do I think you should describe your child as retarded in your blog? Not so much. Would you describe your child as a queer nigger? I'm guessing not, but I could be wrong. I have yet to find the mother who'd find that funny, endearing, or the way she would want to represent her child, but there are all kinds of mothers in this world.

If your child grows up to refer to himself in those terms that is his/her right, but in this writer's opinion, it is not yours.