About the “R” word

Much is being made lately of the fact that Rahm Emanuel is being exposed as somewhat who berates people in meetings by calling them “retards.”  I don’t expect any better of Rahm Emanuel who is, by all accounts, an extraordinary boor and bully.  He’s also yet another example of the fact that the Left, by using government might to impose speech and thought codes regarding various minority groups, feels that it owns those groups and can insult them with impunity.

My usual tropes about the Left’s crudity, though, is just a lead in to something I really want to talk about here, which is the “R” word:  Retard.  It’s used as an insult, and activist groups want to strip it from people’s vocabularies.  That’s a laudable, but ultimately foolish, effort.  The problem isn’t with the word, it’s with the reality behind the word, which is that there are now, and always will be, people who have mental disabilities.

Good human beings, being of kindness and moral worth, would not insult mentally disabled people to their faces, nor would they use whatever label happens to be applied to those people as an insult to others.  For example, whether someone is described as having “Down syndrome; ” being “mentally disabled” (today’s PC generic term); being a “mongoloid” (that was the old polite term when I was growing up); or being “mentally retarded” (the generic polite term for all mentally handicapped people when I was growing up) I would never use any one of those terms as an insult.

Someone like Rahm, though, whether he’s a 9 year old bully on the playground or a middle aged bully in the White House, will use any one of those terms as an insult because it’s not the term that matters — it’s the thought behind it.  To Rahm, the mentally disabled are stupid and defective, and the people who don’t get with his program are stupid and defective.  It’s all the same to him.

That’s the problem with trying to police language.  Some terms are meant from their inception to be rude and insulting.  (I won’t repeat them here, but you can imagine them.)  Others, however, degrade over time because the words become associated with a condition or race or orientation that is viewed in a negative light, no matter how well-meaning polite people are.  So we keep changing terms.  The classic example, one that I keep getting back to, is the way in which people with genetic roots in Africa keep changing the label by which they wish to be called, because they perceive others using that label in a negative way:  Colored, Negro, Black, African-American, People of Color.  Each time that the term seems to be pejorative, someone gets the bright idea to change it — but the associations with that label don’t change.  (Although I would argue, strongly, that American’s prejudice has changed substantially in the years between “Colored” and “People of Color.”)

It’s absolutely true that vocabulary can affect thought.  Orwell certainly understood that.  It’s also true, though, that there are some prejudices that linger inside people that are resistant to mere language changes.  For Rahm, everyone who doesn’t instantly agree in all ways with him is manifestly a mental failure — and what better shorthand than the current politically correct term, whatever that term happens to be on a given day, for people who have cognitive disabilities?   In other words, the problem here isn’t words at all, it’s debased people in political office.

Just another reminder, as if we needed one, that substance will invariably triumph over Leftist PC manipulation.  The PC manipulation can damage society profoundly, but it can’t ultimately change human nature — especially when the human nature at issue is someone who is mean, condescending, demeaning, and ill-mannered.