The essential purpose of language is to reach people, to describe, and to clarify. Otherwise, why have language? Why have words, signs, and characters that denote sounds, words, and concepts? Why be so cautious of tone, of body language, and context if language isn’t intended to do these things?
This, in a nutshell, is my objection to using common euphemisms in political or cultural discourse. Euphemisms are anti-language in that their whole reason for being is to push certain people and ideas away into the shadows rather than to reach, to make vague rather than to narrow down and describe, to confuse rather than clarify. Euphemisms do have their place in common parlance (such as saying ‘passed away’ as opposed to ‘died’ when breaking bad news to a patient’s family), but I prefer to avoid them like the plague in the world of academia and in politics, where I WANT to be cutthroat, where I WANT to be certain, to be factual, to be succinct…to be everything that euphemisms make it impossible for me to be.
I’m tired of having to defend myself because I happen to accidentally trip over someone’s least favorite word in the whole English language. For using correct terminology that someone somewhere decided was wrong. For deferring to logic, fact, science and history as opposed to someone’s feelings. It’s the same old song. I sing it regularly on my blog and I know my readers are singing it too.
For example, I continue to use the world mental retardation even though the term preferred is now intellectual disability. To me, intellectual disability is a vague word that could mean just about anything. Anything that reduces your ability to perform in school, on an IQ test, or that impairs what’s called your adaptive functioning could theoretically be called intellectual disability. This includes conditions like TBI or autism that do not require MR as part of the diagnosis. What I hate even more is lumping MR/ID under developmental disability, a term so vague, that includes so much that has nothing to do with MR, that it is essentially meaningless. Yes, I know that ID is used in a very specific way in professional contexts to mean MR and its associated diagnostic criteria. My objection is with the constant changing of words to sound nicer, to obscure reality, and to mask the material reality of an oppressed people. Does anyone honestly think people feel negatively about people with MR because of the term used to describe the condition? Does anyone really think that if we were just more gentle and polite in describing the condition that people with MR would have been free to work, live where they pleased, been treated fairly by the justice system, accommodated in schools, not abused, etc? Of course not.
That’s because reality is not determined by our words OR our subjective feelings, but by material reality. If we really want to change the world for the better for people with MR, we need to change people’s attitudes, educate, advocate, and reform the world physically. End the exploitation that happens in sweatshops. Pay their caregivers a living wage and train them adequately. Do things here in the physical world that will help people with MR lead better lives and give the community more access to the reality of MR, hopefully a more positive one. Every time you change the description of MR, it becomes an insult. It happened with MR when originally, it was a neutral medical term. It happened with idiot, imbecile, and moron. It happened with terms like deaf-mute instead of deaf and dumb (for the record, I know a person in the deaf community who actually prefers the term deaf-mute), with crippled and lame, with special needs, special education, “sped” (ever heard the term sped monkey? It’s an insult derived from a ‘harmless’ euphemism) or even words like challenged or special. (How often have you heard people sneer and whisper, “Oh, don’t mind him…he’s a little *special?*) What does this tell you? Our quest to be nicer in our words has utterly failed at its purpose. Obviously, one should never use the words ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ as an insult, especially to someone with a disability. But ‘mental retardation’ or ‘mentally retarded’ in the right context is no more an insult than diabetes or arthritic. Let’s get real.
To me, MR is the accurate term…it implies a delaying, slowing down, or stunting of mental growth and cognitive function. Isn’t that what MR is? They are late to meet their milestones or never meet them. Even those who are high functioning tend reach a point in their development where they do not make any more major milestones. We speak in terms of chronological vs. mental age. Someone can be 38 years old but have a mental age of eight years. Those who are motivated, hard-working, and well supported and who have the right environment and accommodations can continue to grow and make milestones. I encourage this for all my residents with MR. I want this to be true of every person with MR worldwide. That is not the norm, however.
Even the lowest functioning clients and learn and understand and deserve stimulation. I have clients with profound MR and when I want to stimulate them mentally, I read to them in different languages. I decorate their room with different types of artwork. I expose them to different music and vibrations. I tell them about the culture and the science of it, in simple terms. I respect the dignity and the intellect of my residents and I believe they do gain from these experiences. I see their enjoyment and their curiosity. I also see, plain as day, that they will never come close to studying these subjects in a classroom setting, using these facts or skills on a job, telling their friend what they’ve learned, or even necessarily remembering what I’ve demonstrated to them. That’s because many of them simply aren’t capable. After years of trying, they have not changed developmentally in ways that are observable. This is fact. This is reality.
How similar is this to what we see in trans activism, where words are constantly changed, constantly distorted, constantly policed in an attempt to hide reality? If we just speak the right way, we will convince ourselves that men really are women, women really are men, and we can con everyone else into accepting it. We can bully people into accepting trans partners as sexual interests. We can butcher laws, public policy, organizations and funding, distort facts and research and make it so because I said so. Magical thinking at its finest.
In a few days, I hope to continue an analysis of this topic, focusing on concepts rather than language. Namely how progressives battle over the theoretical and, in many cases, outright fantastical (see their tantrums over video game characters) over the actual. Stay tuned.