Sunday, March 22, 2009

Using the Word “Retard”

It is disappointing for me whenever I hear someone use the word “retard” as an insult. I am sure this is not a unique experience amongst hub bloggers. Nor are we likely to be the only ones who feel this way. The Special Olympics has even come out with an r-word petition.

But in some ways… maybe many ways, this isn’t going to change things. I am prepared to argue that the use of word “retard” as a pejorative is most common (although
grown ups make this sort of error too) among teens. I want to focus on that in this post. In my view, there are rather unique motivation factors that influence teen behavior and make this behavior particularly likely.

There seems to almost be a mystique attached to teenage verbal misbehavior by our culture. References are made to hormonal imbalances and changing brain structures as if layman’s appeals to the medical model are somehow a sufficient answer in and of themselves.

In contrast I tend to look at the fact that teens are by definition at a point of transition. The simple and often direct contingencies of behavior management that have governed their lives up till this point are being faded and more cognitive or delayed rule-based-behavior contingencies are replacing them. Concepts, memes, and ideals become increasingly important. As these shifts take over, the teens become more able to discriminate contradictions, exceptions, and inconsistencies.

However, until these discriminations are firm, there will be uncertainty as to what constitutes acceptable limits of a given contingency. The teens will, as we say “test the boundaries”. Moreover, if a teacher or caregiver adds in a simple contingency to counter this, there may well be an inadvertent counter contingency. This happens all the time with swearing. It is punished when emitted in front of a teacher, but reinforced in the presence of peers. This reinforcing aspect is possibly increased by aggression reinforcers, based on a time when emitting the same word was punished. In other words, the more it is punished in one situation the more reinforcing it is in another.

I have spent a fair amount of time working with teens both with and without disabilities. It seemed the more I discouraged the use of this term the more the teens employed it. Some used it, I think; to get a reaction out of me. So, I made a classic mistake. I increased the severity of my reaction. Whereas before, I gave a verbal reprimand, I now gave written write-ups. This did eliminate the behavior around me, but it continued when I was not around. I wonder in the end, if my actions made a lick of difference in this regard.

Upon reflection maybe there was another strategy. Maybe instead of punishment I could have employed a specific explanation illustrating the rule based contingencies that controlled my own behavior. In other words, I could explain why I chose not to use the word “retard” as a pejorative. This may or may not result in a shift in the contingencies.

Ultimately, if I am correct about the managing contingencies, then strategies where the use of the word “retard” is turned into the equivalent of a swear word, will only increase the usage of this expression.

There is yet another strategy too. I think it is inevitable that many teens are going to at one point or another emit comments that are rude, cruel, or derogatory toward an entire classification of people. Perhaps then, another strategy is to tolerate the misbehavior to degree. This does not imply acceptance, it implies that we understand that this is likely to be an age specific misbehavior that will be intrinsically countered as maturation occurs. If this is true, then our duty is then to provide appropriate models of the verbal behavior employed by adults in our society.

15 Comments:

Blogger Fleecy said...

I think that's an important point, that it's more effective to explain why one might refrain from doing something (such as using a word that is offensive to a group of people), rather than just punish for doing it. Because that just makes people not do it around the person who punishes the action. And then does it more later out of spite. Because the only reason not to do it in that scenario is "get punished." Rather than understanding why people don't want them to do the action.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Making fun of Special Olympics athletes is extremely uncool, and it used to be rather common practice. I think if you go back to the 80s you'll find plenty of comedians making such jokes. Barack Obama had an unfortunate flashback when he made his crack on TV, and I assume he'll regret it forever.

The word "retard," however, is a different deal. It's used much the way "fag" is by teenagers--just to mean "loser" or "weirdo." Certainly "retard" and "fag" have their origins in making fun of homosexuals and the disabled, but the usage of the words has changed. Our language changes constantly, and policing word usage is the type of political correctness that wastes everybody's time. Just as we don't worry when people use the words spaz, moron, or idiot, we shouldn't care so much about "retard." For one thing, the word "retarded" has been more-or-less replaced by developmentally disabled or intellectually disabled. So let the kids have "retard." Who cares. We don't want it anymore anyway.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

That makes sense what you learned from how the kids use the word and why. Appropriate role models seems the best way to teach.

I've seen more competition among the disabled (people considered to have intellectual deficits)in public settings classrooms etc. It seems some people would like to claim we're angels but they get more upset when we show we're not and ultimately it's very condescending.

Because there is so much pressure from the outside (the more capable) to compete for everything (often unnecessarily),we ultimately fight against ourselves and adopt competitive ways that don't serve us.

As role models I think we all (everyone disabled and not) may maturely move away from school yard words like retard only to show in other ways how those who are seen as the least capable among us are valued the least.

I think these nuances influence kids to use quicker more obvious words they know to demean each others worth due to the general (often needless)way they see others make value judgments.

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

re: the deleted message.

Obvious troll is obvious.....

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Job! The repetition of "obvious"
really serves to increase the impact of the extent to which the "troll" was obvious! I am indeed very impressed. So...What gives man? I'm sure the two strategies you pointed out complement each other; first, you account for your abstinence with regard of the *gasp* R-WORD, and when your students stare at you incredulously and call you a retard, you proceed to tolerate it. Right on, man!!! Exactly the thing that's going to reinforce your dogma. At one point or another, you will have to learn to accept the fact that the word "retard", is here to stay. There are specific connotations associated with the said word; and those are the precise reasons why teenagers use them. The word is an arbitrary sign; you can call a pig by any other name, and it'll still smell as sweet. You can call a retard by any other name, and that person will still remain, essentially, a retard. So lobby all you like; the use of this specific word is here for a reason; and removing, may very well create another word with all of its connotations. Heaven knows if that word will catch on, but i'm sure you wouldn't like to have the sin of the creation of a word similiar to retard in its function, if not its form, heaped upon you. So do the world a favor, and suck it all up. Your disappointment is illusory. Get used to it. "Retard's" a great insult, and it's here to stay.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Clay said...

What do you do when you're Not trying to annoy us, Billy? Do you pour gas on cats and set them on fire? Poison the neighbor's dogs? What other kinds of malicious mischief have you been up to?

10:54 AM  
Blogger Chaoticidealism said...

"Retard" today seems a lot like the terms "idiot/imbecile/moron" of yesterday. It may, like those words, become much less offensive as it dissociates from the developmentally disabled and attaches itself more firmly to those who are cruel, thoughtless, or unwise. I don't have that much of a problem seeing it used, except when it's used to insult someone who actually is, or is perceived to be, cognitively disabled. Using the fact of someone's disability as an insult seems quite a bit more problematic than using a somewhat outdated and modified term for a disability to insult someone who obviously doesn't have one, especially if the intent of the phrase is to say "I think you're being stupid" rather than to point out the fact of a disability, as though it were offensive and a source of shame to even mention it.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Anonymous,

Okay, since you are willing to make a real argument I’ll bite.

“Good Job! The repetition of "obvious" really serves to increase the impact of the extent to which the "troll" was obvious!”

I do not think so. It was merely a well known reference to internet culture. I am not interested in simple emotive trolling, but if you have an argument you may offer it and you will probably get a response. You do not have to agree with me, you don’t even have to be nice, but you have to offer a real argument, otherwise I will choose to delete it. Up to you…

“So...What gives man? I'm sure the two strategies you pointed out complement each other; first, you account for your abstinence with regard of the *gasp* R-WORD”

I am not sure you read very closely. One of the things I think is misguided is the use of the term “r-word”, as noted in my post.

“and when your students stare at you incredulously and call you a retard, you proceed to tolerate it. Right on, man!!!”

Strangely enough, my students do not call me names. And while I do provide structure and discipline as seems best to me, I treat them with respect so that they know how to treat me. Seems to be working so far….

I cannot say what I would do if a student became angry at me and called me a retard. It has never happened yet. It would probably depend on the specific student and specific circumstances. I might write home to the parent, I might verbally reprimand the student, I might pull privileges, I will very likely check if the student is hungry, ill, or hurt in some way (often a precursor to aggression) and yes, I might very well ignore the insult, attending only to the student’s appropriate verbal behavior. The more time goes by, the more I appreciate the power of attention…. true on the internet too I think.
“Exactly the thing that's going to reinforce your dogma.”

I used my capacity for reason to arrive at my conclusions, not faith.

“At one point or another, you will have to learn to accept the fact that the word "retard", is here to stay.”

See I think not. It is just a shortening of an old word “retardate” which used to be a formal term. Kind of like idiot. Once in awhile some clever journalist will try to turn the word “autistic” into an insult too. There is the irony, both “id” and “aut” are Greek words for “self”. One has become an insult, but not the other… yet. In time, we will add new words to describe those with mental retardation (which is still the formal diagnostic term, not Developmental Disability, although DD is now used in the special ed laws). We will add these terms in part to ease the pain of the diagnosis on parents and to remove the stigma portions of our society place upon them. As if by keeping ahead of the curve, in terms of our word usage, we will be protecting our students. So in time, I believe that “retard” will become less common, as kids borrow the term de jour.

“There are specific connotations associated with the said word; and those are the precise reasons why teenagers use them. The word is an arbitrary sign; you can call a pig by any other name, and it'll still smell as sweet. You can call a retard by any other name, and that person will still remain, essentially, a retard.”

Exactly, you are entirely correct, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Now for a thought exercise, substitute any cultural group for “retard” and will notice that your equation still works.

“So lobby all you like; the use of this specific word is here for a reason; and removing, may very well create another word with all of its connotations.”

Even if we do not remove it via lobbying a new word will largely replace it in time. That is a side effect of shifting our terms to stay ahead of the cultural curve, without addressing the reasons underlying it.

“Heaven knows if that word will catch on, but i'm sure you wouldn't like to have the sin of the creation of a word similiar to retard in its function, if not its form, heaped upon you.”

Whether, free will exists or not, we still receive the outcomes of our own behaviors. Both behaviorally and ethically I am not responsible for the decisions of others. If a new nasty word was created there might be a sin involved…. But not my sin.

“Your disappointment is illusory.”

Psychogenic fallacy…. You cannot read my mind.

“Get used to it. "Retard's" a great insult, and it's here to stay.”

Act as you think best. As to getting used to it…. I think not.

Thanks for your time,

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I take my hat off to you. Your tolerance is extraordinary. I stand duly chastised. However, I do take issue at your "It is not my sin". Had you created that specific word, it would be somewhat irresponsible for you to disassociate yourself with all possible further mutations of the original function of the word. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Like the character of Frankenstein, the responsibility of the creator cannot be dissipated in so simple a manner. But if you still feel that you would stand blameless in the hypothetical scenario described previously...you may be over-dependent on logic.

As to the use of the word dogma...perhaps a better choice would have been dogmatic discourse. Yours truly had no intention whatsoever of branding you as one moved solely by faith; he had merely tried to put a negative slant on your words; as representative of his prior opinion.

4:48 AM  
Blogger Joseph said...

When the word "autistic" becomes an insult (and there have been a few attempts to make it an insult) that's when you'll see the prevalence of autism drop. Something else will take its place.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Anonymous,

“I take my hat off to you. Your tolerance is extraordinary. I stand duly chastised.”

Well, my goal was not to chastise; my goal was to explain my point in a valid way. If you found it worthwhile then I am pleased.

“Had you created that specific word, it would be somewhat irresponsible for you to disassociate yourself with all possible further mutations of the original function of the word.”

Ah, but I hadn’t created the word had I? Someone else did to fill the vacuum.

“But if you still feel that you would stand blameless in the hypothetical scenario described previously...you may be over-dependent on logic.”

I think not. I have never heard of, not do I think it possible to be over dependent on logic. You can form erroneous conclusions based on logic, but you cannot be over-dependent on it. However, ethics is a separate branch. Ethics are also important. It is possible to be very logical, but not very ethical. But even by a deontological ethical analysis, I would still not be responsible for the creation of a new word.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Nolan F. said...

I am a sixth grader in Kenosha,WI. I have a teacher who calls people a retard freely. This is a new school and this sixth grade math teacher is one of four who had the idea of this school 3 years ago. I don't think that she will do anything. this teacher has been working for over 20 years. I have a nonverbal brother with autism.He is 8. WHAT DO I DO?????

8:42 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Nolan,

Sorry, if this took me some time. I have been out of town recently.

The first thing you really need to do is talk with your parents about this. Your parents are the biggest and best advocates you and your brother have.

But, if you want some good general advice beyond that:

1) Ask your teacher if you can speak with him or her in private some time. They will probably say yes.

2) When you meet, talk about your family and your brother.

3) A positive way to deal with tough situations like this is to use "I statements" such as:

I like
I feel
I think
I love
I wish

This means you will try to keep anger and accusation out of your voice and only talk about how you think or feel, not what the teacher did wrong.

Tell your teacher how you feel. Talk about the love in your family, talk about how much you care about your brother and how happy it makes you when folks talk about people like your brother with respect.

4) Remember, that everyone makes mistakes, even grown-ups. And sometimes... a teacher learns more from his or her students than the other way around.

Good luck!

3:23 PM  
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10:25 AM  

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