A Washington Post article brought it to my attention that today is ‘End the R-word Day’ – part of the campaign to “eliminate the derogatory use of the R-word in everyday speech”. The website doesn’t tell you what the ‘R-word’ is, of course, because that would defeat the object. But they do accompany the headline with a picture of a kid who looks like he might have a learning disability. As I write this I am genuinely not sure whether I am the victim of an elaborate internet prank here, but presumably they’re talking about the words “retard” and “retarded”.
A quick search of the page via CTRL+F confirms that the dreaded R-word doesn’t appear anywhere on it, although that doesn’t prove much, because neither do the words “rambunctious” or “recombobulate”.
Now, as I was saying a couple of weeks back, words do matter. The people behind the R-word campaign are correct to say that “language frames how we think about others”, and the word “retard” is used most often as a term of contempt or abuse – sometimes aimed at people with learning disabilities and sometimes aimed at people who are just being stupid. Like a lot of abusive words, it wasn’t coined to be abusive – it has become so. This happens all the time – even the euphemistic “special” to describe kids with special needs, has become a term of playground abuse (and it’s all the more cutting for its patronising, PC overtones).
But there are ways and ways of dealing with this sort of thing. The R-word campaign reminds me of Harry Potter’s evil nemesis Lord Voldemort, who is studiously referred to as You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named by the terrified masses, until the goodies start to convince them that not saying his name only tightens the grip of fear that he has over everyone.
The “retarded” campaign (did I say that out loud?) is not seeking to ban the word – which would no doubt prove constitutionally problematic – they’re just pledging not to say it. Which is jolly decent of them. But the idea of a high profile campaign where you make a lot of noise about a word that you refuse to say, seems oddly misconceived. You can even buy a t-shirt bearing the slogan “Spread the word to end the word”. It’s only a matter of time before someone asks you “What word?” How are you supposed to reply??
The irony makes my head hurt. And the absence of even a single humorous comment in the list of pledges on the site suggests to me that some careful moderating is going on at R-word.org.
The first outcome I can see from this campaign is a big temporary surge in the usage of the words “retard” and “retarded”. I’m guessing the Washington Post, for example, already made a habit of avoiding the word “retard” in its headlines, but they made an exception for this story.
The word’s been in the news a bit recently in the US anyway, so Google Trends results don’t reveal much. But don’t worry: R-word.org handily includes an ‘R-word counter’ to track the number of mentions on your favourite sites! And if the person who made that didn’t realise how funny it was, then really, I despair of humanity.