Thursday, February 04, 2010

Rahm Emanuel, the R-Word and Sarah Palin

The Wall Street Journal revealed that Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, used the phrase "fucking retarded" during a strategy session last summer. Mr. Emanuel shouldn't have said that, and he rightly apologized.

That is not enough for Sarah Palin, who is using the fact that she has a son with Down Syndrome to demand that Obama fire Emanuel over the remarks (to be fair, I'm using the fact I have an autistic nephew and a few relatives with different kinds of mental disabilities as proof of my right to voice an opinion on the matter). Well, okay, it's Sarah Palin, looking for a chance to hit the Democratic administration whenever she can. What surprises and even worries me is the fact that a lot of people, even liberals, agree with her.

Rahm Emanuel is a jackass for using the R-word, but it isn't a reason to fire him. He apologized, and that's it. Does using the word "retarded" mean that he has policies that would harm people with disabilities or that he has negative feelings toward the mentally disabled? No. It just means he's foul-mouthed. This isn't like racial epithets.

"Retarded" has become a word that should not be used, ever. It didn't start that way. It was a statement of fact. Retardation means delay. Mental retardation means exactly the same thing as delayed mental development. It was the use of the word "retarded" as an insult that turned the word into one that should not be used, because it has a negative connotation. The new words and phrases that replaced the term should be used when referring to people with cognitive disabilites, but shouldn't be used as curse words. "You're so mentally disabled" is no better than "you're so retarded".

The word "retarded" doesn't need to be banished from the world completely, if it is used satirically. Attention to it (or to "retard") started when it was used in "Tropic Thunder". In the film, the term didn't laugh at disabled people. It laughed at, and criticized, supposedly liberal actors who play disabled people to win awards, not to open up the audience's minds to the difficulties of life with such conditions.

When I think about it, the Hebrew words Mefager (retarded) and Pigoor (retardation) are used all the time, even by myself. I'd never use the English word, but the word in Hebrew is just so pervasive in the language and the culture. Every time I say it, I think to myself "damn, I shouldn't have said it. That was the last time." But then again, the word isn't the exact translation. It's used way more often in Hebrew to mean "delay" than it does in English ("Israel's train system is Mefageret behind Europe's"), so that might explain why it is considered less offensive. Either that, or just Israelis or more ignorant about the issue than Americans.

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