Refuting an op-ed in support of the use of the word “retard,” Gerson says what is worst about the current public conversation is “a dismissive attitude toward the struggles of the disabled.”
People who wish to understand the context of the current debate, Gerson says, would do well to study a prominent 20th century American movement that sought to direct human evolution by eliminating the supply of people with developmental and physical disabilities in the population. Called the eugenics movement, it targeted for elimination a number of groups identified as “socially unfit,” including the “feebleminded,” “epileptics,” the “insane,” the “deformed,” and the “deaf.” Forced sterilization of the “unfit” was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court and did not end in the United States until the 1970s.
Given this history, the r-word does not seem so innocuous. And defending it does not seem so heroic. [Christopher M.] Fairman can have his cherished f-word, which merely soils and trivializes the sex act. But defending the r-word is not the protection of free expression; it is the defense of bullies.
… There is not an exact correlation between vileness of speech and vileness of character, but there is a rough correlation. Words such as the r-word and the n-word often reveal aggression, contempt and hatred. They are a form of verbal violence. In these cases, what Fairman calls “self-censorship” is really kindness and moral judgment. And what he regards as free expression is just rude, abusive and cruel.
… Yes, government involvement in the censorship of words is dangerous. But what the Special Olympics is proposing â€“- encouraging people to take a personal pledge against the derogatory use of the r-word â€“- is not government censorship, it is social stigma. In this case, such stigma is a sign of moral maturity.
I have signed the pledge at www.r-word.org. I hope you do as well.
Related columns by Michael Gerson.