Monday, October 24, 2011

Words Matter: Thanks, Ricky Gervais, for the Pitch

Emily Willingham

For background on this post, see the coverage and update at -The Editors

When I was young, I lived a somewhat sheltered life. My parents never used racial or ethnic slurs around me or not around me, and even though I grew up in a small-ish, very southern town, the only slur I ever learned before middle school was the N-word, which I am myself to blame for having learned. At age five, rapt with the poetry of rhyme, I was working my way through the alphabet, rhyming with the word "Tigger." When I reached N, my parents became rather dramatic and, let us say, instilled in me a permanent repulsion for the word.

I was in Texas, so naturally, I did manage to hear that term again here and there. But it wasn't until high school that I came across other slurs, mostly having to do with Asians and Latinos and primarily thanks to politicians who used them. Then, in my first professional employment, I learned about other terms involving towels and some anti-Semitic terms. Before that, as an unwashed heathen growing up in an agnostic household, I had not encountered this embittered religious hatred by way of stereotypes and epithets.

Speaking of religion, there is a biblical saying that I think about a lot: "You can't touch pitch and not be defiled." Before my parents had to explain to me why I should never rhyme Tigger that way again, I was aware of differences in skin color. Aware, but confused. I watched "Sanford and Son" a lot and, thanks to Redd Foxx's coloration, had determined that my father -- with his black hair and dark skin and green eyes -- was like Redd Foxx. Society and culture and ethnicity, of course, disagree with that, but I was five, so I'll have to be forgiven. The point is, I was completely unaware of the gulf and instead viewed Redd Foxx and my father as related among humanity. My discovery about the N-word changed all that, and I suddenly became hyper aware that people saw distinctions that separated, rather than similarities that joined.

As someone who has always been more than a tad socially clueless, I wandered through my life unaware of other divides, other chasms, until someone else would use an epithet in front of me and then it would hit me all over again. A new divide to understand. A new cultural chasm of which to be aware. Without these words, these pejorative terms, people were just people to me. With an awareness of these terms came an awareness of hatred and division, and now they were in my brain. My ears or my eyes had, figuratively, touched pitch and I had become defiled.

In spite of my advanced age, I still manage to come across epithets that I know are in some way pejorative, but I avoid investigating the meaning because you know what? Enough with the pitch already. Yes, there are divisions that lead to historic and current oppression, but I don't think either side of whatever division it is needs to resort to hate speech to recognize the differences and the need for bridge building.

One divide that persists is that between the disability community and, oh, regular people. The disability community seems to be one of the last remaining socially acceptable targets across generations. I've had students who've used the word "retarded," talking about themselves, but meaning it comparatively to being intellectually disabled. I've seen people of my generation use it on Twitter, in movies, on TV. This word once had a purely clinical connotation -- as in "mentally retarded" -- but now some people would argue that its use has become so common outside the clinical realm, simply to suggest "slow" in some way, that it's OK to use it.

But using it relies on the foundation on which the word is built. It relies on a stereotype of intellectually disabled people as caricatures of universal slowness and incapacity. Without that stereotype, applying the appellation to someone else would have no meaning. Without that caricature as its foundation, the word "retarded" used self deprecatingly would not be self deprecating at all. In other words, the core foundation of the word "retarded" -- referring to the intellectually disabled -- is what gives its current use its meaning.

With an awareness that this term comes with baggage that is an offensive stereotype, I do not use it, in spite of anyone's arguments that the meaning has somehow shape-shifted and distanced itself from actually referring to the intellectually disabled. It hasn't. It can't. That stereotype is inherent in the term. To forget that is to forget about the rights of the intellectually disabled as people who deserve recognition as individuals, not stereotypes.

Words like "moron" and "idiot" have the same connotation. I especially dislike "moron," having seen it used more recently than many may realize in the clinical literature. Idiot, while satisfying as hell with all of those hard consonants, persisted even into recent decades as in the term "idiot savant," used to describe autistic people with perceived "savant" skills. I struggle to avoid using this word, it's so prevalent and comes to me so automatically. Once one has been defiled, it can take an effort of will to avoid blurting out these terms now embedded in the psyche. I understand that not using them takes work because I work myself on trying not to use "idiot." But these terms are loaded with meaning, specifically for the community of the intellectually disabled. Is it PC to argue that we shouldn't forget that meaning? I'd say that it's more accurate to call it apologetics when people argue that the former meanings don't matter.

Why this harangue? I have Ricky Gervais to thank for it. Today, I learned a new epithet. It's one I hadn't known before, either because of aforementioned social cluelessness or because I'm not British. Either way, he's used the epithet, one that's been applied previously to people with Down syndrome, and he remains unapologetic about it. His argument is that it no longer refers to people with Down's but that instead it's entered into a second act in its etymological life, one that somehow is absent the shadow of the stereotyping from which it arose.

So, once again, I've touched pitch. I've learned a new epithet and something new about human division. I've seen apologetics in action yet again, and feel that now, in two ways, we touch pitch and are defiled when people insist on using these terms and defending their use. One is that the words become a part of our psyche, like it or not. The other is that our fellow humans don't have sufficient humanity to renounce them.


This essay was previously published at