On Hurtful Speech

In the first draft of my novel, I had a chapter opening with this sentence: “That evening, Viv found herself scouring her limited wardrobe for something that looked effortlessly attractive in an oh-this-old-thing-I-just-threw-it-on way; or, failing that, dressy and cute in a we’re-just-friends way; or, as a last resort, somewhat acceptable in a not-completely-retarded-when-worn-with-a-beret way.” (There’s some backstory for why Viv is wearing a beret at that part of the book, but it’s not really relevant to the point.)

In the revision process I changed the word “retarded” to “ridiculous.” I resisted the change for a while, even though every time I got to that sentence the word scraped at me—but part of me felt that I was being true to the character, that Viv’s internal thought patterns are not particularly sensitive to “politically correct” speech, and that a more disparaging term made the line funnier.

Then I realized that even if all of that were true, it didn’t matter. Viv doesn’t exist, but lots of people with Down syndrome and other kinds of intellectual disabilities do exist, and many have been clear that they find the words “retarded” and “retard” to be very hurtful. I’ve heard a lot of pushback on this and maybe even felt swayed, at some point, by these kinds of arguments: that any term used to describe an intellectual disability will take on negative associations (witness the mocking use of the word “special”), or that an obsession with “politically correct” speech creates an atmosphere of Orwellian repression, et cetera et cetera.

For me, in the end, it comes down to this. There are people saying, “This hurts me, please knock it off.” I don’t want to hurt those people. In general, when I have a choice between hurting people or being decent to them, I would like to choose decency. That’s why I’m trying to eradicate the word “retarded” from my speech and my writing. It hurts people.

I don’t think Ann Coulter is particularly concerned with hurting people, but I’ve seen a lot of defenses of her language, and of similar words, that are essentially attempts to avoid confronting that central fact. It’s not about the PC mafia or whatever. It’s about real people and whether or not you want to be decent to them.

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