Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Idaho Falls Today, Home of Hate Speech Yesterday

"The r-word is hate speech that perpetuates the negative stereotypes that face people with intellectual disabilities every day. Yet, its use continues to gain in popularity."

Yesterday a fellow blogger tipped me off to a train wreck of a thread over at Idaho Falls Today that has had me in a state of teeth-grinding irritation since. Ironically, the post itself was about civility in commenting on such threads, specifically political posts. It took a horrible turn when one reader felt the need to post this link and then respond to those who were offended by saying he's tired of everyone being ultra-sensitive to political correctness on the web.

I've heard the argument that political correctness has gone overboard of late; I hear it daily out of the mouths of shock jocks like Zeb Bell, who happens to be offended by being called a shock jock, but I've never heard it applied to the use of words as damaging as the N-word and now the R-word. Unbelievably, readers defended the use of this particular image and one even admitted that he "[felt] horribly guilty laughing at that picture… but couldn’t help it." The initial response to such a horrifically offensive image was as insensitive as the image itself before turning into personal attacks on those defending and condoning it.

All of this despite the community commenting policy at Idaho Falls Today that states: No personal attacks, name-calls, put-downs, or baiting other guests, races, genders, or religions.

The ever-brilliant Sisyphus weighed in rightfully pointing out the perspective of one who has personally experienced how damaging the R-word can be:

If you don’t get why “retard” is the new n-word then I can’t help you. Try reading the article again from someone who explains why it hurts. Your stance does clearly indicate that you have little association with the disabled. And that certainly would make you ignorant. I had hoped my home town had evolved a little. But that picture certainly can’t be defended by the victim’s cry of political correctness out of control. You bring shame to the state that is hosting the Special Olympics. With demeaning negative stereotyping like that, I don’t blame them if they never return. Can’t you see the value of people?
Sisyphus makes a good point about Idaho hosting the Special Olympics World Winter Games--we will in fact be the host of athletes from around the world in February. Since it was announced that the gem state would host the games, I've wondered about the reception these athletes will receive in my home state.

Having been involved with both the developmentally disabled community and Special Olympics much of my life, my awareness of how this particular population is received is heightened. I've been walking through the grocery store with my developmentally disabled brother and have had people stare at him. There isn't a feeling in the world quite like realizing that someone you love is being looked at like a freak or monster. Granted, my brother doesn't have Down Syndrome, a disability with more noticeable physical characteristics, but he is a six foot, two hundred and fifty pound thirty-one year old with a large scar on his head, the result of brain surgery at a young age, his face is asymmetrical, his tongue is slightly bigger than his mouth which means he slobbers a bit, his left side doesn't quite operate as well as his right side, and once he starts talking you quickly realize that he's just a kid trapped in a grown-up body. Yet, in my eyes he is adorable.

My brother doesn't comprehend the meaning or hurt behind the word "retard," but he is one of the few in the developmentally disabled community that isn't hurt daily by the word's use. I remember when I was a teenager, my brother's roommate, a young Down Syndrome man with a tough exterior, crying one evening after work because some kids were laughing at him and called him a retard on the bus. I can't remember ever being so angry and hurt by something that didn't happen to me. This young man, he has since passed away, was the sweetest man I have ever known. Underneath that tough exterior, he was afraid of Big Bird, loved Batman, took me on my first date, and would have done anything for anyone. Seeing him breakdown in tears over insensitive and cruel comments uttered in ignorance left an impression on me that I will never be without.

I could tell you story after story of developmentally disabled adults as well as kids dealing with the pain of the insulting use of the R-word. I have two siblings, fourteen housemates, and hundreds of friends (I say hundreds because all of them consider you a friend from day one and will be your friend as long as they know you) who are developmentally disabled and deserve nothing less than complete respect and acceptance.

I have never in my life said the R-word. When I hear it I am instantly sick to my stomach. I've had friends who use it in regular conversation as a synonym for stupidity--I've asked them not to. My younger brother, despite our background, uses the word because all of his friends do. He is careful not to say it around me because of the lecture that will ensue. I will shut a movie off immediately if the R-word is being used and cringe when I hear it just as much as I cringe when I hear the N-word. It's a disgusting word that has no place in conversation, yesterday's thread at Idaho Falls Today included.

After posting the image that caused such a stir, participating in its defense much of yesterday, and evidently paying no attention to conscience, the IFT reader responds this morning to another reader offended by the image:
I think you need to learn by the child in that picture’s example. Judging by the expression on his face, he knows what life is all about, which puts him a step above just about everyone here, myself included.
If the child in the picture knows what life is all about, why did you stoop to the level of insulting him and others like him for a disability they did not choose? This reader used this image and its caption in an entirely insulting manner--there is no disputing it--and he has absolutely no right to then turn it around saying those who were offended by it need to be more like the boy in the picture. Like many of the readers noted in this thread, if that image was shown to the young man in the picture or the young man's family, undoubtedly both would be completely devastated. Used purposely as an insult or not, it is offensive to use the R-word in any circumstance.

Special Olympics and a number of other organizations have created a pledge to take the R-word out of daily conversation. Will you sign the pledge? It's simple:

I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the r-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.

I signed the pledge, my friends and family will sign the pledge, will you?


Sara E Anderson said...

It's funny how you mention "slobbering a bit." I've been meaning to write something about how I've managed to get through a (mild) brain injury with my identity mostly intact, which is interesting given how strongly I identify as being "smart."

Immediately after my surgery, I found myself drooling occasionally, which I was kind of terrified by, because it seemed symbolic of much deeper damage than I really thought I'd experienced. That went away, and may have been related to the drugs I was taking then.

Tara A. Rowe said...

I've never thought about it being related to the drugs, he had a brain aneurysm when he was 18 months old which requird the brain surgery. He now takes all sorts of medication--for seizures, to thin his blood, to control his outbursts, etc. I do think the slobbering has more to do with the size of his tongue in proportion to his mouth, though.

You continue to amaze me with your progress after all that you've been through. Had to chuckle about your email re: progressive bloggers and neurological problems, especially since it's the two youngest of us!

idahogie said...

Thanks for this post, Tara. I'm the idahogie who was getting a bit angry with the pro-laughing-at-disabled-kids gang up at IdahoFallsToday. I wish I had the skill that you do for approaching the issue with a bit more grace.

I think that the problem up there is that there is a small group of people who don't want to be told that what they are saying is shameful. It's not that they necessarily believe in the idea of using the word "retard," but telling them that they shouldn't really sets them off. They then claim that everyone's being PC and complaints about their insensitive speech are just attempts to censor them.

I'm afraid that the new owner of that site is sympathetic to those folks, because he isn't taking any action to tone them down at all.

mbix59 said...


This is really taking off eh?

L2LotI - Learn to Live on the Internet

Whatever said...

Thank you everyone except mbix59 for leaving your thoughts on the subject. Unfortunately, IFT has taken a real downhill spiral since the new owner took over. Joe Eagle doesn't seem to care about what is posted, what site rules are, etc. It is a very cliquish crowd for the most part complete with it's cheerleading rah rah squad. Allow me as a poster on that site to apologize for the bullheaded arrogance of some of the posters. Boomer posted a very kind and thoughtful rebuttal to the thoughtless clods. I doubt they have the conscience to pay heed but he gave it a great effort.

mbix59 said...

You're complaining about cliques? Before I posted my comment, the only comments listed here were posted by the most intolerant clique taking part in comments on IFT! I've only been combing the blog site for a week and I can see that. It's a two way street, and the answer is not always moderation. From personal experience, over-moderation is the first step toward burying an online community, and is effectively destroying our country as I speak.

Joe Eagle is doing a great job letting things take their course.

Whatever said...

mbix59, try not to desecrate this blog too. If you're here to apologize, please do so.

Julie Fanselow said...

Tara, thanks for this post. I have the uncomfortable feeling that the "r" word is used all too commonly among the students at my daughter's junior high - perhaps even by my own usually kind and culturally sensitive child.

I'll sign the pledge. I, too, hope the Special Olympics World Winter Games give us all a chance to become more, not less, sensitive about potentially hurtful words.