Examining the Word “Retard”

by Benjamin Studebaker

There is a considerable effort presently ongoing to get the word “retard” banned from broadcast, and to make it socially considered on par with negative terms that deride various races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations, that is more or less the same as them in terms of what it means and what it does. While I agree that abusing or mistreating those who are now clinically considered “intellectually disabled” is a cruel, hurtful, and unnecessary act, I do think that there are misconceptions surrounding the word “retard”. It is not quite like the other words it is being compared to. Here’s why.

Imagine if you were of a different race than the one you presently are now. You would look different. Perhaps some backward-minded people would treat you differently. Would your ability to do any of what you presently do be compromised? Of course not. If you were a physicist, you would be just as good a physicist if you were black as you would be if you were white. Your intellectual and physical abilities would be pretty much exactly the same as the ones you presently possess, excepting perhaps a few Olympic athletes. A society in which all the members are of one race is no more likely to thrive than a society where all the members are of a different race. Disparaging people on the basis of race has no grounding in reality. It is utterly ridiculous and very stupid.

The same is true of ethnicity. The French are not inherently intellectually or physically superior to Dutch, and vice versa. If you were of a different ethnic background, it would make no significant difference to your abilities, and a society in which everyone was of one ethnic background would be no more effective than a society in which everyone was of a different ethnic background, all else being equal. Disparaging people on the basis of ethnicity has no ground in reality. It is utterly ridiculous and stupid.

The same is mostly true of gender. There are a few marginal differences physically, and men and women often skew different directions in terms of employment, though a lot of that has to do with socialisation rather than rote genetic background. If you were of a different gender, your life might be very different and you would certainly look different, but you would still be similarly physically and intellectually capable. A society of men would be as doomed to failure as a society of women due to inability to reproduce. Disparaging people on the basis of gender has next to no grounding in reality. It is utterly ridiculous and very stupid.

The same is true of sexuality. There is no differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals (or any other variant) in terms of ability. If you had a different sexual orientation, it would very likely change things in your life, but you would still be identical in your intellectual and physical capability. A society of homosexuals would be perfectly capable of developing on par with a society of heterosexuals, though the reproductive act would likely not be viewed the same way culturally, and perhaps birth rates would be lower. Disparaging people on the basis of sexuality has next to no grounding in reality. It is utterly ridiculous and very stupid.

The same is just straight up not true of intellectual ability. There are gigantic, gaping differences between an intellectually disabled person and someone who is not. If you were intellectually disabled, you would be totally incapable of doing many of the things you presently do. None of your social relationships would be the same. You would likely lose your independence. I certainly could not write this blog if I were intellectually disabled. We certainly could not do abstract physics or science as a society if we were all intellectually disabled. A society of intellectually disabled people would be completely unsuccessful. It would never develop technologically, and its standard of living would be abysmal. People would die of easily treatable and preventable diseases, life expectancy would be low, there would be no workable legal system. Life would be brutish, nasty, and short. None of this justifies picking on the intellectually disabled, but it explains why intellectual disability will always carry a negative connotation. It is fundamentally undesirable that a person be born intellectually disabled. Parents of intellectually disabled children may love them dearly, but they almost certainly were not planning on having an intellectually disabled child, and the cost of maintaining that child to their productivity is significant. No matter how willing an intellectually disabled person is to work, or how hard such a person tries, unless the disability is quite slight, the person will consume more of society’s resources than the person produces. That is not the person’s fault, of course, but it remains true. No one wants to be intellectually disabled. Disparaging people on the basis of their intelligence is common in our society.

The word “retard” was originally part of the larger phrase “mentally retarded”, designed to replace words like “idiot”, “imbecile”, and “moron”, all of which were themselves previously clinical terms. Those terms are now perfectly acceptable modern synonyms for “stupid”, despite their origins. Soon enough, the new terms will acquire the same connotations the old terms had, and we will hear people calling each other “disabled”, “deficient”, or whatever else is devised. When you call a person an “idiot”, you may not mean the medical definition for a mentally disabled person, but you are saying that that person behaves in a way that appears consistently intellectually below average. A “stupid person” is a person who is intellectually deficient on a consistent basis. The only difference between this and the medical definition is that the medical term is based on a measurement, while these other accusations of “stupidity” are made casually. It still literally means the same thing–a person who is consistently behaving in a manner that is mentally below some standard. I would hope that none of these words would ever be used to make someone who is intellectually disabled feel bad, but they are going to stick around because people do have an objection to stupidity, an objection that is justified by the fact that stupid people make far less efficient, effective workers, and are often less pleasant to converse with or be around.

If there was a button you could push to put an end to a race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, to make everyone the same race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation as you, you would never push it. Those kinds of diversity are innocuous and arguably even helpful, and it would be wrong to decide other people’s race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation for them. If you could get rid of intellectual disability, if you could make all the people who suffer from that ailment intellectually as capable as the average person, you would of course push the button. If you did not, you would guilty if inhumane cruelty. No one wilfully, given the option behind a veil of ignorance, chooses to be intellectually disabled. For this reason, words with negative connotations for people who are less intellectually able or do things that make them appear so are always going to be around. Whether we get rid of “retard” or not, “moron”, “imbecile”, and “idiot” are here to stay, and other words are sure to join them.