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Palin and Emanuel: A slur? Really?

February 3, 2010 | 12:01 pm

Did White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel commit "a slur on all God's children with cognitive and developmental disabilities" by calling  the tactics adopted by some dissident liberal Democrats "[expletive] retarded"?

Sarah Palin thinks so (and blogs so), and also thinks Emanuel should be cashiered by President Obama for uttering a word comparable in outrageousness to the N-word. Emanuel has apologized.

Politically speaking, Emanuel should have done so, even if he wasn't referring to retarded people, let alone retarded children, and even though he was spouting off in a closed-door meeting. But is "retarded" a hateful word? "Retard," yes, whether that schoolyard taunt is inflicted on a literally retarded child or a child with normal intelligence. But "retarded," which began life as a polite euphemism for "slow-witted" or "feebleminded," isn't usually thought of as a hateful epithet. 

Or is it? I asked my journalism students at George Washington University whether the R word was offensive, and a few said yes -- but mostly because it was used to disparage people who were not retarded. (The analogy is calling something or someone you're mocking "gay" -- as in "school is so gay.") But is the word itself offensive?

Sociolinguists would say there is no "word itself"; society determines what words mean, and whether they are insulting. Fair enough, but in that case "intellectually challenged" or "developmentally disabled" also will become hateful terms.  As I have observed before, euphemisms have a short shelf life. Next year Emanuel may be apologizing for calling superliberals "special."

-- Michael McGough

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