Retarded: The Euphemism Treadmill

I have a student who is, by the current euphemism, Learning Disabled. Up until recently he would have been referred to as Mentally Retarded.

Before that he would have been a moron. He would have never been, technically, an idiot, because when idiot was a technical term for retarded it was only applied to the least capable. There was a hierarchy: moron was above imbecile which was above idiot. An idiot was an adult with the mental ability, by some arbitrary measure, of a two year old, an IQ below 25.

He would never have been a cretin, although I had a friend who, before she wore the label “retarded,” would have been a cretin, because technically a cretin was a person whose retardation was caused by an under-active thyroid and was therefore combined with very small stature (which was not technically dwarfism.)

Alas, her retardation and her small stature were caused by a combination of an under-active thyroid and a Christian Scientist father: she could have easily been treated with thyroid hormone and had a normal life. So she became a “cretin” because someone else voluntarily chose to act based on a belief structure, and that other person was known as “normal.”

All of these labels are now used as insults except the latest one, learning disabled. It won’t take long before learning disabled becomes an insult too; I expect before long to see the label applied to Donald Trump.

You might ask why this matters. It matters because, in real terms, it is not the label which forms the insult. It is the accusation that the insulted party is somehow like my student, or like my friends who have passed from this world who also were saddled with the same labels, except for them they were “diagnoses.”

When Rex Tillerson said that Donald Trump was a moron (with our without qualifying adjectives) he knew he was not speaking literally by the medical use of the term: whatever is wrong with Donald Trump, it is not typical of what we up until recently referred to as mental retardation. What he is is an insensitive, ill-informed, poorly educated, thoughtless, rude, hateful, rich, spoiled human being.

Human society has chosen to say that, for instance, Donald Trump is like my student because my student has limitations that make life and learning harder for him than for most other people. But Trump is not like my student. My student is a gentleman. My student knows that he is different from most other people. It makes him sad when he thinks about it. My student, at the age of 27, is trying for all he is worth to learn to read, and he is making some progress. I don’t know how much progress he will ever make, but he continues to learn. My admiration for him knows no bounds. He is pushing against limitations that he never asked to have; he is struggling to be better educated and more skilled than he is today, and he is making progress.

Not long ago I referred on social media to “my retarded student,” and was firmly taken to task for my insensitivity and thoughtlessness. I’m an old man; it seems like not that long ago “retarded” was the current euphemism and was considered a respectful way of acknowledging another human’s limitations.

It is an endless euphemism treadmill, a term now associated with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who wrote,

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)

In other words, it is not the word – retarded, moron – which bears the insult, but the concept: You, accused person, have an IQ below 70. You are not One Of Us.

Which leads me to wonder: what is it about us that leads us to always find ways to insult one another? Donald Trump is not like my student. Whatever else he may be, he is crafty enough to have deceived people out of millions or possibly billions of dollars. It is not a skill I admire, but neither is it a skill that any of my retarded friends and acquaintances over the years have possessed.

Are not his actions themselves condemnation enough? Is there some reason we have to tag him with a name which those few among us would rather never wear?

Today my student’s disability, and his inescapable knowledge that he can’t do what other people can do, got him down. He wept a little. I wept a little too. He is absolutely a valid human being, as good as any person on earth and better than many. That said, he will never be able to live on his own without help. That is the fact of his life.

He is a human being. Others are more capable. None have any more right to be treated with respect. He is not an insult.

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One thought on “Retarded: The Euphemism Treadmill”

  1. I read your first essay on this when you wrote it. This is fleshed out and so now I know this young man in a deeper way. I suppose it could be said you add to each other’s life.
    I like that.
    Thank you Jeff

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