Category Archives: Society

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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Real People

Half of everybody is below normal.

It’s an old wisecrack, but it is also a simple, mathematical fact.

Some 80 million American people are in or below the 25th percentile of intellectual ability. 120 million are below the 35th.

These are real people. They are as real as you or me. This matters.

Roughly 9 million of those people are diagnosed with an intellectual disability, sometimes referred to as Mental Retardation (now fading from use) or Learning Disabled. That leaves over 70 million Americans who are not well equipped to learn the skills necessary to be productively or gainfully employed in a modern technological society but whose abilities leave them unable to draw from established social support systems. The vast majority of them are “able bodied people” who are told to “get a job,” who are publicly insulted and denigrated by arrogant wealthy public figures.

Both political parties accept and preach some form of the mantra, “People need to be trained for the jobs available in the 21st Century.” 80 million of the people they are talking about struggle to read a cereal box. 120 million of them struggle to fill out an online application.

About here is where self-proclaimed Conservatives talk about Personal Responsibility. The idea is, as far as I can tell, that the 80 million Americans in the bottom quarter of the intellectual continuum from “genius” to “unable to interact with others” should take responsibility for choosing such lousy genes. Or the 120 million Americans in the bottom third should. I don’t agree. Someone else made the choice, or at least rolled the dice, before those genes merged to become the current bearer.

Pre-technological societies needed almost the entire spectrum of humanity. There was simply more work to be done than there were people available to do it. There were always things to be carried, things to be pushed or pulled, things to be piled up and removed from piles. Old terms such as “village idiot” still survive in colloquial use; “idiot” was simply a now-outdated term for the gentler euphemism “learning disabled.” The village idiot was the learning disabled, or retarded, person in a rural society. It is difficult to find any serious historic data on the lives of the intellectually disabled in pre-technological societies, but the existence of the term strongly implies that such people existed, were acknowledged at some level, and were integrated into society in some way.

I personally know Amish merchants and business people today who employ intellectually disabled persons in simple, physical tasks, stacking boxes, sweeping floors, and carrying messages in the community, and pay them a wage sufficient to provide for their costs to their caretakers and to provide them some discretionary money. I take these businesses and practices as evidence that pre-technological societies did the same.

Modern technological society seems to have almost totally discarded these people. The homeless, the chronically unemployed, panhandlers and beggars exist because we have evolved a society that has no other use for them.

To say otherwise is, in the mildest possible terms, dishonest.

These people exist. The arithmetic is simple. One quarter of all the people in America are in or below the 25th Percentile. Half of everybody is  below average. Now what?

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