The Potency of the R-Word – As Featured on the Huffington Post

As featured on the Huffington Post:

It hardly comes as a surprise when Ann Coulter makes an offensive comment. The conservative commentator seems to make a career of spewing language that denigrates a different party practically each week. This week’s off-color moment came when she tweeted about a cable news appearance by Christopher Barron of a Republican gay rights group called GOProud.

Wrote Coulter: “Great video: head of GOProud interviewed by retarded person on MSNBC.”

She is hardly the first public figure to cause offense with the R-word. Earlier this year, Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, called conservative Democrats “F—-in’ retarded.” Rush Limbaugh piled on, calling Emanuel’s subsequent make-up meeting with mental health professionals a “retard summit.”

It’s not just celebrities, though. As a high school student, I hear the R-word thrown around in offensive ways daily.

I’m in my trig classroom staring at a whiteboard that’s crammed with brackets, exponents, and an array of colorful digits. I’m trying to understand the problem on the board, but I feel like I’m reading a foreign language. My classmates are just as puzzled. One, realizing the problem’s complexity, sighs and lets out two words: “That’s retarded.”

Retarded. It’s ubiquitous. I can’t escape it. But I have never gotten used to hearing it. In fact, each time I hear “retarded” misused, I feel as though someone has stabbed a piercing blade into my neck. But as much as “retarded” pains me, something holds me back from confronting my classmate. The word renders me helpless and impotent. I can’t challenge him because he’s not out of the ordinary; everyone says it.

And not just kids. I’m standing at the checkout counter of my high school’s student store, Rice Krispies in hand. As the register stubbornly refuses to dispense a receipt, a mom volunteering behind the counter becomes more and more flustered. Irritated, she expresses her frustration: “This thing is retarded.”

Apathy has a major influence on the way my contemporaries use language. “Retarded” has become one of the go-to negative adjectives the Internet generation (alongside words like “gay” and “lame”). And while “retarded” is not usually spoken from a place of deliberate insult, it carries an insulting connotation: “Retarded” is used at the expense of a vulnerable group.

I’m at cross-country practice looking out at a long, rigorous course the coach has just ordered us to tackle. I turn hesitantly toward my teammate, whose exhaustion has clearly been exacerbated. At a loss, he resorts to the only adjective he can attach to his disappointment: “This is retarded.”

The R-word is a blade in my neck. My body stiffens and my fists clench at the mere mention of the word. But hearing it is unavoidable. So I’ve developed a sort of sympathy toward the ignorant, an assumption that people don’t know how their words hurt; that they’re simply in the dark.

But it isn’t sympathy alone that holds me back from the treacherous brink of confrontation. There’s another layer–something simpler that moves me to evade saying “please don’t,” or “that hurts”: 16-year-olds don’t have much of a platform to stand on in the arena of language use. And, furthermore, I run the risk of seeming almost sanctimonious; lecturing my friends and family on their choices of words when I’m still trying to discover my own voice.

Nonetheless, I’ve had no such luxury of darkness. Down the hall from my bedroom, my autistic brother struggles to carry on a conversation, getting stuck repeating the same phrases over and over again. (Granted, there are differences between autism and the other sorts of developmental delays that once fell under the umbrella of “retardation.”) Most of my peers have not witnessed the deeply rooted frustrations of missing out on a typical childhood. Few of them hear pleas like my brother’s to “go to school with the other kids.”

Sometimes I do leap abruptly at the opportunity to wag a finger. “Do you have a brother with a neurological disorder?” I’ll ask, my tone dripping with disdain. “Tell me, what is it about that math problem that’s mentally delayed?” But my discomfort with a generation’s forceful linguistic trend has changed the way I’ve chosen to express my displeasure. Public scolding, I’ve learned, rings hollow and elicits little more than an awkward blank stare. It’s not that I’m afraid or timid; but sometimes–even when I feel like my “retarded” bubble is about to burst — I just have to ask myself, “Is it worth it?”

Like it or not, it is.

I wish my generation (and their moms, where necessary) would realize something: words can be both powerful and toxic. Some serve a variety of purposes; but some are meant to be attached to one exclusive definition. Those words aren’t fit to be taken out of context and attached to scenario after scenario, ad nauseam. The movie you saw last night isn’t retarded, the Christmas sweater your Great Aunt Gertrude knit you isn’t gay, and your Monday afternoon SAT class isn’t lame. The more often we hastily slap one of those labels onto something, the more often we denigrate, disparage, belittle, and inevitably rule out a magnificent portion of our population.

The math problem was challenging, sure. The cash register wasn’t working and the cross-country course was disheartening. That MSNBC host may have asked some questions that Coulter didn’t like . But do any of those scenarios entail any sort of neurological delay? Most certainly not.

To preserve the sanctity of language and defend the integrity of another population of otherwise easy-targets, thought should always precede action and compassion should inform language. The next time you want to express how awful, offensive or frustrating something is, try coming up with another word. My suggestion: Coulterish.

Opposition Research

(Ed. Note: The following is just some political thinking. It’s what I hope the Republicans won’t do.)

What I am about to describe displays the would-be thought process of a smart Republican party…a Republican party that observes history and looks at past campaigns under a magnifying glass. What I’m about to describe is the thought-process of a Republican party which understands that external politics should ultimately affect internal policies. I am relieved, however, that the Republican party in the form I am about to describe doesn’t currently exist.

Imagine a Republican party that looks back upon the 2008 campaign with scrutiny. Its leaders understand that the Democrats waded in precarious waters and got dangerously close to throwing away what could have been the easiest election to win in generations. The 2008 campaign could have been so effortless for the Democrats: the Republican incumbent was the most unpopular president in more than thirty years, the country’s economy and housing market were crumbling at his feet, he was waging two unresolved wars, and he was ostensibly poised to hand it all over to the next guy and get it all off of his plate. But the Democrats were unequivocally divided. Instead of the presidential campaign being between two candidates– and each party fully backing one candidate– there were three. So, the Democrats, instead of being stalwartly united behind a nominee, were broken up and estranged from one another while the Republican candidate soaked up three or four months of free campaigning.

Obviously, this past election was an anomaly on several fronts and sundry factors led the Democrats to victory, anyway. But instead of meditating on how the Democrats won the election in 2008, they should think about what the Democrats did that almost lost them the race: they were divided from the get-go. If they want to win back the White House (which, again, hopefully they won’t know how to do), they need to find President Obama’s constituent weaknesses and provide a candidate who is strong where Obama is weak (in terms of demography and issues).

Fortunately, there is a more-than-bifurcated scope of potential candidates; the Tea Party sector of the Republican Party has begun to alienate the less conservative part of the base, and the moderates turn off the Tea Partiers. There is a remarkable sense of polarization within the Republican party. What they don’t understand is that they’ll ultimately need to uniformly back someone who’s relatively moderate.

As his term carries out and the crises (in and out of the president’s control) mount, more and more of Obama’s supporters are distancing themselves from him. To win in 2012, the Republican nominee is going to have to be someone who can appeal to the once-liberal voters who want something in between and are dissatisfied. Ultimately, however, a moderate nominee won’t get Michelle Bachmann or Rush Limbaugh’s endorsement, and therefore won’t be able to stimulate the other side of the Republican base.

The Republicans are in a pickle, and unless they change something quickly, they’re not going to be able to get out.

Don’t Blame the Architect

On a warm June evening in 1858, a young, unknown senate hopeful addressed a Republican convention inside of the Illinois State House. With full-bodied conviction, he set in motion what would later grow into his movement against slavery:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

He was talking about servitude and its proponents, but the essence of his words could teach some modern-day political groups a thing or two:

Dear Republican National Committee (RNC),

My grandfather has explained to me, on several occasions, that an organization sans a unified approach will fail. Companies whose CEO and Board of Trustees have differing visions. Schools whose administrators preach a mission statement when their teachers don’t embody it. Political organizations who can’t follow a leader. All are detrimental business models– houses that are destined to fall.

You are a party divided against yourself. From the far-right, the Tea Partiers have begun to poach your politicians (and potential politicians) and pressure them into moving further right than is healthy. State Party Chairs, congressmen, and senators have called for your National Chair, Michael Steele, to resign. In response to criticism, thirty-one of your State Party Chairs have written a letter in support of Steele. And, to top it all off, Michael Steele, himself, is taking his cues from– you guessed it — the ever-delightful Rush Limbaugh.

You’re a mess. Yes, Democrats relish your mayhem and use it to their advantage. But in the end, it’s unhealthy for the country, and it doesn’t bode well for any sort of comprehensive legislation that will actually help people. You’re a steroid to the Democrats and a poison to the greater good of the country.

Congress is already more polarized than it has ever been. The fight to secure the most basic right in human civilization (healthcare) lasted fourteen months and detached lawmakers from reality while dividing the country against itself. Your lethal chaotic poison cannot seep any further into the congressional bloodstream. The country can’t take it.

RNC, you need to get it together.

Forget the greater good. Do it for Trig, Track, Bristol, Piper, and Willow.


Apprehensive American

Mal-Intended Word Vomit

People like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their sort take up their airtime by spewing hate-speech and expressing their senseless enmity towards all things different. When they’re not doing that, they are completely lying about something else. The nonsensical, rhetorical speeches they vomit up aren’t political commentary or partisan talking points. The things they say are bigoted, narrow-minded, and, for the most part, fabricated.

When challenged about these things, some hosts say that they are “entertainers,” and their job isn’t necessarily to present the news as it is. Others plead first amendment rights.

Well, Glenn Beck, here’s what I have to say to you:

Yes, entertainers have different societal roles than newsmen. Entertainers don’t have to tell the truth, and can blow anything out of proportion at their prerogative. It’s the job of the entertainer to amuse an audience, not to educate it. But if you have deemed yourself an entertainer, then you shouldn’t be working for a nationally syndicated news organization, and certainly not one whose single, cliché slogan is “Fair and Balanced, because that, Glenn Beck, would make you a liar.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

-First Amendment, United States Constitution

The constitution gives you the right to say whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. The founding fathers trusted you to use these rights for the good of the people around you. But the Bill of Rights is not to be abused. If the second amendment is abused, people die. If the sixth amendment is abused, guilty people are set free. And if the first amendment is abused, the trust and security of our society is compromised. As a rabbi said in synagogue today, you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

Don’t underestimate America.