After the last presidential debate, as many of you are probably aware, Sarah Palin did what she does best: spark national (and probably international) controversy by opening her mouth. She called President Obama a retard, and since then I've seen numerous backlashes from various groups, many of which are calling for a banning of the word "retard," insisting that it hitherto be referred to as the "r" word, and that movement bothers me greatly.
Now, I absolutely detest the prospect of taking Palin's side on anything, so let me make this clear: I am not defending what she said. I am not even really defending her right to free speech. What I am protesting is the banning of words - any word, no matter how offensive some people may find it, and regardless of who it was that said it.
When you ban a word, you do not take away its power. Quite the contrary. When you ban a word, you increase its power tenfold, and it becomes even more harmful than it had been in the first place. To paraphrase one J.K. Rowling, "Fear of the [word] only increases fear of the thing itself."
Look at the word "nigger." I use the actual word here, and not "The N Word," not to cause offense, but to illustrate my point (also, it would be rather hypocritical for me to argue against the banning of words and still submit to the banning of this word, no matter how sensitive it may be. That said, I will use it as little as possible). After the civil rights movement, this word was, for all intents and purposes, banned, hitherto to only be referred to as "The N Word."
The reason for the banning of this particular word is no mystery. Thanks to slavery and the events that followed leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, we all should know why the word was banned. And I do not disagree with the intention behind the act of banning it. It is the same as the intention behind the movement to ban the word "retard," and it is a well-meaning (though, in my opinion, ill-advised) intention.
The problem is, that by banning the word, society only made it that much more powerful and harmful - far moreso than it was even before it was banned. I have only used it once (twice more to come), and yet it stands out on the screen above all the other words that accompany it, like a punch in the gut or a slap in the face. It even hurt me just to write it. And this is in the context of a non-violent, non-racist, peaceful discussion. As much power and harm that one little word has in this context, just think about how much power it would have if I were actually sputtering racist hate and filth. No word should be given that much power, especially words such as "nigger" (twice) and "retard."
The reason why it holds so much power now is not because of its history, but because of its banishment. The fact that it is so rare to be heard (except by rappers and racists) only makes it a thousand times more shocking - and painful - to hear it when it is uttered. This is the danger and power of banishing words.
If we convert "retard" into "The R Word," we will have done the same thing. Instead of weakening the word, we will only have made it that much more powerful, which will only give the bigots of the world that much more ability to hurt with their choice of words.
George R.R. Martin summed up the heart of what I'm getting at eloquently and succinctly through the voice of Tyrion Lannister in A Game of Thrones:
"Let Me give you some advice, bastard: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you."Tyrion was speaking to John Snow, who was the bastard son of Eddard Stark, and he was speaking of the power of words, and the fact that it is each person's individual choice whether to let those words hurt or or not.
Tyrion knew a thing or two about this subject, as he was a midget (or "little person," as is the current PC dictum), and his entire life he had grown up with epithets being thrown at him, such as "Imp," "Dwarf," etc. But rather than letting these hurtful words be weapons against him, he utilized them. Accepted them. He wore the words like armor, and they could not hurt him, regardless of who tried to use them against him. Once John Snow adopted Tyrion's advice, he also could no longer be hurt by people calling him "bastard."
By creating "The N Word" we in effect turned it into the atomic bomb of all words. Banning "retard" will only do the same. We don't need any more atomic bombs in the dictionary.
As much as I personally dislike rap music and its culture, one thing it has done well for society, in my opinion, is that it has turned "nigger" (third and last), or it's modern descendant "nigga," from a weapon into armor. While many people criticize rappers and their following community for that, I applaud them.
What Sarah Palin said was, yes, insensitive and inexcusable. But let's face it, probably the only reason she said it was because she felt like she'd been out of the spotlight for too long. And the world and media bought into it, hook, line and sinker.
But rather than blowing over the top about it, banning the word completely from all usage whatsoever, we need to look at this rationally (rationality being the very antithesis of Palin and her cronies).
Language evolves. Language changes. The meaning and intention of words change. We need to look at the context and intent when offensive words are used, before we fly off the handle at people. When Palin called the President a retard, yes, in that instance she was using the word intentionally to be offensive and obscene. But fortunately, most of the world is not like Sarah Palin. Nowadays, the word is almost never used to directly reflect upon the mentally handicapped. Yes, it used to be, and that is why it causes so much pain to those who have mentally handicapped loved ones. I understand that and empathize with their reaction, but banning the word is not the answer.
The same goes for using "gay" in a negative fashion, as in "that's gay." Wanda Sykes and several other celebrities have recently been running ads on TV discouraging people from saying "that's gay." While I understand where they are all coming from, I think it would be far more effective if, instead of telling people "don't say that," to turn the meaning of the phrase around completely - so that people say "that's gay" to mean "that's awesome" instead of "that's stupid." Wanda Sykes, as a well-known comedian and celebrity, actually has the power to do that.
The P.C. war over saying potentially offensive things is, to an extent, a pointless battle to fight, as the list of potentially offensive things is infinite. Sooner or later somebody's going to say that saying "that's dumb" is offensive to mute people, or that "that's stupid/idiotic" is offensive to people who are intellectually challenged. We could go on and on forever and ever in this P.C. war to the point where you can't say anything, because someone, somewhere might be offended by it. Somewhere in the world, there is someone who is offended by the "Why did the chicken cross the road" joke, because when they were a child their beloved pet chicken was run over by a car.
Instead of flying off the handle every time someone uses a word that's offensive to us, we should step back for a moment, follow the advice of Tyrion Lannister, and use that word as our armor, instead of allowing others to use it as a weapon against us. Others can only harm us with words if we let them.
Sarah Palin is an insensitive, bigoted twit, but don't let her win. By banning words or phrases, you let the bigots win, because you give them even more ability to hurt you. Let's not fall into Palin's seductive trap any further by giving her and her ilk even more power to use words to harm.