February 23, 2016
When our daughter Cozette was on her way to us, we had all the usual concerns new parents have. Were we emotionally and financially ready? Would our lives become unrecognizable? And of course, would our daughter be born a healthy baby.
The statistics are daunting. One in 33 babies born in the U.S. has a birth-defect of some sort. Of course, you would love that child regardless but the issue adds another level of challenges to the already challenging task of parenting. Many of those disabilities are mental in nature. For example, 2.5 to 3% of Americans experience some form of mental retardation. That’s about 7 million people. Neither Andrea or I smoke tobacco or crack so we felt the odds were in our favor.
When Cozy when was born, we counted her fingers and her toes. After a year and a half, she seems to be perfectly healthy and mentally awesome. And we often stop to think about those parents that have the challenges we escaped, maybe just because of a roll of the cosmic dice.
All this is to make a case about the language we use to marginalize those with disabilities. When I was in high school we had (secret) nick-names for many of the kids with disabilities, to quietly bully them behind their backs and make ourselves feel normal. I carry a lot of guilt around about that. If you are going to high school in 1970s Georgia in a wheelchair, you deserve a fucking Nobel Prize, not ostracization from kids who were a little bit luckier than you.
When I started studying the world of hate, one of the fist lessons was that Hitler targeted Germans with disabilities before he went after the Jews. He wanted to create a genetically pure race and forcefully sterilized up to 400,000 Germans who suffered from mental retardation, schizophrenia, epilepsy and other disabilities. The treatment of the disabled by the Nazis is one of the under-told horror stories of the Holocaust. Of course, there were similar eugenic practices happening in the U.S. at the time.
So, when I teach about hate crimes and hate groups, I also talk about the language of hate. I talk about the dehumanizing effect of calling people (PEOPLE) fags, wetbacks, bitches and niggers. When I talk to high school students, I especially discuss the trend of calling people “retards,” or saying, “that’s so retarded.” It’s not to shame or punish those kids that do it, it’s to enlighten them to the fact that words can hurt people who are already hurting. Instead of “punching down,” find another word in your growing vocabulary.
The impetus for his blog post is because, being an imperfect being, I don’t always follow my own advice. I was watching the GOP debates and the Bizarro World candidacy of Ben Carson. This alleged brain surgeon who may be wandering on to stage near your has talked about the Egyptian pyramids being grain storage units, joked about poisoning gay wedding cakes and believes going to prison can turn you into a homosexual. In the debates he seems stoned, at best, and maybe a little touched in the head (as my mother was fond of saying).
So as I was tweeting my witty tweets, letting the impulsive thoughts go straight to 160 characters for the entire planet to read, I wondered aloud if Ben Carson might be “retarded.” At the time it seemed like a rational explanation for his behavior. Of course, that would make him the first mentally retarded brain surgeon in America and therefore deserving of some highest of high honors (besides the White House).
I was busted by a Trump follower who asked if that was an appropriate tweet from a PhD. I don’t often agree with Trumpies, but she was 100% correct. I finally deleted it and any other reference to Carson being “special,” that might be seen as disparaging to my mentally disabled friends and family in the past, present, or future. I suddenly saw teenage Randy and modern Randy (who complains about trolls) standing there in the same spot. So much for growth, right?
And this isn’t about “political correctness.” Donald Trump and his thugs complain about political correctness because they don’t want to have to think about the hurtful nature of their rhetoric. They don’t want to worry about whether or not they are being bigoted because they are already bigoted. Being challenged on it undermines their able bodied-straight-white-Christian-male privilege. My job as a privileged person is to dismantle that privilege.
People should be taken to tasks for the choices they make and the things they say. That’s still fair game in a free society. But we can also be kinder towards the people we disagree with and the people who have traditionally been the butt of the jokes. My Polish family members would appreciate that.
Some of my fondest memories of my time at Emory University were volunteering for the Special Olympics. Those kids have such great hearts. It’s hugely humbling. I have been a supporter ever since. So, when I got called out on my silly comments, I felt that same guilt that comes with anybody who is aware of their privilege. The history of people with mental challenges is full of great heroism and courage. As someone who has dealt with depression, I have a tiny, tiny window into those struggles.
I don’t think Ben Carson is retarded. I wish I had found a better word in my “PhD vocabulary” to express my concerns about this man’s mental state. Experts have diagnosed Trump as having a narcissistic personality disorder. Pundits have wondered about Carson but it’s not my place to make a claim. I just hope he goes away soon so we can focus on the real threat of fascism that Trump represents. As someone who gets called a “libtard,” on a daily basis, I’d like to elevate the level of discourse that, in a tweet, I lowered.
We don’t win hearts and minds by marginalizing human beings who are different from us. We evolve by developing empathy with them. The Anti-PC crowd fears that challenging task. I want to encourage people to embrace it. I want to encourage myself to embrace it.
We now live in a “Live by the tweet, die by the tweet,” society where people, at their impulsive worst, are not allowed to make mistakes. Someone has taken a screenshot of your little blurb so be prepared for it to haunt you. I just wanted to apologize for mine.