Every controversy about political correctness in America pits a guy who said something stupid against a critic who stupidly overreacts. Isn't it annoying? The fight, our oldest spectator sport, isn't any fun when rooting for either side feels wrong.
In calling a strategy developed by liberal health-care activists "fucking retarded," Rahm Emanuel spoke stupidly. It isn't that "the r word" can never be used appropriately, or that the White House chief of staff revealed himself to be a bigot; it's just that the developmentally disabled are wronged when a word referring to their condition is invoked as an epithet, and hurtful language like that is best avoided in civil society. The man made an obvious mistake.
Tiresome as it is to see political correctness run amok, Mr. Limbaugh is a reminder that there is one sort of character who deserves to be condemned for his words.
Were Down Syndrome parent Sarah Palin more circumspect in her public pronouncements, she might have acknowledged that Mr. Emanuel's intent when using the word retarded "has no more connection to people with Down Syndrome and other forms of retardation than his constant use of the F word refers to the act of coitus," as Mark Krikorian put it. He is hardly alone in using a locution that should nevertheless be retired, a charitable critic might have explained. Instead Mr. Emanuel uttered his indefensible but forgivable remark, and Ms. Palin called for him to be fired. Is there any approach to fighting "the r word" more likely to trigger a backlash? This is why political correctness has a bad name.
Though they both come off badly, the charitable observer must acknowledge that all of us sometimes thoughtlessly say things we shouldn't, like Mr. Emanuel, and that we might overreact, like Ms. Palin, were our child daily the object of prejudiced glances and whispered remarks. It is as common for people without special-needs kids to frivolously use the word “retarded” as it is for folks with special-needs kids to react with extreme, understandable sensitivity any time they hear that word. As The Arc of the United States, which advocates for those with developmental disabilities, noted in its statement, these remarks amplify "pervasive societal attitudes that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities don't measure up—that their lives are worth less."
Some years back, when I volunteered as a counselor at the organization Special Camp for Special Kids, I found myself painfully aware of the stigma associated with these folks. It's a vexing position to be out on the street, accompanying a Down Syndrome kid somewhere, when someone within earshot uses the “r” word. Nine times out of 10 they don't mean anything by it, and they're already uncomfortable around the differently abled. But that doesn't make their words any less hurtful or wrongheaded. So what to do? Neither issuing a correction nor ignoring the word seems quite right, hence the frustration felt by so many people who feel protective of this community.
Matters like these pertaining to political correctness most often offer neither clear heroes nor easy villains when viewed up close. In that respect, the latest news in the controversy over the word retarded is an exception, for its clear villain is Rush Limbaugh.
Quoth the talk radio host: “I think the big news is the crack-up going on. But our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult's taken place by calling a bunch of people who are ‘retards,’ ‘retards.’ I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks. They are Looney Tunes. I'm not going to apologize for it. I'm just quoting Emanuel. It's in the news. I think the big news is that he's out there calling Obama's No. 1 supporters "F-ing retards. So now there’s going to be a meeting. There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House. Much like the beer summit between Obama and Gates and that cop in Cambridge.”
This little rant is as an apt an illustration of why Mr. Limbaugh is unusually loathsome even in the realm of politics: The average person who uses "retarded" as an epithet does so unreflectively, in private, absent an appreciation of how hurtful the word is to the developmentally disabled and their families, or even an awareness that it is those people who are being invoked.
But Mr. Limbaugh's use of the term was premeditated. He used it deliberately over public airwaves for an audience of millions, amid a controversy that couldn't fail to make him aware of how hurtful the word is or who it implicates. Indeed, he targeted the word specifically at the developmentally disabled and their advocates in his final use of it, saying that “there's going to be a retard summit at the White House.”
Tiresome as it is to see political correctness run amok, Mr. Limbaugh is a reminder that there is one sort of character who deserves to be condemned for his words. This man utters justifiably verboten epithets not due to misspeaking, or ignorance, or a moment's inadvisable outburst, or even wrongheaded conviction. Rather he offends for the sake of attention, knowing that the backlash against PC culture affords him cover to say the most execrable things. Unlike Mr. Emanuel's gaffe, which reminds us of our flaws, or Ms. Palin's demagoguery, which at least appeals to our tolerance, Mr. Limbaugh's rhetoric on this subject draws on the worst human impulses. He is literally laughing at "retards," and asking us to laugh along.
Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.