If I hid a tape recorder in my pocket on any given day, I would be hard-pressed to avoid recording frequent uses of retarded. Too many of us use this as a punctuation of absurdity. Retarded, as an adjective, is a rather crass admission of our own superficiality.
The insensitive use of this word in our culture mirrors patterns emerging in the entertainment industry. According to the New York Daily News, the ARC of the United States (an organization that represents the mentally disabled) was especially appalled at Lindsay Lohan’s use of the word when she labeled rumors of breast implants, a confrontation with paparazzi and a conflict with singer Hilary Duff retarded. Her publicist’s comment that “It was not meant to offend anyone - it was used as slang” assumes that it is perfectly acceptable to use the word as a loose exclamation. Not only did she use it incorrectly, she also used it in response to three totally different situations.
What hit me is that people somehow get away with using retarded without provoking any reaction. The word is often used as a quick transition to another informal complaint. Instead of looking at a problem analytically, retarded makes it possible to classify any situation as absurd and move on. I recall a friend complaining about an assignment, calling it “ridiculous and retarded.” When I asked her how long she had to complete it, she flippantly answered, “Oh, it’s a long story, you wouldn’t understand.” Quickly, she excused herself, implying that I had misinterpreted her comment. Somehow, my friend placed the blame on me without realizing the effect of her choice of words.
The use of retarded, in a case like that, didn’t follow any kind of reasoning. When we speak against anything without providing explanations, we confine our ideas to the surface. It is easy to throw this word around and assume it helps make a convincing case. However, that is just not true. The surface is a dangerous place when someone who has no trouble throwing retarded around as an expression of absurdity encounters an individual who cares enough to question such careless characterizations.
When I asked my friend about her assignment, she obviously had not expected my question, and therefore failed to provide an answer. She had been using this word for a long time, and never realized that anyone paid attention to her choice of word. In fact, she relied on the fact that others would overlook this. All she knew was that she needed a quick phrase, and retarded seemed comfortable and appropriate. Like many of us, she felt okay simply tossing the word around.
Retarded, then, has developed into a common and convenient label, one that never forces us to look past one-dimensional ideas. Unfortunately, Lohan’s versatile use of retarded is just one example of the numerous contexts so many of us use this word. People may think they have perfected the art of labeling.
These people, however, don’t fool me. In turn, they push me to label them as those who confine themselves to trivial complaints and petty exclamations. People guilty of such a use of the word cannot expect deeper thinkers to concern themselves with their underdeveloped, fallacious thoughts.
This superficiality can be further understood by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary definition of retarded, which states that it applies to “anyone with a measured intelligence less than some value that is itself below average, especially when attributed to impaired learning or maturation in childhood and youth.” Most people are well aware that the definition of retarded has nothing to do with absurdity. When I confront someone about using the word, I get a response like “Oh, but I didn’t mean it like that” or “Well, you know what I meant.” People who abuse the word are clearly aware of its true definition and don’t argue its meaning when accused of using it incorrectly.
Regardless of its definition, retarded has long ago been used as a flexible expression to describe anything someone finds unreasonable or absurd. A convenient label like this is likely to stick around for a long time. However, critical thinkers who understand the importance of evaluating ideas can quickly realize that this use of retarded doesn’t demonstrate concrete thoughts but rather shallow ones. Those who choose to speak up will have no trouble silencing these superficial exclamations.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.