A felony arrest by the “language police!”

Relicts of childhoods past.

Hey, kids–good news!  Self-appointed language liberator Ann Coulter has proclaimed “retard” to be OK again, and not at all an insult to disabled people, because she says so.  So get your “retard” on again, friends!

What?  You’re not interested in dusting that one off from elementary school in the 1970s and 1980s?  I bet you don’t even laugh at dead baby or fart jokes, either.  I guess the language police got to you, too.

Have you ever noticed that people only invoke those jackbooted thugs, the “language police,” whenever someone else asks them to consider the broader meanings of some of their word choices?  Has anyone ever in fact been apprehended and their free speech rights suspended by the “language police?” No.  The specter of the fictitious “language police” is only invoked by people whose privilege is being challenged.

Does anyone doubt that the world is better off with the abolition in reasonable discourse of the words “retard” and “fag,” for example?  I had to explain to an elementary schooler who happened to walk into a room in which others were watching a new sitcom when those words were used by two characters to illustrate offensive prejudice that she should never, ever repeat those words.  She didn’t even know which words I was talking about, as she had never heard them before, so they didn’t even register in her mind as interesting or important.

For as much as we hear about bullying at schools and online among young people, the abolition of those words among the elementary school crowd these days appears to me to be an unqualified success among educators and parents over the past thirty years.  I can’t imagine what is to be gained by rescuing “retard” from the dustbin of history.



21 thoughts on “A felony arrest by the “language police!”

  1. But, see, everyone’s pointing out the cruel, thoughtless and horrid nature of Coulter’s cranky jibe are being MEEEEAN to her and that’s not nice. We should be nice and let her say anything she wants because otherwise we’re just being MEEEEEEEEEANIES!

    I’m good with being a meanie on this occasion, sorry Ms. Coulter. You totally deserve to be called out on this and when even kids can tell you why what you said was wrong and why you should apologize, it’s time to stop justifying yourself and get with the program.


  2. I love how right-wingers always construe criticism of what they say as somehow a violation of their First Amendment rights, as though the First Amendment indemnifies them against criticism.


  3. This weekend is a two-fer. Samuelson is the WaPo decided that government jobs are not jobs (teachers, police officers, soldiers?). Ann Coulter has resurrected offensive language. Two right wingers who should be ignored caused way too many people to react.

    Ignore, ignore, it’s not Sandy; it’s breaking wind.


  4. Unfortunately, I feel like she got exactly what she wanted-15 more minutes of fame. She has made a career out of saying offensive things and then defending her “right” to say them. Mostly because she doesn’t have anything smart or insightful to offer. Why she’s become an authority on anything-even things Right wing-is beyond me. But it is depressing to think that she can make a (very good) living making things up and then acting outraged when sane people call her on her b.s.


  5. I do not endorse the use insensitive language and the Coulter example is rather obviously offensive. But, it can be difficult to know which words are out of fashion in academia and not to be used any more. For instance I ran afoul the language police here for using the word “native” rather than “indigenous” in a manuscript for a book chapter. The editor wrote a big long comment on how the word “native” (I had no idea it had ever become unacceptable) should not be used to describe Africans and that I should instead use the word “indigenous.” Now to me the two words are exact synonyms and outside of Africa I am pretty sure the word native is okay to use. I do not think anyone for instance would find the use of the term Native Americans to be offensive. So it is not at all obvious which words certain academic fields find offensive and have abandoned using.


  6. So it is not at all obvious which words certain academic fields find offensive and have abandoned using.

    And this has what, exactly, to do with little children and right-wing fuckeuppes calling people “retard” and “fag”?

    BTW, I wouldn’t lump fart jokes in with this stuff. Fart jokes are *always* funny!


  7. Ditto CPP on fart jokes though as with all humor, timing is everything. Among my finest moments as a parent thus far may well have been a simple conjugation: shat. Years of fun.


  8. While I recognize wikipedia isn’t scholarly source, it does happen to outline the debates about the use of the word “native” to refer to people fairly well, and these debates are all about offense, not merely effects of fashion: words matter.


    As standard practice, it’s probably good not to call people names and/or to refer to groups of people in ways that are derogatory or with derogatory labels. What strikes me about the banning of certain words is that doing so doesn’t eliminate hate: it merely exchanges one set of terms for another. Drawing attention to the power of some words to insult, to marginalize, to stigmatize, etc. is of course a good thing. But getting rid of the word “retard” doesn’t exactly get rid of the hatred that the word engenders. (Example: I’ve heard students refer to something stupid as “special ed.” Is that really some sort of revolution in sensitivity? I’d say no.)

    Also, an emphasis on *words* as the significant thing, as opposed to the prejudices that they express and engender, is, at least to me, problematic. For example, more than once I’ve seen that result in students being afraid to use the word “Jewish” or “Jews” to refer to, well THE JEWS, because they see the word “Jew” as derogatory. Which of course is a bizarrely sensitive expression of antisemitism, right?


  9. Dr Crazy, can you explain a bit more how you went from “words matter” in your first paragraph to your hesitation about avoiding some words in your 2nd and 3rd? I would think that avoiding some words actually does help minimize hate and prejudice, because it keeps some folks from being taught to hate and marginalize particular groups, and it stops the reinforcement of said hatred and prejudice.

    WRT to your last paragraph, when I was a kid I was taught by my parents not to say “the Jews” and instead use only the adjective form. They explained why later: I was growing up in an area that had very few Jewish people and was casually antisemitic. People would refer to “the Jews” as a way to other the small population that was there. So, you’d hear “why do the Jews have a holiday in September?” as opposed to “Rosh Hoshanah is a Jewish holiday.” Granted, my parents’ effort didn’t create peace and harmony on earth, but I think they were trying to stop the reinforcement of antisemitism in the community, bit by bit.


  10. Good point, BBL. I think the word “Mexican” can function in the same way in the American Southwest among Anglos as you report in your home region w/r/t “Jews.” Of course, both “Jew” and “Mexican” are anything but accurate descriptors of a religious and a national identity, but in local context, they’re assigned a negative value or (in the case of Mexican), it’s a derogatory way of saying “Latino, but I can’t be bothered to distinguish between Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans, so let’s just call them all ‘Mexican’ and be done with it.” At least, that’s what I hear around here from some white people, and it’s never in the context of “isn’t Mexican culture so fascinating, and aren’t we lucky to have so many people of Mexican heritage living in our community!”


  11. New England soldiers arriving in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution couldn’t imagine people being able to freely practice even *two* religions, much less a couple of dozen or more, so they fell into the habit of calling everyone who wasn’t from one of the demonstrably mainstream Protestant denominations (and they had reservations enough about most of those) “Quakers.” Often there wasn’t a whole lot of evident animus behind it–although frequently there was–but even as an expression of genial befuddlement, the cultural insularity that it reflected didn’t do much to facilitate pacification strategies–much less any long-range “nation building” dreams, if there were any. But, what could you expect from a bunch of “Yankees”–a word with an almost preposterously complicated and even contradictory etymological trail behind it.


  12. Dr. Crazy:

    The wikipedia article says that some people find the word indigenous offensive as well leaving only the term aboriginal without any detractors. But, I am sure somebody will find the term offensive. After all in Australia the term is often used in an offensive manner as in “the aboriginals” or more often “abos”. Really I know you are not an expert on Africa, but how did “the native people of German Togoland”, become an offensive phrase? We are not supposed to use native as an adjective not just a noun now.


  13. Maybe what J. Otto means is the assumption of insensitivity when one uses a recently tabooed term. The reaction of the editor in his story is a bit like, “What? You didn’t get the memo? How out of it can you be?” Whereas if you’re actually devoted to sensitivity, it would be, “The term ‘blorpulous’ is frowned on because of its association with bleached hair.”

    I know I’m using a facetious example, but do you know what I’m trying to say?

    The situation is exacerbated by the evolution Dr. Crazy pointed out: the attitude doesn’t go away when the words change, so old words keep becoming unacceptable and new words become de rigueur. (It does seem that word change is sometimes substituted for the real thing, but that’s a much bigger and deeper can of worms.) In some areas the changes ring in with dizzying speed and it can be easy to fall behind.

    Obviously, unlike Ann Coulter, all I’ve had to do is say, “Oh, sorry, didn’t know.” But the misunderstanding still leaves an unpleasant taste lingering.


  14. I don’t think it’s unusual for different people to have different preferences about how they like to see their meta-ethnic category to be called. I think that’s pretty inevitable. I think the important thing is for people who are being corrected or chided to be good humored and not to react defensively.

    Some Indian people in the U.S. prefer to be called Indian. Some like Native American, while many probably prefer to be identified with a more specific ethnicity (Annishanabe, Haudenosaunee, Potowatomi, Ojibwa, Cree, Mandan, etc.) In Canada, never use the term “Native American” (because it sounds too much like the U.S. is claiming all North American First Nations people), and using the term “Indian” is almost as archaic and weird as using the adjective “Negro” is in the U.S. I am not First Nations/Native American, so my goal is to use language that will for the most part avoid unnecessarily pissing people off, and I’m happy to conform to the conventions that different publication outlets prefer. (This is pretty easy, as I don’t write about the politics of naming different ethnicities.)

    I think the important thing for scholars to do is to see what the conventions are in whichever journals we’re submitting our articles to (or in the case of book presses, see books recently published in your field), and go along with the conventions that the press or journal appears to prefer.


  15. The press in question is Lit-Verlag in Germany which does not have any policy on the term “native” as far as I can tell. It was the editor here down the street from me in another department that flagged “native” as a no-no adjective in my manuscript. The article dealt with agronomists sent from Tuskagee to help the German colonial authorities increase cotton production. I wanted someway to differentiate the Black Americans from Alabama and the indigenous Africans. Up until fairly recently African scholars did use the term “native” as an adjective. I am fairly new to African history and did not get the memo that went out a few years ago. I see that John Parker and Richard Rathbone two Ghanaian specialists at SOAS used it a number of times, although usually in quotation marks, in their 2007 book, African History: A Very Short Introduction. The collection African Intellectuals in 19th and 20th Centuries published in South Africa in 2008 shows a number of authors using the term. Some of them putting it in quotation marks, but not all of them. So the convention of not using the term at all is fairly recent.


  16. Languages, and especially words, are slippery things, for better and for worse. “First Nations” on initial impression seems to respect firstness perhaps at the expense of imposing “nationhood” on people who at the very most, if they even did that, adopted and adapted it from arrivistes from the far east (i.e. Europe), where it was barely in draft form when “contact” happened. (James Merrell’s take on vocabulary and scholarship with specific respect to Indian studies–and indeed the reactions of the several respondents to his essay–in a recent issue of the _William and Mary Quarterly_ is an amazing and somewhat head-snapping read).

    One of my early lessons on the politics of wordplay came well before I knew much of anything about either politics or wordplay. It was in the “Freedom Ride” years, and came in a newspaper account of a rest break during a march across the countryside in Mississippi, or “somewhere down there,” to use another categorical. The journalist described an awkward encounter between a small group of presumably white northern college students and what I took to be a barely adolescent African American kid who were on the same side of the issues underlying the protest but understanding things and each other differently. According to the writer the college students had a hand-lettered sign that said something like “Stand Together, Black and White.” He described the local youngster as being visibly uncomfortable in the situation, and then as having taken a pencil, crossed out “Black,” and written in “Negro.” This was long before the linguistic transition in the opposite direction began to be common in race relations and progressive circles, to judge from some 1960s academic books that I stumble on now that read as very ancient in this particular context. (To say nothing of their broader historiographical datedness). All of this I recover through the lens of the anthropological imagination of a journalist who needed to find a short side-bar story on deadline, plus my own quite fallible memory of course, but it made a real impression.


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