Sunday, August 24, 2008

Language, Meaning, and Image

The discussion about the sometimes ugly and derogatory language in Tropic Thunder continues among disability activists, although in a more nuanced form. One particular op/ed struck me as an example of how hard we human beings strive to name ourselves and to hold on to the image that name embodies.

Here's the opening of the piece

Richmond Times-Dispatch
The Term 'Retard' Is a Big Deal to People Like Me
Sunday, Aug 17, 2008 - 12:05 AM
By John Franklin Stephens
What's the big deal about using the word retard? A lot of people are talking about the movie Tropic Thunder that opened in theaters Friday. One of the reasons that it is being talked about is that the characters use the term "retard" over and over. They use it the same way that kids do all the time -- to jokingly insult one another. The people who made the movie, DreamWorks and Paramount, and many of the critics who have reviewed it, say that the term is being used by characters who are dumb and shallow themselves. You see, we are supposed to get the joke: Only the dumb and shallow people use a term that means dumb and shallow. My dad tells me that this is called "irony."

My fanny has been in a wheelchair for 49 years, from adolescence to retirement, and so I've heard about 99% of all the words thrown at folks like us.

About 25 years into that journey, however, I married a woman who happened to be born with a severe hearing impairment. Her mother taught her to speak, a feat remarkable beyond belief since my mother-in-law has nothing more than a high school education. But my wife has an accent -- which makes her disability visible, so to speak -- and of course, she sometimes misses words or phrases.

All that is said to note this: my wife hates beyond description the word "dumb."

Looking back, it seems strange that nowhere in the process of obtaining in the process of obtaining a Masters degree and three medical science certifications did anyone teach her that the meaning of "dumb" in the context of "deaf and dumb" is to be mute -- speechless because of the inability to hear.

I love words, this marvelous human capacity to express emotions through sound, and so, given my interaction with my wife, it struck me as intriguingly ironic that the John Franklin Stephens editorial employed the phrase "dumb and shallow" to characterize people.

Of course, my wife has known for several years that "deaf and dumb" means "hearing impaired and unable to speak," but she grew up believing that she was being called stupid whenever her hearing impairment was exposed in some way that attracted notice.

And in fact, she was.

"Dumb" was being used against her, used to bully and demean her, because "dumb" in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s had come to mean stupid, at least as popularly employed, rather than unable to speak.

This in no way is a defense of the word "retard" or an attack on John Franklin Stephens. But listening to the debate reminds me how far we have come over the last few decades.

I've lived through being seen as an invalid, to a shut-in, to being handicapped, right down to being seen as an obnoxious crip, a label I'm beginning to prefer.

But now, hide grown thick and attitude far more tolerant, I comprehend that the image human beings carry of themselves is fragile, at least to those of us with the normal range of emotions and neuroses.

And sometimes the only solution is to dress up in our screw-you clothes and keep motoring on.
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