This past week, I was strolling through the Student Activities Center when a good-looking young woman in a bright pink shirt approached me. Needless to say that whatever organization she belonged to had a very brilliant marketing mind, I obviously stopped to see what she had to say. “Would you like to sign the board to vow to stop using the word ‘retarded’?” Uh, sure thing sweetheart. I scribbled two indecipherable words to the satisfying tune of “Thanks so much!” from Ms. Pink Shirt, and I was on my way. I was a changed man!
Now I don’t know about some people, but something as simple as writing my name on a board won’t turn my perspective upside down. Am I the only one who fails to receive a slap to my semantic integrity when a girl tells me I’ve been using a certain word in a naughty fashion?
Before lamenting over the lazy activism of whichever organization this was, I must make transparent my feelings about the word “retarded” first. It’s a fabulous word – three magical syllables harmonizing for a masterpiece of the English language. Just like the word “sarcasm.” Yes, nowadays the word is mainly used with negative connotations, and yes, it should be used less regarding a mentally handicapped person. But a recommendation, an encouragement to discontinue using the word is as far as it goes. I believe the word should return to its literal definition, but nothing and nobody can suppress a word definitely.
So if a group is actually tackling the task of convincing people to use one less colorful word, there has to be a much more involved method of advocacy. A name on a board proves only that that particular student must not have been running late for a class. Or it proves, in my case, the PR was convincing.
Two years ago, Stony Brook paralleled the admirable activism of one Ben Cohen and his StandUp Foundation by establishing our own StandUp Charter. The charter’s goal is not only to have students sign its “Commitment to End Bullying and Homophobia” pledge, but provide bystander-intervention training and visit local schools to spread the word. From their website: “By bringing people together in schools, colleges, and groups to concentrate their focus on how they can ‘do their bit,’ we can literally save lives.” Now that’s activism.
When compared to the StandUp Charter, the group working to oust “retarded” misses a key component — not enough “doing.” A word can’t be talked off the streets. Activism with such a goal requires widespread effort and purposeful implementation. A sign for passersby is simply lazy and ultimately fruitless.
What if the group does not have the resources that the StandUp Charter has? What if a widespread effort is still too far down the road to attempt so immediately? Well, there are still more productive ways than signing a board. I would personally propose a little business card bearing the maxim, “Have you said ‘retarded’ today? Think about it next time.” Again, this may be too much of an expense to the advocacy group, but financial sacrifices must be made for true progress to blossom.
The modern English language, though a relatively young language, has over the years adopted some pretty dumb words. Who ever comments on the dungarees of a waif anymore? But dumb words come and go, as well as connotations. “Gay” just does not mean happy anymore. So with time, and the right amount and type of activism, the use of a word like “retarded” will come to be retarded (slowed).