The R Word in a Calculative Culture

It appears the President’s chief of staff got into some trouble recently for doing what a lot of uneducated people do, which is use the word “retarded” (preceded by an equally kind expletive) as a pejorative. He used it to describe the more progressive members of his party, but its sting was felt by many others, and even recycled politically for its stinging capacity.

I think this episode and its ever-unfolding aftermath have a lot to say.

First of all, when did “liberal” become a slur, and why do Democrats who serve as the President’s right-hand man use them as such? I thought only Republicans did th—oh.

Second, you have to admire Sarah Palin’s political skills. She came down on Rahm rather quickly and effectively, forcing him into a tactical retreat which, as of now, has him making apologies to people who are not inclined to accept them.

With a speed and dexterity rivaled only by its accompanying shamelessness, Sarah Palin did several things at once. She reasserted her position as the champion and greatest defender of those with special needs while scoring a major political hit on a highly-placed opponent.

But that’s not all. She also managed to advance a view of Democrats and the formally educated (in her words, the “ee-leets”) as the only ones who would ever make such remarks, and thus as intrinsically insensitive to those with special needs.

Republicans, of course, never have and never would use the R word.

And Sarah did all this while very effectively obscuring a mother’s use of her child’s diagnosis (Down Syndrome) to advance her career. Sarah Palin may look down on history and newspapers (and those who read them), but she’s no political dummy. She knows where to get the red meat, how to serve it, to whom, as well as the fastest and most reliable delivery method (i.e., before the “mainstream media” can get its interpretive hands on it).

That’s why for so many who have been (or have simply felt) socially victimized by schools, teachers, politicians, and the formally educated, Sarah’s their champion. She speaks a simple truth to power, which is that, in our culture, our more intelligent and/or formally educated members often look down on those who are less so.

Game, set, Mrs. Palin.

This, for me, points in the direction of a larger message we can take away from this incident. Assuming any of us have ever used (or thought of using) the R word that way, we’re in a good position to explore at a deeper level what qualities the word is referring to, and why they’re considered a slur.

In my view, our culture uses the word to look down on people who don’t process information as quickly as most others. However, we also look down on our poets, painters, and other prophets, for much the same reasons: because we’re a culture that doesn’t admire thinking so much as calculating. Here’s what I mean.

We tell each other to use our heads, but only in particular ways. When the mind is used to crunch numbers, analyze data, get ahead, make money, fix bridges, cure disease, or solve crimes, we applaud its prowess and fund it accordingly.

That’s because we believe the sole or best use of mind is to calculate the best means to particular ends. Aristotle called this technē.

When it’s used to inquire into why we do this, or wonder about life, its meaning, the nature of the universe, or what Chaucer meant by maken melodye, we wonder about that mind.

Meditation? Well, I suppose it can be justified as long as we see it as getting us somewhere — like reducing stress, hypertension, or cholesterol levels. But do it for its own sake? That just sounds…I don’t know, “new agey.”

What, is that a pejorative too? Whoops! Amazing what you find purely by accident. 🙂

And when the mind can’t perform calculation — it’s “highest” function — in a timely manner, we not only set aside resources to help others keep up, we look down on them as well. At least, many of us do, unless and until we learn better.

In short, we not only look down on people who don’t process as fast, we look down on philosophy, spirituality, and art as well (unless, of course, one is being “productive”).

We “think” the only legitimate use of our heads is to get things done, in as effective and timely a manner as possible. In so doing, we take a particular kind of reason and elevate it above all others by fetishizing productivity.

In so doing, we also make mortal enemies of passion and play, but that’s a tale for another time.

And we do all this by using the R word. Very economical.

So should we use the word? I don’t think so. If we mean to refer to someone with a developmental delay or intellectual impairment, let’s just say so and stop suggesting it’s OK to look down on people with these (and other) conditions.

You see, I dream of a day when psychological or psychiatric diagnosis stops being a factory for the culture’s pejoratives. For me, the purpose of diagnosis is to for professionals to communicate effectively among one another and compassionately with their customers. When diagnosis becomes a way of expressing contempt instead of compassion, I take out my yellow card.

Would we call someone a “cancer sufferer” or “diabetic” to imply something wrong with them morally, in addition to medically? Now think of when we say “alcoholic,” “drug abuser,” or use the R word. Not cool.

My newest personal pet peeve is the way “borderline” is becoming a slur among treaters, and not as a way to describe a uniquely and particularly awful state of pain.

It’s my growing sense that people who suffer “invisible” ailments – addictions, compulsions, learning disabilities, developmental delays (e.g., cognitive, motor, social), and the like – are especially vulnerable in a calculative culture for loss of self-esteem and self-worth.

Think of it this way. You and I get into a car in Encino, and leave for Fresno at the same time. You get there a half hour before me, and I fail the fifth grade. I have to stay back or switch schools, and all while my image of myself is at its most fragile.

I’m not saying it’s always bad to repeat a grade. I’m just saying it can’t happen without a culture that, despite its impressive technological advances in other areas, still applies a “one size fits all” approach to public and private education.

This, for me, is what happens when people are seen primarily as machines, and judged morally in terms of the timeliness, efficiency, and rate of their output. It doesn’t have to be that way, and we can start making it right by refusing to be accomplices in our language or attitudes.