Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the "R" word


When I led teaching rounds at Children's Hospital of New Jersey, residents avoided certain words in my presence: "diabetic," "sickler," or "asthmatic" would hang in the air as I smoldered.

The residents learned quickly--they had survived medical school. I'm not sure I changed any behaviors, but language does make a difference. I did not want young doctors to see my patients as diabetics--I wanted them to see "a child with diabetes."

It's much harder to treat a child than it is to treat a disease--and I would not allow short cuts on my teams.

How we use language has profound effects on our world view.

Governor Christie signed a bill yesterday outlawing the "R" word in state rules--New Jersey will no longer use "mentally retarded" in its documents.

"Mentally retarded" will be replaced with "intellectual disability" or "developmental disability," neither of which means the same thing as mentally retarded. The law was pushed by many well-intentioned groups, including ARC, which used to stand for the Association for Retarded Citizens, but now stands for, well, "Arc."

Lots of words become poisonous because of our very human ability to dehumanize just about any human who is not "normal." "Dumb" meant simply only mute a long time ago.

"Moron" used to be a medical term, used by (you cannot make this stuff up) the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded.

"Cretin" comes from the French--it was originally used to remind folks that even developmentally delayed people are people.

[T]he original meaning of cretin was, literally, "Christian"....synonymous with "human being". Due to the lack of iodine in the medieval Alpine diet, certain regions of Switzerland were prone to severe thyroid problems, such as goiter and congenital idiocy. The local priests, moved by compassion for these poor imbeciles, encouraged the populace to treat them kindly. They deserved pity, it was said, because they were, at least, Christians (i.e. "human beings").
Melanie & Mike Take Our Word For It
Issue # 27, February 8, 1999

Today many families prefer "autistic" to "mentally retarded." The words (historically, anyway) were not synonymous, and fusing them diminishes the usefulness of either.


The "R" word is verboten in my classroom. The kids learn this in a hurry. I also will not tolerate "gay" or any version of "homosexual" used as a weapon, nor the "B" word. The "C" and "N" words get you bounced.

I have a bit more tolerance for the "A" word if used to describe mulish behavior instead of an orifice, and I barely hear the "F" word unless it's aimed at someone specific.

How we, as teachers, use words in a classroom can make a huge difference in how students see words. We have a wonderful chance to develop some asolescent meta-cognition as we dissect why some words have so much more force than others.


"We’d like New Jersey to get to a place where you can’t use the ‘R’ word with it being inflammatory.’’
Elizabeth Shea
Assistant Executive Director for The Arc
Today's Star Ledger

Read that carefully.
Sounds like Ms. Shea wants to demonize the "R" word.

I think she meant to say The Arc would like New Jersey to get to a place where "mentally retarded" is not used as an inflammatory term. Or maybe she meant what she said. Turns out words matter.

I'd be willing to bet a pound of lima beans that "autism" will face the same exorcism rites in a couple of generations, and we'll see the word the way we see "idiot" and "cretin" now.

Or maybe I'm just a dodo schmendrick human being.

My mother and uncle grew up with Georgie Carlin, literally.
My views on language may be skewed.

Dr. Robert Rapaport, a mensch, and one of the best teachers I ever had,
just about slaughtered me the first time I uttered "diabetic" in his presence.


Jenny said...

Language has been on my mind a lot lately. I have come to realize that I consider almost everything I say to my daughters or my students before I say it because the choice of words means so much.

The history of these words is fascinating. Language is fascinating. Thanks for giving me something to mull over once again.

Tracy Rosen said...

The politics of words. It gets so that people stumble through sentences, not knowing how to describe things anymore.

Love the cartoon, I shared it on facebook :)

Unknown said...

I've already had to talk to the class about the phrase "that's gay." The hook for them is the use of the term "illegal alien." They cringe at the word and it helps them to see that language shapes reality.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

I try to do the same, then while keeping 7 things at once in my head (as we all tend to do while teaching), I'll scramble something up anyway.

The children are always listening. We forget this at our peril....

Dear Tracy,

Well, politics is all about words, eh?

(I love the cartoon, too--I stumbled upon it after writing the post.)

Dear John,

I got much better at defusing certain words once I realized how unconscious there use was in class. Consistent, non-threatening reminders over time do make a difference.

"Illegal alien" is one of those phrases that says volumes about the speaker.

Graham Wegner said...

Michael Frente said it well in his song "Television, Drug Of A Nation":
Where oxymoronic language like
'virtually spotless', 'fresh frozen'
'light yet filling' and 'military intelligence'
have become standard
T.V. is the place where phrases are redefined
like 'recession' to 'necessary downturn'
'Crude oil' on a beach to 'mousse'
'Civilian death' to 'collateral damages'
and being killed by your own Army
is now called 'friendly fire'

Traditional media has shaped language choice in a major way. And here in Australia, I see it happening with our students as they consume American culture voraciously and they ape phrases from situations and cultures they have no direct experience with.

Then the concept of "political correctness" is a major player as well, where choice of words can be used as weapons by either side of politics to shut down opponents or critics. Use certain language and one can be accused of pandering to "special interest groups" or being blatantly disrespectful.

Your post points out that we (I'm referring to humans in general) subvert words in the manner you describe by preying on those who are in the most vulnerable positions in society. It is an unfortunate flaw in the human character that we seek to feel better about ourselves by verbally degrading others.

Thank you for this post, Michael. Originally that was all I was going to write - but then my brain started ticking over. Even now, I'm not entirely sure that my comment makes sense - but I'm sure you'll be able to get the gist.

doyle said...

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your words, and for sharing Michael Franti's. (I'm going to see Spearhead in October--I rarely go to any concerts but Michael Franti's a gem and, I daresay, a prophet for our times.)

[T]hey ape phrases from situations and cultures they have no direct experience with.

Indeed--American kids are doing the same. The situations aped are not "American" in any regional sense, but rather pseudo-cultures produced by media whose enormity we cannot (or refuse) to grasp.

You cannot believe the ignorance consumed and accepted by a good chunk of our population here, though I bet that's universal.

I'm real glad your brain kicked in--I write to write, but I share what I write to hear voices such as yours.

Thanks for taking the time.

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

You will enjoy this TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTwXeZ4GkzI

doyle said...

Dear Reflections,

Thanks for the link!

I grew up a tad deaf, nothing major, but enough to affect my speech, and it's always been a part of me. I'm not missing anything (well, except for a lot of conversations) because I never had it to begin with.

Because I do not hear well, I pay inordinate attention to a speaker's lips, and because listening requires a lot of energy on my part, I am attentive when people talk to me. Good things happen.

I've been wandering around your website
this morning--great stuff! It's going up on my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

Dear Doyle, why thank you so much for your kind words. :)