First, to explain the title, we should all agree that insulting someone with intentionally hostile language is “slurring” them in some sense, even if you don’t think a given example is wrong, harmful or tied to any given historic oppression; and that while occasionally a term of endearment, by and large ret—d and, more recently, ta-d with or without a prefix takes its meaning from the assumption that the target is bad and wrong for thinking, talking or acting this way.
More on this distinction later, but honest people who understand my point should eventually agree that lovingly calling your pet ‘ret—ded’ on social media wouldn’t have the same meaning without that word existing as an insult in your audience’s minds. I will try to make no further assumptions about your position here as we examine the following arguments in no special order.
1. Justification by medical definition/etymology
Some people agree that slurs directed at a marginalized group are wrong and harmful, but defend this slur on the basis that it has a literal medical definition. It is sometimes implied or stated that no negative judgment is being made toward anyone by using this term, which is a baldly dishonest claim when the speaker is defending an insult. When apologia gets this brazen, one has to wonder if they think we’re categorically too dim to see past a cheap deflection. We can safely dispense with their lie and focus on the medical and social facts, since the crux of the argument is that judging someone to likely be suffering from this supposed medical condition is a good reason to insult them with or without a diagnosis.
In a mental health, congenital disability, or cognitive difference context, which is what we are discussing, the word does not simply mean “slow(ed)” (itself now a vicious slur) or “delayed” in any neutral, scientific sense. It assumes that a given path of cognitive development is not just commonly expected but correct and uniquely natural, and reasoning outward from this error, labels other paths as being destructive and slow to catch up. That could hardly have been more arrogant; taking autism as an example, after researchers began including us in their studies as subjects (not objects) at about the dawn of the 21st century, they suddenly found that we had an expansive list of serious cognitive advantages over most people, with positive implications for a range of fields from graphic design to logistics to engineering. The blog FWD has a great explanation of how the whole concept of intelligence was medically and administratively constructed from stark ableism, racism, etc. which inform its current meaning. I’m no expert on ID or DS, but accordingly I won’t be surprised if some serious revisionism is needed to accommodate a full understanding.
Somehow researchers missed the benefits of autism, or glossed over them as basically useless, during the era which spawned the R word as a diagnosis. Some of the same disabled people and organizations now commonly portrayed as oversensitive or ignorant of context, correctly predicted this scientific breakthrough. Except for socially and politically, there was no special technological innovation c.2001 which finally revealed the truth; instead, ableism had prevented scientists from understanding us, including doctors, and an attitude shift made it possible to reduce bias. It is no coincidence that medical school and residency are contexts where ritualized and normalized abuse - from pay gaps and inhumanly long shift assignments to hazing and enabling malnourishment and addiction - have long been instrumentalized to cull the field of all but the most stable, privileged and in some cases pathologically dedicated (i.e. delusions of grandeur) applicants.
The term and entire concept of a clinical ret—d have since been discredited in medical organizations and texts that engage honestly with this issue, like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the main tool for diagnosing mental illnesses and cognitive differences in the United States. For all of the system’s faults, the medical establishment does not respect this diagnosis anymore, not with this term and meaning. Retardation is so clearly understood as a judgmental and violent idea now that the closest thing to medical consensus seems to be that the term should only be applied to cancer, a deadly clump of cells that we all want to completely destroy.
Convicted war criminals have spoken of their enemies with more compassion and humility at times.
This is one of many instances where, at least on a cultural level, the implication of eugenics should give pause to anyone who isn’t actually pro-eugenics themselves. If you use the same term to refer to cancers and the brains of people who you have social, cultural and political power over, really think about how that comes across. Some people who aren’t yet disabled fail to realize how pervasive literal pro-eugenics messages are in our lives. Most especially, autistic people, those with Down’s Syndrome and intellectually disabled people are bombarded with the refrain that we actually cause the bulk of the world’s serious problems and should be killed off, left to die or perhaps just locked in basements (a context where we are usually also abused with impunity in other ways).
This may sound like an exaggeration, a claim that people have returned to Nazism, but you can quickly find more examples of such statements on any social media or blog platform than you’ll know what to do with. Figures as mainstream as famous biologist and atheism debater Richard Dawkins have explicitly described eugenics as a solution to our ills in recent months, using the old patronizing language which is popularly associated with historical fascist leaders but is actually a continuing part of mainstream discourse on disability in English speaking countries since before fascism.
There remains no honest medical justification for even labelling people as clinically ret—ded, “slow” or with the old autism spectrum euphemism “persistent developmental delay/disorder”, let alone using the lay terms that have become, in their most common usage, explicit insults. Anyone who thinks doctors are in the business of insulting their patients with long-discredited slanders will probably not do well in medical school.
Iatrogenic disease and abuse of patients are still problems, but the term comes from an especially violent, authoritarian, and non-diverse era in medical authority, and its most innocuous use was still engineered to justify stripping people of their freedoms and further abusing them specifically because their harmless disability was seen as bad and unfit for society. If you agree that it’s possible for authorities to harm disabled people - and you must, if you engage honestly with both the recent and ancient history - then, in theory, you need not suffer any temptation to emulate the discredited doctors who were celebrated in that era unless humiliating or dominating disabled people is actually a goal.
2. Justification by legal definition (statute or court precedent)
A related gambit in the arguments for this slur is to claim that it holds water in court and government. This is a lot closer to reality, but also has a context of power and abuse that makes the term questionable even in this authoritative tone.
Like how the medical definition was used by powerful people with lighter burdens to rationalize stripping harmless groups of our rights and further abusing us, but even more directly associated with the eugenics movement, the legal term is a relic of an extremely violent era for disabled people, upheld by representatives who are generally not disabled yet. Any pretense of neutrality is washed away when you engage honestly with the history of who has been encouraged to vote and reproduce, versus who has been blocked from voting, pressured not to vote and blocked from reproducing for stated reasons and goals straight from the eugenics movement, unabridged.
No one should honestly expect that a lever of power used to sterilize and disenfranchise people and force abortions will be accepted as a neutral term by the disabled groups who have been victimized by it for centuries. It is enough to remind you that AFAICT nobody has seriously suggested that I personally shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce, yet by the logic of using this legal term to justify insulting autistic people and behavior outside of the courtroom, I should have been sterilized by force already or be appealing a decision to do so.
If even established judges disagree on how far to take that power, no one should honestly expect disabled people and those who seek to insult us to equally recognize its authority, far outside of even its intended context and (explicit) meaning.
3. Bank shot logic (not insulting or not aimed directly at the affected groups)
Some people acknowledge or are willing to grant that it would be wrong to actually refer to us with these slurs, but defend specific uses of the term which are not explicitly structured as insults directed at us because the real target is some terrible bigot we should also hate or because the term is being used affectionately to refer to a child or pet.
First, if you don’t see the problem with comparing us to literal small-brained creatures, I don’t understand what you’re even here for. It stretches credulity that such a comparison should be seen as honoring or neutral instead of insulting.
The second looming problem is that this forces people who want to be spared the attack to come out as having a stigmatized disability that makes some people want to kill us. You can’t seriously suggest that this logic comes from people who want the best for us and have really thought it out.
The next issue is that support for eugenics and other antagonism toward disabled people thrives on the spread of ideas that we are bad, unworthy, burdensome, categorically wrong-thinking, or barriers to progress. Images of us as absurd, silly, or pitiable are as important to some in the eugenics movement as outright statements that we represent a threat. Declaring that your hamster is very much like us for doing what we all expect from a small rodent is supporting the culture where we can and perhaps should be herded, ordered around, exploited and/or culled.
The word isn’t exactly helpful from this perspective but isn’t precisely the problem here: spewing eruditely that “this rodent reminds me of nothing so much at this juncture as an autistic gentleman with Down’s Syndrome” would be no more defensible (and it was never about precision or erudition anyway). The R bomb and its derivative slurs are just a shorthand here, if a titillating one.
On a slightly related note, describing an image of your pet or child looking goofy or cross-eyed with an R bomb may be affectionate but clearly takes its meaning from vicious notions of us which are also aimed more directly at us, if not necessarily by the same person. No one would understand the joke if they literally thought it was a neutral term describing some kind of suffering; they would mostly just express compassion for your hamster. It would be uninteresting or misleading that you say this about your relation.
Using these images and tropes for cheap laughs on social media and among friends tells your networks that at least some trustworthy people think this kind of abusive humor is justifiable. If it’s normal, not frowned upon, the idea will spread to other people who claim to be our strongest allies; after all, they know good liberals who do it.
4. Argument from pathology: that being autistic or intellectually disabled or having Down’s Syndrome are bad and hurt people
There is not much room to believe that this argument comes from people who are generally against ableism (domination and abuse of disabled people just for being disabled). We generally want to live, and none of these diagnoses is connected to violence or abuse. We are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime, fraud, etc. We’re not likely to actually include the Senator you hate for some bigoted or destructive act. There’s not much apparent common ground between people who want the best for suffering individuals/groups and those who would continue to defend this usage after learning these well known facts.