Jackasses, fools, knaves, and miscreants

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently, President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was in the news when it was leaked that he had referred to liberal activists who are complaining about Obama’s lack of follow through on his campaign promises as “f—ing retarded.”

While one might think that the real story here is the revelation of the contempt with which the White House views its most passionate supporters, Sarah Palin pre-empted that by once again complaining that her family had been slighted and that Emmanuel should resign for his slur that disparaged people like her son Trig who has Down syndrome. Palin seems to have decided that she can run on a platform of grievances against her family on whose behalf she demands privacy and respect, although it is she that uses them as props, Trig especially, and puts them forward in the public eye whenever it suits her purposes.

She faced some embarrassing moments when Rush Limbaugh, one of the key de-facto leaders of the Republican Party and before whom all Republicans must grovel, also used the term ‘retard’ repeatedly, but she tried to brush that off by saying that Limbaugh’s usage was acceptable because it was ‘satire’. Sometimes it seems to me that Palin actually enjoys being ridiculed.

The story developed even more legs when an episode of the animated TV program Family Guy (a comedy show that no one can accuse of sensitivity and good taste) had the son take out a girl with Down syndrome who describes herself as the daughter of a former governor of Alaska. (You can see the clip here.) The Palin outrage machine once again roared into the red zone.

But while I think Palin is in serious danger of further trivializing herself and being seen as a perpetual whiner if she keeps up this high volume campaign against slights from even cartoon TV shows, she does have a point that the casual use of words like ‘retard’ as insults should be discouraged.

Michael Berube, a professor of American literature who also teaches disability studies and has a child with Down syndrome, is someone on the opposite pole of the political spectrum from Palin but although he does not take offense nearly as easily as Palin does, he points out that it is somewhat unfair to use words like ‘retard’ to compare people who should know better and should be functioning at a higher cognitive level but are not, with people who, for reasons beyond their control, have diminished mental capabilities but yet are often exercising their capacities to the fullest and living exemplary lives. As Berube says, “Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions.”

Many of the terms that are now used derogatorily are (or at least once were) clinical terms of description. As Berube writes:

Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?

The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: “moron” is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, “idiot” and “imbecile” were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don’t remember those days, “morons” had what we now call “mild” mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; “imbeciles” had what we now call “moderate” mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with “severe and profound” mental retardation, were idiots.

A century ago, “Mongoloid idiot,” for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.

Berube’s piece made me realize that I should re-evaluate my own occasional unthinking use of the words ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ and their derivatives. (I never use the word ‘retard’ because that has always seemed to me to be ugly and hateful, reflecting more negatively on the person using it than the person it is directed at.) The question is what word to use as a replacement when one is confronted with people who are behaving in exceptionally stupid ways. Berube suggests that we look for a word that is descriptive of performance rather than capacity. In addition to possible Shakespearean insults such as knaves, gulls, hoodlums, and miscreants (a fuller guide to which can be found here), he also proposes fool, wuss, sap, chump, poltroon, schlemiel, and patsy as alternatives. He finally recommends the word ‘jackass’ as a good substitute. Of course this is a slur on an innocent animal that may be also functioning at a high level given its abilities, but we have to assume that the feelings of jackasses are not hurt, and that those who love jackasses will not take offense either. However, I think I will choose to go with the word ‘fool’ to describe a person, and ‘stupid’ to describe their actions, with the more exotic ones thrown in occasionally for variety.

Perhaps the final word on this should be given to Andrea Fay Friedman, the 39-year old woman who voiced the offending part in the Family Guy episode and, despite having Down syndrome herself, has a full life and active career as an actor and public speaker. In an interview with the New York Times, she manages to make two important points. One is that she thinks Sarah Palin does not have a sense of humor and the other is that she demonstrates with her own life why people with mental disabilities should not be spoken of disparagingly.

As a footnote, the Times made an interesting edit of the interview. One of Friedman’s full answers was:

I guess former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor. I thought the line “I am the daughter of the former governor of Alaska” was very funny. I think the word is “sarcasm.”

In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.

The NYT eliminated the section in bold. I wonder why. Could it be that they did not want to flip the hair-trigger on Sarah Palin’s outrage machine once again? Too bad. It would have been interesting to see how Palin would have responded to such a sharp criticism from Friedman.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on the ‘retard’ issue

Sarah Palin’s double talk that Limbaugh’s use of the word ‘retard’ is acceptable because it is satire was a gift to real satirists like Colbert.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations


  1. Eric says

    Mano --

    I feel that it’s important to note that Palin didn’t call for Rahm Emmanuel to resign. She called for him to be impeached. The impeachment process is a criminal proceeding against a civil officer, which means that Sarah Palin believes that offending her either is, or should be, a crime.

  2. John L. Clark says

    This is a good reflection, Mano; thank you. We should certainly try to be accurate and meaningful when we use criticizing language. Perhaps the reason why using such classifying language (idiot, moron, etc.) is so hurtful (and, thus, so effective) is because it bears a subtext that the target of the insult is fundamentally, categorically different from their historical self, and so it attacks their very identity.

    Rahm Emmanuel’s recent behavior was also a source of some side-splitting satire by Saturday Night Live. In it, a fictional Rahm Emmanuel uses two other slights, referring to Progressive Liberals as “turncoats” and Sarah Palin as “fourteen”. The former insult is quite good, as it describes actual behavior (however inaccurately). It seems like the latter insult, however, falls into the same category as the one Rahm started with; it attacks Palin’s identity by implying that she is immature. It sure is funny, though.

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