The casual use of insults about intelligence can impede people with real intellectual disabilities, not only by contributing to stereotypes but also by deterring them from asking for help when they need it.
By Michelle Martin
Published April 19, 2012
The brief commentary following an article I wrote here on insults about intelligence has been interesting. I do get that there is a debate about language to be had. I guess what I asked, at bottom, is really for RTH readers to take a walk in someone else's shoes before they speak.
Some have argued for the creative use of the word "retarded" on the grounds that language evolves, since it is no longer in use as a clinical description - forgetting that there are many in society who are old enough to have had that clinical label applied to them.
I wonder if people who insist on waxing poetical in descriptions of what they presume are someone's intellectual shortcomings (whether directed at that someone or not) have really thought through the ramifications of having such words floating around the water in which we all swim.
These names and insults, so casually tossed around, so demeaning to real discourse (after all, why take the trouble to outline exactly why you think someone is mistaken when you can just toss out the word "idiot") really influence the atmosphere in which we go about our day.
The effect is so great that it can end up impeding someone with a real intellectual disability. Obviously, it contributes to stereotypes and prejudices against him or her, but it also hampers some from asking for help (even help that is urgently required) when they might need it.
We who stand on the confidence we have in our own abilities, and our history of relative successes, don't feel embarrassed and aren't afraid of being labelled by making such a request.
But people who have grown up hearing those names thrown about, often at them and sometimes as a criticism of others, can find it much more difficult to do something as simple as seeking some practical assistance.
One commenter suggested facetiously that we can't use the word "brainless", surmising that it is tied to anencephaly (the condition of developing in utero without a brain).
The word brainless appears to be a garden-variety, general insult without any clinical associations, likely because anencephaly causes death either before birth or shortly thereafter: there haven't been any survivors for whom society can make up interesting names.
Microcephaly, on the other hand, is a condition which individuals can survive; hence, a slang term was applied to people who have this condition: pinhead.
The most famous people with microcephaly were exhibited as circus freaks in the past, as, for example, "the last Aztec" or "the missing link." One man, Simon Metz (known as Schlitzie), was exhibited by P.T. Barnum. He took part in a movie called Freaks, so you can read about him on his IMDB page, which all too sadly uses the words "pinhead" and "mentally retarded" to describe him.
He was subsequently institutionalized for many years, but according to IMDB, he was taken back on the road on the sideshow circuit. According to Wikipedia, he was last exhibited in 1968, and died in 1971.
That's right: at least until as late as 1968 it was considered all right by some to call someone with microcephaly a pinhead and make a public exhibition of that person.
In 1968, I was 4 years old. Quite a few of the people I have had the privilege to support over the years have been as many as 25-30 years older than me. So they were young adults when Mr. Metz was last exhibited publicly, old enough to have experienced less enlightened times.
I wonder how much the meaning of some words has evolved for them.
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