One of the things which inspired the “Dear Imprudence” column here at FWD was the Savage Love column from 30 April, 2009, in which a reader sent in a letter politely asking Dan to stop using “retarded” as an insult. abby jean kindly covered “retarded” for the Ableist Word Profile, explaining the origins of the word and why it’s not appropriate to use, in case you need a refresher. I know that this column is old, but I thought that I should profile it, since it’s pretty much a shining example of what we’re talking about when we talk about bad advice.
Here’s my thing with Dan Savage. He infuriates me. A lot. His persistent fat hatred is extremely upsetting. His assaults on so-called “PC culture” are irritating. But, every now and then, he actually gives good advice. Really good advice with which I agree, which is why I read Savage Love pretty regularly even though it makes me want to scream sometimes. In fact, I almost profiled him for a “Getting It Right” column recently, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, because of the “leotarded” column.
So, let’s review. In case you need to be reminded of why so many people strongly dislike Dan Savage…
A reader wrote:
Stop using the word “retarded” as an insult, Dan. I know it can be hard to break a verbal habit, but make an effort. Perhaps you should have a “retard jar” that you put a dollar in every time you use the word. When the jar is full, send the money to the Special Olympics.
Whatever you do, though, try to remember that you have lots of listeners and readers who have loved ones with mental disabilities, and we don’t want to hear you misuse the word “retarded.” Please don’t tell me to read or listen to other people if I don’t like what I hear. I want to read your column and listen to your podcast, but without the put-downs directed at people with mental disabilities.
The Real Other Sister
I’m going to turn over a new leaf, TROS, and make a conscious, conscientious effort to break myself of the bad habit of using the word “retard.” But I don’t think the “retard jar” is for me. Instead, I’m going to use a substitution for the word. From now on, instead of saying “retard” or “that’s so retarded,” I’m going to say “leotard” and “that’s so leotarded.” I won’t be mocking the mentally challenged, just the physically gifted. I will pick on the strong—and the limber—and not the weak.
Oh, Dan, you are so funny! My sides are aching! Oh, wait, I think that’s just indigestion.
Advice columnists, as a general rule, tend to be pretty prickly when called out by readers. A notable recent example appeared in “Ask Amy,” when Amy shamed a rape victim, was called out on it, and basically said “I don’t see what the big deal is.” Honestly, sometimes I think that advice columnists print letters critical of their responses specifically so that they can be mean to the person who sent the letter.
In this case, Dan’s mocking response made it clear that he didn’t give two figs for the fact that he was hurting people with his language use, and that his “solution” to the problem was to create a portmanteau which “won’t be mocking the mentally challenged.” I’m sure Dan is well aware of the fact that “-tarded” words work as insults because they evoke social attitudes about people with disabilities, whether or not “re-” is prefixed. His answer was basically a big, fat, “fuck you” to the disability community (with a bonus “weak” for extra points).
What’s interesting is that Dan certainly does recognize how the use of words like “gay” and an assortment of racial epithets which I can’t bring myself to type is harmful. So it’s not that Dan does not understand the power that language has, and the impact which it has on social attitudes. He just isn’t interested in the power of ableist language, which is actually a pretty widespread problem in social justice circles in general. People who would never let a word like “fag” or “bitch” cross their lips will freely say that something made them “crazy” the other day or that they saw a “lame” movie last week.
Dan had a great opportunity here to do some thinking, talk about the power of language, explain why “retarded” is wrong, apologize, and say that he won’t be using it anymore. Instead, he decided that more benefit would be provided if he insulted the reader and came up with an oh-so-hilarious variation on “retarded” to start using.
That’s a terrific message to send to all your readers, Dan! Way to go!