Words are wonderful things. I love words--they're my medium, my occupation, my joy. But words can do terrible things, too. Words can be so ugly, so hateful, so damaging they raise tender, purple bruises on our minds. They can cut us quicker and deeper than any blade and leave scars that far outlast the memory of the wound. And words never hurt more than when the damage is unintentionally and carelessly inflicted.
There's a boy I grew up with. This boy got married and had a son. It was a struggle getting him born; it was a struggle keeping him here after he was born. This child is a delight. He has a smile that melts the hearts of anyone within a mile radius. His giggle is infectious, and there is not a single person who knows him that doesn't love him. I guarantee you that his parents look at their beautiful boy with Down's Syndrome and they see only perfection. This boy is perfection. There is nothing negative, disappointing, frustrating, or bad about him.
How can anyone use the word retarded as an adjective for something bad?
I knew another boy in high school. This boy was talented. He was bright and he was kind and he was gay in the middle of a community that didn't know how to help him love himself. Ours was an awkward acquaintance, was bound to be, given that I was dating his ex-boyfriend. But I wonder about him, mourn him. What must it have been like to go to a high school where kids refused to take the name of the Lord in vain but threw around ugly, cruel terms for homosexuals like they were nothing? Where something about himself that he didn't choose and couldn't change was used as an insult, as a pejorative joke, as a substitute for stupid or awful?
He's dead now. I suppose it no longer bothers him when people unthinkingly use the word gay as an insult or negative adjective. It bothers me, though.
There isn't a person alive that can't be summed and sliced up with one cruel word. We have names for every group that can be considered "other." And when we use those awful words, we take a person--a complex person with a family and a history and a soul--and reduce them to one single thing. Their genitalia, their sexual orientation, their race. In that moment, in that single word, we have stolen their humanity.
Most of us care more than to use the truly awful words. But surely we can do better, think twice before using the ones we are used to, the ones that seem innocuous simply because they are common. Retarded and gay are not bad things. They never have been and they never will be. With so many words to choose from, a virtually infinite pool of adjectives, let's keep some safe. It's the least we can do for these people that are our friends, our neighbors, our children, our ghosts.
Please. Choose your words with care.