The “R-Word”

Needless to say, this is a touchy subject so I am going to tread lightly.

The smoldering offence that many take at the utterance of this word erupted into a full-fledged firestorm when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used the “R-Word” (in conjunction with another offensive word) to indicate his frustration with certain liberal special-interest groups that were threatening to run ads against conservative Democrats.  He was in no way referring to those with special needs.

Nevertheless, Sarah Palin, whose son Trig was born with Down syndrome, demanded that Mr. Emanuel be immediately fired.  Later, when Rush Limbaugh directed the very same “R-Word” at the very same liberal special-interest groups, Sarah Palin wrote it off as “satire.”  I mention this only because I think it did a great disservice to those with a strong opinion about the “R-Word” by turning it into a political football.  

To my knowledge, this exchange is what introduced the “R-Word” into our vernacular as a word.  I also recently received an email directing me to an on-line petition advocating the removal of the “R-Word” (what it represents; not “R-Word” itself) from our speech.

I’ll come clean here:  In the past, I have used the “R-Word” in a cavalier manner.  If I recall correctly, it was almost always in the context of a ridiculous or absurd situation, and I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt that I have NEVER used it in reference to someone with special needs.  (If you would like to know more about my personal feelings about those with special needs, please reference this post regarding those on the autistic spectrum).

I’m also certain that those with children with special needs do not consider their children “R-Word.”  So, if all of us agree that the “R-Word” is NOT referring to someone with special needs, I’m confused as to why the “R-Word” carries the weight that it does.  I mean, without intent or context, can a word, by itself, wield that sort of power?  And if someone does use the “R-Word” with mean or malicious intent, is the banning of the “R-Word” likely to change them?

I’ve heard some compare the “R-Word” to the “N-Word,” but, again, I go back to context and intent.  The “N-Word” can ONLY be used in reference to another person.  By contrast, the “R-Word” is almost NEVER used (at least by anyone I know) to refer to those whom it is purported to offend.

I have a question, and it is an earnest question; I’m not trying to be cheeky or glib:  If one were to use the word “moron” to refer to someone with special needs, wouldn’t it be just as deplorable as if they had used the “R-Word?”  And if so, does that mean that the word “moron,” even when NOT directed at someone with special needs, is just as offensive as the “R-Word?”  In other words, should we ban the “M-Word?” 

What about “doofus,” “dimwit,” “dunce,” “knucklehead,” “cretin” or “half-wit?” 

I’m sure at some point, all of those words have been used, insensitively and ignorantly, to refer to someone with special needs, but let’s face it, the sentence:  “Those knuckleheads at the Drive-Thru messed up my order again,” probably wouldn’t be considered insensitive or profane.

Is there a line?  And if so, where is it?  I promise you, my intention in writing this is not to be insensitive; I just want to know the rules, and the process by which those rules came to be.  It seems to me that ignorance is the real issue, and ignorance is absolutely worth banning by way of information, and if this post is in any way ignorant to anyone’s feelings, I would like to know that. 

Personally, I think anyone that would refer to those with special needs as “R-Word” is just the worst kind of person.  That being said, I also feel very strongly about the banning of anything; books, music, opinions and even words.

In the interest of fairness, if you think the “R-Word” should be banned, you can sign the petition here.

If you have a strong opinion about this matter, I urge you to post your comment/experience so that this can be a forum of enlightenment and forthright dialogue.

Thank you,


There are 4 comments

  1. Stacey wrote

    First, my opinion is that any honest question cannot (inherently) be offensive. We cannot be afraid to *talk* to one another.

    And your question is a compassionate and valid one; you and I both have love and respect for people with special needs.

    For me, the “R-Word” has never meant as reference to humans with special needs. It has been similar to “moron” “idiot” “dumb***” etc…

    If one slips and uses the word, but donates time and money to organizations helping those with special needs, is this person “good.”

    If someone actively discriminates, hates and targets abuse at a person with special needs, but does not use the “R Word”, is this person “good.”

    Language changes. But what hasn’t changed is that our actions speak louder than words.

  2. dave theune wrote

    Thanks again, Dylan, for your insight. I truly enjoy your posts.

  3. […] let me put my blog in you « The “R-Word” […]

  4. Idiot, imbecile and moron were, in fact, clinical terms in their times. Seems our tendency to retire labels as they acquire negative connotations in the wild is not a new one.

    I have taught my kids that there are no bad words, just words that might make some people uncomfortable. It’s best not to get in the habit of using them lest they slip accidentally at an inopportune moment.

    I personally made a conscious decision to give up the R-word for that very reason. And I mourn it’s loss. There seems to be no adequate replacement. If only we had the clout of Shakespeare, we could simply invent one.