None of My Business

A recent blog post of mine provoked a response that mildly caught me by surprise. I sent someone down a rabbit hole regarding my use of the word “retarded” and she nearly tossed me into the briar patch when I read her response, but hey, at least I’m being read and she took the time to comment. In case you missed it:

19 Nods to Facebook
#4. It allows me to practice self-restraint. When I read a post about politics or guns or gays that is really, really retarded, I can’t come through the computer to choke them. 

A bird of a feather reposted my 19 Nods on her Facebook page, and here are the comments that followed:

My friend: Catherine, your writing makes me laugh. Not the “funny-picture” kind of laugh, but the “funny-view-of-life” kind of laugh. So I post your humor. And say… thanks.

Me: I so appreciate the repost as it gets my musings to a larger audience. You are a peach!

Her friend: Apart from the insensitive use of the “R” word in #4, I love the list. For only that reason, I can’t repost. These make me feel justified in spending fb time!

DictionaryMy friend referencing a dictionary: re·tard·ed
~less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one’s age
~informal offensive
~very foolish or stupid
~”in retrospect, it was a totally retarded idea”

Her friend: Do the decent thing and use a word that doesn’t insult people with disability, demean them and pain those who love them.

My friend: I appreciate your comment. And, I also know that words morph into meaning things different than when they started. Including morphing into insults (when they initially weren’t insults). Certainly, the initial definition doesn’t suggest an insult. Your comment is a reminder that words are powerful and do have an impact. Glad you enjoyed the rest of the post!

I mulled over this conversation, attempting to sort out how it struck me, then emailed three writer compatriots for their take:

Writer friend #1: Hmmm! I guess the word didn’t land on me. It went right by, Catherine. At one level I guess we all have to decide when we write and put it out there if we can tolerate disapproval from some people. How much approval do I need? Then, is some of the impact of others back on us worth considering in our own evolution? I totally get you don’t want to Windex and squeegee all your words. All the color that is yours would be gone.

Writer friend #2: Well, we know there is no meaning in reality, only what we bring to it. That said, I find the insult to having had that word applied to the disabled in the first place. But I like the word. The definition applies and qualifies in many situations. Politicians come to mind. Bigots come to mind. Ideas come to mind. Yes, we throw it around too freely, but a developmentally disabled person is not what I picture when I use it. Others will, but that’s their problem. I think the bottom line is, how are you meaning it and does it describe best what you are trying to get across. We can always find a better way to say something, but as you say, do we have to go around worrying about offending everyone’s petty sensibilities? Now THAT’S retarded.

Writer friend #3: Catherine, I can only offer my opinion, which you can freely ignore. What good Leo doesn’t love to get advice and then toss it?  Technically the word “retarded” shouldn’t have connotations. It ought to mean just what the dictionary says. But it’s an avoid word. So I avoid it and other perfectly good words even as I mourn the loss of their rightful place in our language. But I will also support your choice if you wish to stand firm and use it!

The line from the objector that caught my attention was: “do the decent thing,” as if I’d done something indecent. Ahh, the things that trip us up from our past. I have an early incident with my mother (I’d gone to live with her when I was five, and the first words I remember her speaking to me were: “Sit here and be quiet, be good, and don’t touch anything).” The feelings of that long ago event resurfaced in me, pricking me where I am, you might say, a bit thin-skinned: I must be in trouble, I’d better behave. It also triggered my usual response: How did I get here? I didn’t do anything wrong. This was yet another rerun of my very own movie.

I appreciated the opportunity to give all this some thought, because once my book is published and I have a wider audience than family and friends (though that could be magical thinking on my part), the naysayers of the world will stream out of the woodwork; it comes with the territory. Not everyone is going to appreciate my writing, or my humor, and if they take umbrage, that’s their stuff. It’s none of my business what they think of me, or my work. (Now, this is easy to say, not so easy to do…). My writer friend #2 would counsel me: “Buck up, baby, quit worrying what others think.”

As one who banters with humor, sarcasm, and bluntness, I’m not always politically correct, and it surfaces in my rants, tirades, and asides. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. I’m used to getting flak from family. My brother gets on me about swearing, and out of deference, I curb my language, though I have pointed out to him that ‘puke’ and ‘snot’ are not swear words and to please quit crossing them out. On occasion socially obnoxious words do sneak into my sentences under the cover of dark.

Compared to the majority of on-line criticisms I see, the woman who got her panties in a bunch was mild (and well-meaning, from her point of view), and nothing compared to my sister who threatened to put a hex on me regarding a story she wanted taken out of the book. I’m still ricocheting from that one. If I’m able to touch another enough to inspire them, move them to laugh or cry, have them ponder something beyond their linty navel, snap them out of their stupor, or heaven forbid—piss them off—then perhaps I’ll have made a difference. Isn’t that the point? And if it goes a step further and we have an interaction, positive or otherwise, at least I’ll know I’m not yammering away to the walking dead. The only way writers know they are being read is when someone yammers back.

Catherine (Clemens) Sevenau
July 12, 2014

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  1. Great job, Catherine–love that you’re shining a light on language. Keep on weaving with words, every thread so fine and worthy of handling. Rebecca

  2. Cath, The word that comes to my mind is evolve. We are all trying in our imperfect ways to be better. I appreciate the yin and yang of your process, and your willingness to share it. Too often we are on autopilot regarding our thoughts and actions. And big thanks to the party who sent you to the dictionary. I have benefitted from the ensuing discussions. CWS

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