So there’s this campaign which seeks to fight against the discrimination and prejudice often faced by those with learning disabilities.
And… I’m not really a fan.
Yeah, I think I’m just going to give up on trying to find a way to summarise my main point without sounding like a dick. In context, though, and after a lengthy explanation, I hope it’ll be clear why I don’t feel that I can really get behind this campaign.
It’s not just a free speech thing, for a start. Just because I have some libertarian (or maybe just very liberal) leanings when it comes to free expression, doesn’t mean I think people should go around calling each other retards without a second thought. Almost universally I wish they wouldn’t.
Ofcom recently reversed its ruling on a Channel 4 broadcast from some time ago. They’ve now decided that an episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth did in fact breach the Broadcasting Code.
I didn’t see the show, and haven’t been able to find a relevant clip, but this seems like the right decision. The way I’ve heard it described, Vinnie Jones used the word “retard”, and performed what sounds like a grotesque and obnoxious imitation of what that word means to him, while the usually lovely Davina was carelessly blasé about it. I’m not keen on censorship merely on grounds of offence, by any means, but there’s a limit to how far people can go in demeaning a minority before you earn some form of public admonishment.
But the punishment – assuming that punishment of some sort will get handed down at some point – isn’t simply because a particular word was used. The whole sequence of events that was broadcast was unacceptably offensive. It’s this careless intolerance that’s the problem, not simply the word “retard” itself.
I think that’s a better idea on which to base a campaign for tolerance – and while I’m sure the people behind r-word.org are doing plenty of good work, I think it’s a mistake to make the word the driving force of the campaign. The result of this is that the impression they give – the thing the people they’re trying to reach are likely to feel – is itself a message of forceful oppression. If someone happens upon the organisation for the first time, the message they take on board might be: “You’re not allowed to say this thing any more, because we’ve decided it’s bad.”
Which is just going to put anyone who cares about free speech on the defensive right away.
The important, fundamental idea – that the way you speak and act affects people, and that if you’re careless with your words and actions you might make things harder for some people who are already having a rough time of it – is in there somewhere. But it’s buried under the surface, which only addresses one of many symptoms, and is less persuasive than the encouraging idea that you can help make the world fairer and better for people who struggle for equality.
I sympathise with the intent behind the r-word campaign a lot, and other attempts at outreach and speaking out are the reason I’m more aware of the impact of my words than I used to be. But this approach lacks nuance. The root problem is people’s attitudes, not this one word, and the attitudes are what we should be trying to change.
Obviously, part of a healthy and compassionate attitude will include being aware of the words you use and how they affect those around you. But if you don’t get people to think about why they suddenly can’t say this word any more, plenty of them are going to find other ways to be intolerant bastards. And people have a track record of finding this an extremely easy challenge to which to rise.
So, I suppose that’s what I think. What do you reckon? Am I being too harsh?