Ann Coulter is in trouble again. This time, it's for calling the president a retard. But rest assured, because the criticism lobbied at her for that choice of words, including the thoughtful essay by insulted Down syndrome sufferer John Franklin Stephens, is going to give her the perfect opportunity to pause, reflect thoughtfully upon her career of vitriol, and, almost certainly, double down on it.
Coulter has spent a great many years lowering the bar of good taste with sophomoric insults and then devolving into an embarrassing conniption whenever she senses the slightest bit of similarly venomous invective being volleyed back. But to write an article on the hypocrisy and hysteria of far-right commentators is tiring. Entire media industries stay afloat because of it. People like Coulter only use words like those when they know nobody who buys their books will be offended, and it's only when such a population is offended that they will apologize in the usual meaningless, cynical, career-minded way in which people in politics and show business always conduct themselves.
This is why the open letter to her from Mr. Stephens, a former Special Olympian, is so sad. I’m not an avid defender of people's sensitivity; it's one of the few, hopefully the only, traits I share with Ann Coulter (along with a visible Adam's apple). But I don't go out of my way to stir the shit with thoughtless language, and do indeed speak with an attempt at making as broad of an appeal as possible. Coulter certainly does not do this, and she wouldn't have much of a career if she did. So Stephens's letter, admirable and bridge-building, comes across as a little, if not a lot, pathetic.
For one thing, he begins with a somewhat silly plea: “Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?” Where does this assumption that Ann Coulter is not dumb or shallow come from? What has she ever said that hasn't been categorically one or both of those things? I don’t begrudge him his olive branch, but Coulter won’t take it, except maybe to cynically extract an extra zinger of the, “Yes, I’m sorry, comparing the president to retards is an insult to retards everywhere” variety.
This is the take-home passage: “I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.” That is precisely what she was trying to do. Mr. Stephens is perceptive enough to sense this, and correct to point out Coulter's uncouth lack of sophistication. Many of us surely aren’t discovering it for the first time in this instance.
The deeper point, one I don't think Stephens and certainly not Coulter grasps, is the function of the word itself. A word is just a culturally understood symbol for communicating some object or idea. You can change the word and turn “retard” into “handicapped.” But this doesn't change the reference. In that instance, Coulter would have just said, “The president looked handicapped in that debate.” Handicapped at least has a broader definition; you can have a golf or a bowling handicap, so that might soften the blow. But what people have to acknowledge is that changing the word does not change the condition.
Words have no intrinsic goodness or evil. “Nigger” is an effective word due to no property of the word itself, it is effective because of the long history of oppression and dehumanization of an entire class of human beings. Retard has no particular stigma associated with it; the verb form means “to slow.” Even Mr. Stephens writes, “I do process information more slowly than the rest of you.” What happens when “retard” becomes effectively enough banned so that not even people as classless as Ann Coulter use it? Will the position or status of disabled people in the country improve? Or will we move on to the next easily addressable complaint? Might that very simple and heartfelt sentence of Stephens's sound insensitive in another generation, when disabled people might refer to themselves as “under-accelerated” and view “slow” as insulting?
It's cynical, it doesn’t get to the root of any problem, and even if it saves people's feelings from being hurt, I don't like it. The word used makes no difference; it’s all about context. What matters isn't that Ann Coulter used the word “retard,” it’s that she “wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like” Stephens. Reaching out to her and convincing her to use different language isn't going to imbue any sensitivity in her. She called the president a “retard” because that was the word she had available to link him to “people like” Mr. Stephens. Give her a different word and she'll use that one instead, and no one is any better off.
And we never will be, either, so long as people like Ann Coulter dominate the discussion, extracting meaningful replies from and wasting the time of apparently decent people like Stephens. If disabled people, homosexuals, black people and others want words like retard, fag, and nigger to go away, the people who are anxious to sell them products will happily use their media influence to disappear them. It won't advance those peoples’ position an inch.
Very probably, an ideal world will use different language. Even I am using "disabled" throughout this piece because that's a term I understand to be PC enough. But the first step must be changing the discourse in general from one of gain, greed, and individualism to one of community, empathy, and solidarity. This is a far more fundamental and difficult shift.
Worship of success is embedded even in Stephens's letter, when he writes, “I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.” For as narrowly as we have defined success, certain groups will always enjoy far greater inroads toward it. As long as it is the case that a group points to the success and achievements of some of its members as evidence of the group’s worth, they will be playing into the same rigged social setup.
Most people are deserving of a certain modicum of decent treatment, regardless of achievement (possible exceptions include Ann Coulter). Society imbues words with negative connotations, and offended reactions increase their power. Those who seek to injure will use whatever word is available. Fretting over what phrasing is or isn’t socially permissible will only ever have the effect of, ah... retarding our progress. We will all do much better to tackle the problem of social inequity at its root than to put a shine on its ugly surface by addressing the fashionableness of certain words.