A few weeks ago I popped into a hair-cutting establishment for a trim. I go to the same place each time but take luck of the draw as to who wields the scissors, which is a remarkable statement of faith, now that I think about it.
But what the heck, I figure. It always grows back.
This time an alarmingly extroverted young woman took me in hand. I told her what I wanted and she set to her work, chattering all the while about this, that, and the other thing.
And then the bomb, "I just couldn't believe how RETARDED I was!"
"Whoa there, babe!" I interjected immediately, holding up my hand. The scissors froze in mid-air.
"I have a daughter with Down syndrome," I went on, "and she's a wonderful young woman and the light of my life. Please don't use that word in that way."
She looked predictably mortified. "I didn't mean anything bad about it," she said. "It's just something people say."
"I know you say it without thinking," I said, "but it hurts to hear it because it dismisses any value a person like my daughter might have. I just wanted you to know that."
She resumed clipping my hair and I trusted her professionalism would trump any desire to scalp me. I was right, and she finished the cut very seriously and carefully, if silently.
I've noticed that another word thrown about casually and pejoratively today among the young is "gay." It's Oh, that's so GAY and Oh, he's so GAY.
I just read the New Yorker article on the young violinist from Rutgers, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide early in his freshman year after his assigned college roommate posted innumerable insulting and silly comments on various social networking sites about his being gay even before they met each other, and continued after they moved into the dorm room together.
Yes, Tyler was gay. He had just come out to his family and he didn't hide it at school. But that was incidental to the way his tormenter used the word, which was to emphasize that, well, Tyler just didn't count, he was less than a nothing, not even a zero in the human equation.
Two lives--one gone, one ruined, however the trial turns out.
I didn't get on the bandwagon a few years ago to ban the "R" word. We pretty much need a term that describes what we're talking about when we discuss issues that affect people with intellectual disabilities, or as we used to say, mental retardation (which was itself quite an improvement over the terms "moron," "imbecile," and "idiot" used as clinical terms in their day.)
And there is no need to discuss retiring the word "gay." Unlike people with intellectual disabilities, gay men are quite capable of determining what term to use to describe themselves.
But what happened to Tyler, and what happens daily to people with IDDs, is absolutely the same.
These labels are used to push people out beyond the human fold, to strip them of their dignity as God's own beloved children, to shun them and set them apart. All of us have a deep, inborn fear of being rejected. We know in our hearts that our very lives depend upon being accepted, loved, and counted in the fellowship of others.
Unfortunately, although we banned the "R" word from human speech, I suspect it won't be long before we hear the mindless taunt of, "Oh that's soooo IDD!" Because it always grows back.
So instead of banning these terms, let's ban the attitudes that lie behind their intent to hurt, to dismiss, to characterize a fellow human being as someone undeserving of the basic respect we must accord all human beings.
Please. Speak up, and speak your heart.