The “R” Word

Much has already been said about Ann Coulter’s ill-advised (and repeated) use of the word “retard” to describe Barack Obama after his debate with Mitt Romney. I will not add fuel to that particular fire, but would prefer to take a different turn and ask the question: what ever happened to respect and civil discourse in this country?

Ann Coulter, of course, reports “news” for Fox “News.” I put scare quotes around the words here because this is a show that just pretends to give us the news when in fact they are simply passing along right-wing propaganda. Most people know that. But apparently there are many people in this country who don’t know this and that is why the programming on that station is worrisome: these people mistakenly believe they are getting actual news reporting when they are not But I digress.

Coulter has borrowed the colloquialism that turned a perfectly good verb into a pejorative noun. Presumably it is vulgar slang for “mentally retarded,” which is not regarded as politically correct even in its extended form. Her comment is disturbing to those who feel the pain of people who are intellectually challenged, as we now say. And this is disturbing indeed — especially since Coulter has been alerted to the fact that the term is offensive and yet she continues to use it. But what about its use in describing the President of the United States? Does no one else find this disturbing? Is there no line that those in the public eye should not cross in voicing their political opinions? It would seem that those who hold the highest office in this country are deserving of respect just by virtue of their office — even though we don’t happen to agree with their politics, or even if we have a personal grudge against them for some reason.

There was a time when this sort of slur would be regarded as more disturbing than the fact that this woman used the “R” word, a time when mutual respect was the rule and there was a sense that certain types of comments are inappropriate. We have lost that sense of propriety. It went out the window with good manners and the other Victorian baggage we were convinced would cramp our style, such things as duty, honor, and respect. But civil discourse lies at the core of “civilization,” and is one of the key factors separating us from the apes. If we must live together in crowded social groups it’s not enough to know how to speak; it requires that we know how to speak civilly to one another as well.

It’s not just bad manners to shout at one another, interrupt, insult, and toss offensive words about at random; it’s offensive and at the very least disrespectful and it even hurtful. Mutual respect lies at the heart of our moral system. The lack of respect we show in the way we speak to one another very easily translates into abuse and even violence to others we regard as inferior to ourselves. We should respect one another enough to at least listen and reply to what the other person has to say, to let them finish their sentences, and to respectfully disagree from time to time. We can even ignore them…..politely. But to address your President as a “retard” takes the problem to a new level. And this is especially so for a newscaster on a public show that is watched by millions who mistake it for the news. I think we know who is the intellectually challenged person here.

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