A young man recently commented to me, casually, that America now has a “retard President”. I exhaled sharply. The man cocked his head, curious at my reaction. He did not seem to think he had said anything remarkable. His description of Donald Trump is echoed by countless media commentators; last week, a Forbes columnist wrote a piece titled ‘Trump’s Mental Deficit on Trade Deficits’. Miami developer Jorge Pérez calls Trump’s border wall “idiotic”. Even Bruce Springsteen has weighed in, telling Rolling Stone that “the [US] republic is under siege by a moron”. This language isn’t just coming from Trump critics, either; pro-Trump websites are just as quick to call his detractors ‘idiots’, ‘morons’ and ‘imbeciles’. The use of these words signifies that someone or something you do not respect is comparable to a person of lower intelligence. In other, more updated words: an intellectually disabled person. And that is a problem.
Slang that refers to people with intellectual disabilities includes: cretin, imbecile, idiot, moron, feeble-minded, simpleton, derp, mental defective, and my acquaintance’s favourite, retard (which includes its variations such as fucktard et cetera). When I have spoken up against this ableist language, I’ve met resistance: people don’t want to give up their “favourite” insults; they protest that the words’ original meanings were not ableist, merely clinical.
It is true that ‘mental retardation’ began as a clinical term and not an insult. Writing for Ethics & Medicine journal in 2014, William P Cheshire Jr said: “Seen through a scientific lens, the term [‘mental retardation’] is an objective descriptor of subnormal intellectual functioning.” In the 1920s, three classifications of ‘mental retardation’ were defined according to intelligence quotient level: ‘moron’ (IQ 50-75), ‘imbecile’ (IQ-25-50), and ‘idiot’ (IQ <25). However scientific these origins may have been, they cannot be scrubbed of their current connotations. Cheshire notes: “Pejorative application of the originally clinical term ‘mentally retarded’ has so permeated the vernacular that, regardless of intent, its use may offend.” The issue is less the word being used, than the attitudes which turn it into a euphemism.
The treatment of people under the auspices of ‘retardation’ diagnoses represents some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity in history. Among some early-1900s American scientists, a consensus arose that intellectually disabled people should be forcibly sterilised to prevent further generations of ‘idiots’. During the development of Nazism, eugenicists were inspired by America’s sterilisation policies. Most of us have heard of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ – the death camps and gas chambers of World War II. Fewer may know about the secret mass killings in 1940 and 1941 of 70,000 Austrian and German disabled people using poison gas, or that this program was where the Third Reich streamlined its methodology. During the war, Hitler’s secret “mercy death” program murdered an estimated 275,000 people with disabilities. Nazi propaganda commonly labelled disabled people as “useless eaters”.
The attitude that people with intellectual disabilities are burdens continues today. An episode of Australian Story featuring a young couple of successful athletes getting engaged and planning a family led to a nationwide discussion of whether it was right for them to do so, solely because both athletes have Down syndrome. Last year, when a father in a northern beaches suburb of Sydney turned his house into an elaborate gas chamber to murder his wife and two children, media reports continued to speculate that the wife had conspired in the murder-suicide despite no evidence to support the theory. Why? Because the two children, aged 10 and 11, were autistic. Ableism is believing that people with intellectual disabilities are such an untenable burden on their loved ones and society, that a loving parent could understandably wish for their death.
Using terms like ‘moron’ as an epithet only exacerbates the assumption that being intellectually disabled is shameful or dangerous. Expressing disgust or displeasure with President Trump’s policies by labelling him ‘idiotic’ will simply bounce off a man who trades in insults, and will do worse than nothing: it will oppress vulnerable people. Something I do to discern if it’s okay to use a euphemism, is to replace it with its literal meaning. Next time Trump says something that horrifies you, imagine tweeting, “What has that intellectually disabled person of a President done now!” Feels gross, doesn’t it? Now, you’re going to need something to say instead.
If you can’t insult someone without punching down on people with less privilege than you, I’d rethink your reasons for insulting people. But if you do wish to express vitriolic rage without oppressing vulnerable communities, there are plenty of alternatives. Writer and activist Lydia X Z Brown, on their blog Autistic Hoya, has compiled a handy list of anti-oppression insults that you might consider employing. Perhaps the person you loathe is in fact shitty, tyrannical, or terrible. They could be lacking in empathy, hateful, or disgusting. They could be an asshole. (My personal go-to is ‘vomit-inducing jerk’.) The difference? These insults focus more on the insultee’s treatment of other people, rather than how they were born or their innate qualities.
Calling Trump’s intelligence into question implies that only someone with a low IQ could be so cruel, so thoughtless, so ridiculous. The broadest sweep of history would provide evidence otherwise. In fact, people with intellectual disabilities are, if anything, more often the victims of cruelty than its perpetrators. So, next time you’re insulting someone, think carefully about your word choice. Who else might you be hurting?