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12 Aug 08 Is it only a word?

A boycott of Ben Stiller’s latest movie “Tropic Thunder” is afoot here in the US. At the centre of the storm is the movie’s use of the term “full retard” to describe the character “Simple Jack”, an actor who is famous for playing mindless characters.

I’m not going to use this blog to lecture anyone on what words they should use or how they should use them. However, I do have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

On the one hand, “retard” is really only a word, defined in the Oxford dictionary as “make slow or late, delay progress or development or arrival or accomplishment or happening of; backward in mental or physical development”. This is a fair assessment. When used in practical terms, Nicole is mentally retarded. Her disability does slow down her development.

For me, the issue isn’t the use of the word retard, it’s the connotation that being mentally retarded or developmentally disabled automatically makes you ignorant, mindless or an idiot. Having a mental disability doesn’t make you any of these things. I’ve known a lot of “normal” people for whom the word retarded, if I used it that way, would be completely appropriate. Nicole is certainly less ignorant and less of an idiot than all of them.

The mother in me knows that Nicole’s road ahead will be a tough one and the last thing she needs is Hollywood affirming that using a word with this connotation to describe people like her is ok. Nicole is a complex package of many parts, just like the rest of us, and deserves to not be defined solely by her disability. I have many parts of my package that I wouldn’t want used to define me.

What surprises me is that no one at DreamWorks predicted that there would be an adverse reaction the use of this word. The communicator in me says that either they obviously didn’t consult their marketing department or I’m a better communicator than those making tons of cash in the film world.

In support of all those with development disabilities, I won’t see the movie. What I hope is that the proposed boycott will make us all a little more sensitive about the words we use.