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When Words Are Hurtful

I’ll never forget something that happened one day in high school.

In one of my classes was a popular, likable athlete – the very picture of calm and collected – who always wore a smile and rarely said very much. He was friendly to everyone, and ever respectful. Let’s call him Ted.

One day, Ted strolled into class to find that a couple of guys were having a bit of a roughhouse type of discussion. Normally Ted wouldn’t pay much attention to that.

On this particular occasion, however, the guys talking threw the term “retarded” out there to describe someone they didn’t like. It was a word in pretty common use at the time, seen as another way to say “stupid” or “idiotic.”

I didn’t hear them use the word on this occasion. What I did hear was the pained shout of Ted, who immediately told the guys that they couldn’t use that word, it was deeply offensive, and they had no idea what they were talking about.

Ted commanded respect, and everyone else in the class was suddenly looking at him and these two guys, literally stunned and unable to move, unsure about the weight of their transgression.

Ted fought back tears as he briefly told them that his brother was mentally handicapped and no, it wasn’t “cool” to use the word “retarded” in any lighthearted way because it was, in fact, deeply offensive to those actually affected by mental disabilities.

We knew Ted’s brother, too – a truly sweet and loving person who also attended our high school, and required special attention because of his mental and physical handicaps. And we knew that Ted was totally devoted to, and loved his brother and would stand up for him no matter what.

All of us were deeply touched and the class embarked on a collective pause of painful self-reflection that, being high school, lasted maybe 10 seconds. But it felt like many, many minutes.

Why? Perhaps all of us had used that word at some point or another. We were all guilty, but on that particular day we escaped scrutiny.

Let me tell you something, reader: I doubt any of us ever used the word “retarded” in any casual conversation again. And whenever I have heard others use it, I have a mental flashback to that moment where Ted shed tears because of his brother. My eyes water even now.

Well, the other day, this happened at a Kamala Harris rally:

I am not going to be the person on the right to seize on and twist this, as the author of this tweet fears. Because, truth be told, we have all said things that are hurtful to others at some point in time, laughed at something inappropriate, whatever.

So, let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t know whether or not Kamala Harris fully grasped what was going on in this moment and what was said. I’ve spoken at enough rallies and so forth with Q&A to understand that sometimes it’s difficult to capture every single word that a person might say.

I suspect she may have simply wanted to latch on to the sentiment expressed by this voter.

Now, I wrote the preceding those words before looking at her (inevitable) apology statement, which actually sounds an awful lot like my gut reaction:

I’m willing to accept her statement on this, considering how it went down. If I had someone in my immediate family who was affected by a mental disability, however, I would probably find this much more painful.

In any case, it’s a worthwhile moment for all of us – whatever our political opinions – to pause and reflect.

Some things are just outright offensive. I’m not talking about “preferred pronouns” or other matters of preference. No, we’re talking about those words that intrinsically attack a person’s self-worth – and you can form a mental list quite easily – where it is best to avoid them altogether.

I’m thankful those who have seen this story had a moment to consider the matter.


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