Language is powerful. Language shapes the way in which we view the world, other people, and ourselves. Recently, Ann Coulter tweeted regarding the presidential debate and used the word “retard” with reference to President Obama. There are, of course, the problems of the sophomoric level of political discourse that this demonstrates and the total disrespect of the office and person of President Obama. The larger issue is the ongoing dehumanization of persons with cognitive disabilities. Many people with cognitive disabilities are not able to advocate for themselves. There are of course exceptions, such as John Franklin Stephens, who wrote an open letter to Coulter appealing to her to stop using this demeaning term. To his credit, he was much more charitable than I would have been.
The issue here is not political correctness. It is about rejecting dehumanization. When we reduce people to one word or one characteristic, we do not acknowledge their full humanity. This is particularly the case when we reduce people to a single demeaning term. People with cognitive disabilities such as Down Syndrome are fully human, deserving of the same rights and respect as every other human. It is only in recent decades that we have really begun to acknowledge this in our society, as we have moved away from the widespread practice of institutionalizing such people and regarding them as unable to learn or to contribute to society. We still have a long way to go, and comments such as Coulter’s represent a big step in the wrong direction. If we could learn to see people as God sees them, how much better off would we all be?
I’m the father of a child with Down Syndrome. I honestly do my best to remain cognizant of the fact that most people are not like my son, Sean, and most people aren’t used to interacting with someone with Down Syndrome. But when an inappropriate action is not accidental, but fully intentional, and carries dehumanizing consequences, it is incumbent upon Christians to call this out.