At Least I’m Not Stupid

by dpreyde

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

Folks in the disabled community seem really uncomfortable with the word retard. I find this intensely interesting. Their discomfort confuses me as much as my reclamation of the word confuses them. I’ve explained myself to a few people with cognitive disabilities (because it’s their word, too) and while they’ve understood in theory why I’ve chosen to reclaim it, they’re still uncomfortable with the word.

Most minority cultures have worked to reclaim derogatory words which target them. There are some powerfully ugly words out there which have been reclaimed. You know which ones I’m talking about. The N word, the Q word, the other F word, the C word, practically a whole goddamn alphabet of words which only select people are allowed to use in full. But these words are used- enthusiastically, eloquently, passionately- by people who have earned the right to use them.

Even within the disabled community you see words being reclaimed. Physically disabled people and psychiatrically disabled people have a laundry list of exciting and repulsive words in their arsenal.

Yet with all this reclamation, and all this advocacy, the word retard has been left behind. What is so powerful about this word that makes everyone eager to see it buried? What does it mean to people?

I’ve asked people this question, and nobody seems to know. It’s just bad. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I’ve found an answer.

Intelligence is the most valued trait in society. It is seen as an indication that a person is strong, capable, independent, interesting, and insightful.

When minority groups make a bid for mainstream acceptance, they will often try to demonstrate that they are as intelligent as the majority.

Part of black activism, for instance, has involved deconstructing the racist lie that black people are less intelligent (and more simian) than white people.

An ongoing feminist strategy involves encouraging people to appreciate women’s minds instead of their appearances, and encourages women to publicly flaunt their intelligence. Look at this, for instance:

And a lot of physically and psychiatrically disabled people try to prove their worth by demonstrating that they aren’t stupid.

So not only do we have mainstream society running away from us retards as fast as they can, but all of the people who would normally be our allies are trying to distance themselves from us as well. Nobody wants to be stupid. Everyone wants to be smart. Being retarded is the worst thing that could possibly happen. People I know to be decent and kind have even told me that retards can’t meaningfully participate in disability advocacy due to their limitations, which is one of the reasons the word can’t be reclaimed.

When I was talking to Hannah about this, she pointed out that most of the disability advocates she knows are physically or psychiatrically disabled, and that retards are in the minority. Also, most disability advocates are in academia, which especially values intelligence.

When I was talking to my friend Amy, she told me that some Aspie advocates she knows have started identifying as psychiatrically instead of cognitively disabled. Because, even in the disability community, being crazy is seen as better than being stupid.

Some advocates are so uncomfortable with intellectual impairment that they’ve wanted me to refrain from identifying that way. They’ve expressed skepticism that I’m retarded enough to use the word.

This is like saying that only people who are in wheelchairs can use the word crip, or that only people who are a 6 on the Kinsey scale can use the word queer.

Why is this something I should run away from, anyway? What’s so bad about being cognitively impaired?

It’s because intelligence matters. But what makes it so goddamn important?

I believe that our culture has fetishized intelligence to the point where it has become toxic and oppressive.

Can we think of nothing else that matters more?

What about empathy? What if our society prized empathy above all other qualities? What would that look like?

I think that empathy is the most valuable quality that people can have. More than that, I think empathy is what makes us people in the first place. If we didn’t have the ability to share each other’s feelings, we would fall apart as a species.

So what if someone can solve a math problem, or string a bunch of words together so they sound good? Who gives a shit?

Can a person relate to the struggles and pains and triumphs of others? Can they care for other people? Are they kind?

I believe these are the things that matter.