Sunday, March 30, 2008

'Just words'

The other night, I gathered with some of the guys for some drinks, billiards and general bullshit in a buddy's basement. At one point, a lifelong friend of mine referred to his wayward pool game as "retarded."
At that point, another longtime friend of mine spoke up, a man who's a live-in caregiver for two older, cognitively disabled men. Meanwhile, I have a family member who is severely autistic and unable to care for herself. Both of which Friend A knew full well. So to put it diplomatically, an effort was made to "make him see the error if his word choice."

We asked if he'd go into Harlem and call somebody a "nigger." Or if he'd call a gay friend of ours a "faggot." Or someone else a ... (insert slur here). To my mounting disappointment, he defiantly insisted that the word "retard" should not mean to us what it did, ultimately insinuating that we were simply "oversensitive."

He tried to turn it into an offensive on how we can't make him find, or not find, something funny. The problem was, he hadn't been making a joke. And no one was saying a person should or shouldn't find anything funny. In fact, I reasoned, we often find things funny precisely because their absurdity and outrageousness say we shouldn't. I pointed out to this vocal backer of Barack Obama that Obama himself gave a renowned speech called "Just Words" (just prior to the Wisconsin Primary); a speech in which Obama referred to "I have a dream," "We hold these truths to be self-evident" ... all to illustrate the absurdity of insinuating that words have no resonance.

Meanwhile, Friend A insisted upon his freedom of speech. But it was pointed out to him that with every right comes a responsibility. Freedom of speech is not absolute, and anyone requiring proof is free to joke about a bomb in an airport sometime.

Instead, I was oversensitive.

This from someone who's never walked into a restaurant only to have nearly every set of eyes staring as you walk toward your seat; not at you but at the person you're with. ... This from someone who never went on a road trip with his parents to South Dakota when he was about 10, and was seated at a short lecture in some small nature preserve only to have another kid actually physically stand in the front of the room, point and laugh at your disabled companion. ... This from a person who's never had his eighth-grade principle clear him out of the classroom while he openly scolded the rest of the class for making light of your sister being "retarded." ... This from a person who was never the 13-year-old who - wanting nothing more as an adolescent than to fit in - had to walk back into that classroom.

This from a person who's never had to wonder what it was to like to fully appreciate the construct of a full "family of four," including everything from sibling rivalries to riding on a roller coaster at a county fair.

Nope. I was oversensitive.

It was all I could do to keep from shoving his pool cue so far up his ass he'd have to say "Aaaah" to chalk it. If for no other reason, than this is a person who openly prides himself on his "enlightened" and "liberal" view of American society.

How in God's name, it was put to him, could he then so loosely use a pejorative that would denigrate and belittle the ONE segment of the population that could never speak up for itself. A black guy walks into a room, an obviously gay person, a woman ... etc., and I know damn well he wouldn't use any of the aforementioned terms in their presence.

Instead, he chose the one demographic who could be sitting right next to him, hear him call him a "retard," and never think to - or be able to - speak up on his own behalf.

I spoke to Friend A the next day for quite some time, and the "retard" subject never even came up. Nor did an apology. I didn't ask for one because an apology sought is worthless. And I didn't bring up the "retard" issue because I was still pretty hot about it and didn't want to lash out at him. Yet I'm sitting here, two nights later, still stewing about it to the point of writing some anonymous blog about it that I half wish he'd read, and half wish would be nothing more than idle venting that will alleviate this hurt and mild sense of betrayal.

I guess I'm oversensitive.

1 comment:

M. Bubba Blume said...

Very well written, and far more diplomatic than I could ever hope to be.

I'm still pretty upset about this incident. But he's our friend so we forgive and move on. Someday maybe he'll understand.

I'd loved to have had a certain spouse of his there to see her reaction. I think our discussion might have paled in comparison.