At QV, I’ve spoken a lot about how important language is. Especially colloquial language, because casual terms used day-to-day always originates somewhere. Terms do not morph into slurs overnight and don’t become conversational descriptors out of nowhere. It is imperative not just to remember, but to actively recognize them. Identity slurs are words and terminology etc. that are slurs in that they describe generally describe what is or could be a person’s identity and are used as synonymous with bad or variations of. Saying someone is intolerable is not an identity slur; saying someone is gay in place of intolerable or other descriptive words is an identity slur. In my last article, I discussed “Gay” and “Fag” as sexual identity slurs. Here, I will address “Bipolar” and “Retarded” as disabled identity slurs.
What you’re saying: Bipolar (e.g. “my dog is so bipolar, she literally barks at nothing all the time.”)
What you mean: This identity slur is intertwined with “crazy” and “psycho.” Bipolar and its derivatives are used colloquially, strangely enough, as a descriptor for both good and bad things. More specifically to describe that are erratic and/or unpredictable; an exciting party was “crazy” (good), a roommate is “psycho” (bad), the weather is “bipolar” (unpredictable).
Why is using that word so bad anyway?: Bipolar Disorder is a complex mental illness that has symptoms manifesting in a variety of ways. Bipolar is often used to describe a thing that is annoyingly unpredictable or jumps from one thing to another erratically. Bipolar individuals are already marginalized in a very unique way: a polarized “either/or,” “positive/negative,” “tortured/torturer” with nothing valid in between. Tropes like Norman Bates and Manic Pixi Dream Girl both feed very awful stereotypes. Turn on the news; mental illness is used as a scapegoat for what “caused” a person to commit atrocious deeds. It is hard for Bipolar individuals to move through a society that marginalizes us because of a disability and because our disability is wrongly associated with danger and untrustworthiness. One out of five people lives with a mental illness. Hearing lifelong experiences used as a casual descriptor alerts someone to just another person who they feel they cannot trust.
What you could be saying: Erratic, capricious, mercurial, irregular, inconsistent, effervescent, unpredictable, temperamental.
What you’re saying: Retarded, retard (e.g. “what a retarded thing to ask,” “I’m a retard, I couldn’t pass the exam.”)
What you mean: Retarded is another semi-flexible slur. It is used synonymously with things one perceives as “stupid” (which is a derivative of the identity slur), unnecessary, wrong. It is also applied to people and actions by people perceived as “stupid,” unnecessary, or wrong, among other generalizations.
Why is using that word so bad anyway?: Retardation differs from other intellectual disabilities in that it is not specific such as certain learning disabilities( like Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Dyscalculia), and is not developed later in life (such as dementia). In the not-so-distant past, Retarded individuals were looked upon as a burden to their family and society. Because of this, they were “institutionalized.” When Eugenics was big in the science world, mentally retarded folks were forcibly sterilized, so they couldn’t bear children who, it was presumed, would also be retarded. That is, more people “unfit” for society. When retarded is used as a slur to describe people and actions, it is not simply expressing disagreement or distaste. It is saying this thing was so asinine, that question so silly, that it’s comparable to having an intellectual disability–and thus saying that retardation is so deplorable, so bad, so awful, that it constitutes use as an insult. Similar to other identity slurs, there is the implication that one should separate or distance themselves, their opinions, actions, experiences from it. Whether one means offense to mentally retarded individuals or doesn’t even realize it is being used as an insult, the commonality of the term as an identity slur proves violently ableist views of retardation are alive and real. This word has become so ingrained in society as a slur, it has lost all of its original meaning. The medical world as well as the disability community no longer4 uses this term at all.
What you could be saying: Short-sighted, daft, hackneyed, nonsensical, platitudinous, hokey