Ann Coulter, Offensive Language, and Public Discourse

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern

Following the third and final presidential debate, there was predictably a wide array of reactions from those who tuned in. One tweet, though, sparked a conversation not about the merits of either candidate, but rather the merits of a word. Political commentator Ann Coulter, tweeted that she highly approved of “Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” This tweet set off a firestorm almost immediately, with critics on both sides of the issue surrounding the use of the word ‘retard.’ This conversation raises really important questions about free speech, and the way we go about public discourse as it relates to the larger communities of which we are a part.

While thousands of Coulter’s followers retweeted her comment, even more responded with shock, disappointment, and anger. In recent years, the denunciation of the word ‘retard’ has become more and more widespread. Critics point out that the word—which was originally introduced as a medical term to refer to individuals with intellectual disabilities, and was strictly clinical—has taken on a derogatory meaning in today’s society. The word is now used to degrade and insult individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as a stand-in for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ when referring to people without disabilities. Both of these uses presume that intellectual disabilities in some way make someone less than or inferior, and this is an offensive move that excludes and hurts those who have disabilities. The Spread the Word to End the Word campaign started by the Special Olympics has been working since 2008 to eliminate the use of the R-word from people’s vocabulary by education and dialogue. In 2010, Rosa’s Law, which replaces instances of the phrase ‘mental retardation’ with ‘intellectual disability,’ passed unanimously through the Senate, House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

As the public reacted to Coulter’s tweet, one response stood out. John Franklin Stephens, a Special Olympics athlete and Global Messenger who has Down syndrome, published an open letter to Coulter. He notes that Coulter “wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. [She] assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and [she] assumed [she] could get away with it and still appear on TV.” The letter, which has spread virally through the internet, focuses on the meaning behind Coulter’s message; that is, when using the word ‘retard’ as an insult, it is directly implied that there is something wrong with the group of people associated with that word. Stephens’ response has been lauded as a thoughtful and thorough explanation of what is so offensive in that casual use of such a loaded word.

Coulter’s tweet is symptomatic of a larger problem, and this is the persistent presence of such a hurtful word in the vocabularies of millions of people throughout the world. Even in casual conversation, even when used towards someone who does not have intellectual disabilities, even used purely in jest, we not only allow, but encourage this word to continue existing. Hateful speech like this exposes the assumption that we can be better than others based on things beyond our control, like intellectual capabilities. In the same way that the use of derogatory terms based on race or gender is dangerous, the use of this word is harmful to any and all efforts for true equality.

Coulter refuses to back down, though, calling her critics “aggressive victims” and putting forth the idea that her tweet would only have been offensive had she been using the word in reference to someone with intellectual disabilities. She claims those who are responding negatively to her tweet are “word police” and equates what they are doing to bullying.

We’ve discussed before the grey area that comes with offensive language and free speech, and this situation is no different. Coulter is well within her rights to use language like this, just as much as anyone else. But having the right to say a word does not invite or encourage one to use that word. Offensive language is offensive language, despite its being protected by the Constitution. Coulter’s insistence on using a word that she, as an educated public figure, knows is one that is exclusive and insulting is an insistence on being inflammatory at the expense of an entire community of people. Inciting outrage is still inciting reaction, and it seems that this is exactly what Coulter hopes to gain from this incident. Why Stephens’ letter is so powerful is because it does not play the same game that Coulter does. It does not name call, and it does not react violently; the letter begins by acknowledging Coulter’s intelligence. Instead of reacting with more language of exclusion, the letter opens a door for dialogue that is too often slammed shut when such divisive issues come to light on a national stage.