You know the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” I cannot think of a childhood saying that is more untrue. Words can and do hurt you. They crush the spirit, destroy hope, break down health and undermine grace. Words matter and any Christian ought to know that God considers their words very important since he revealed so much about how we use them in Holy Scripture. (cf. James 3:1-12 for starters.)
I thought about this recently when I read about the flap over President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, calling some fellow Democrats “f—ing retards.” Beside the fact that this merely proves what we already knew about Rahm Emanuel’s infamous tongue. [In an earlier version of this post I wrote that Emanuel was an Orthodox Christian but I was rightly corrected. He is part of a Jewish congregation in Chicago. I think I confused Emanuel with our former governor, now indicted and facing trial, who is a member of an Orthodox Christian congregation.] it reminds us that speech uttered in anger has consequences, especially when the people you attack find out about it.
The Emanuel outburst was, for sure, behind closed doors but much of what happens in Washington is not private. This is not Las Vegas, you know. What is said and done here does not stay here.
Sarah Palin, the mother of a Down syndrome child, denounced Emanuel’s slur as one that reflects upon “all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities.” She is right. But this sounds more like a political punch she wanted to throw when she then called for his resignation over this private outburst. I wonder what would happen if everyone who used such language in private was forced to resign. Washington might empty out fast but then some people believe that would improve things to simply drain the swamp. Rahm Emanuel has now signed a pledge promising to refrain from all derogatory uses of the R-word.
Look, I am no fan or defender of Rahm Emanuel. He is a tough, take-no-prisoners, Chicago politician. But using “retarded” in this particular context is a mindless epithet, not an intentional slight to Sarah Palin’s child or any other mentally challenged person.
But all of this flap reminds us that words do matter. We all know how the N-word finally became unacceptable in normal conversation. My dad would never allow me to use it in the 1950s South and almost all my peers used it all the time. I remain grateful to him to this day. The same should be true with the R-word. Parents should teach their children how words wound and hurt. But political attempts to ban certain words almost always fail. Sometimes they even backfire. Christopher Fairman, in The Washington Post, says that the moment you declare an offensive word taboo you make the shock value all the more appealing to the foul-mouthed and the hurtful, especially to older children and teens. Whatever sensitive word you suggest be used in its place will only take on new meaning over time.
Consider, says Fairman, the word retarded. It was originally a clinical, sensitive replacement for “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile.” If the goal is to protect disabled people from hurtful speech this effort will never succeed. The problem is right where Christians know it is: in the human heart.
I believe we should be sensitive about incorrect speech but not overly sensitive. We should teach our children, even our disabled children, that people can be very mean and say nasty things that can hurt them. But we should also teach them that they are made in God’s image, loved by God and precious to him and to us. This is where the real power of well-chosen words can overcome the negative words that they will hear in a sin-cursed, fallen world.