Chris Powell: That's so 'special needs'

When the Journal Inquirer reported the other day about the criminal sentencing 
of a "mildly retarded" rapist, representatives of groups serving the mentally 
retarded protested. The complaint was: "People don't use 'retarded' anymore." 

They likened it to the "N word" and the name of  Washington, D.C.'s football team, the Redskins. 
These comparisons were false, as the former was always an epithet, the latter 
always a way of evoking the supposed savagery of aboriginal people. 

But disparagement attached to "retarded" only recently. Indeed, until a few 
years ago Connecticut had the Department of Mental Retardation. What happened? 

Children began abusing the word with their peculiar cruelty. But more than that, 
society declined to enforce standards. Instead, those who behaved decently were 
told to change their terms. As usual government was the first to be intimidated 
by the special interest. 

Language evolves. Over the long term it belongs not just to the dictionary but 
to everyone who uses it. But capitulation to the slob culture is fairly resented 
and resisted. What is happening with "retarded" is only what long ago happened 
with "Jew." People heard "Jew" spoken with sneering contempt so often and were 
too meek to object that they began assuming the word itself to be disparaging. 
So now there are few Jews but lots of "Jewish people." 

The language police know perfectly well when disparagement is intended and when 
it is not, know perfectly well that a newspaper story about a rapist with mental 
retardation is different from the schoolgirl mocking a classmate as "retarded." 
But today's culture requires the decent people to change, not the miscreants. 

This has taken the country Through the Looking Glass, wherein Lewis Carroll's 
Humpty Dumpty berates Alice for doubting that words can be so flexible. 

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said. 

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I 
meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'" 

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected. 

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means 
just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." 

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many 
different things." 

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master --  that's all." 

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty 
began again. "They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the 
proudest. Adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs. However, I can 
manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!" 

If news organizations are to be accurate, credible, and understood, they must 
stick to descriptive reality and not be intimidated by political correctness, 
avoiding what is merely preferred by elites or euphemistic and vague, like the 
term coming into fashion for the retarded and others, "special needs," which, by 
design, conveys little and can mean anything. Old Hump would be very happy with 

And what do we do when the kids start sneering at each other, "That's so 
'special needs'"? 

There will always be cruelty. People should stand up against it, not capitulate 
to it at the expense of the language. 

The big problem for the retarded in Connecticut long has been the shortage of 
group homes for retarded people living with aging parents, who fear that upon 
their death there will be no familiar and comfortable home for their kids. Those 
who care about the retarded should worry more about that than about contriving 

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.