Drunks and Retards

The other night I was visiting with Rick, a friend whose daughter has Down Syndrome, which is one of the genetic conditions that causes mental retardation. Rick’s daughter has an extra 21st chromosome, that’s the technical cause of common Down Syndrome symptoms like lower than average cognitive function, “epicanthic folds” of the eyelids, and other physical impairments.

Rick is working on a monologue called “The R-Word.” He described it to me as his story of simply trying to use the word “retarded” to mean exactly what it is supposed to mean without implying any negative judgements about the value of the person in question. In other words, he’s fine with accepting that his daughter is retarded and he wishes people would stop being afraid of the term and the people it describes.

Historically, terms like cretin, idiot, and moron meant the same thing as retarded does today. But eventually each term came to be used as an abusive slang epithet to describe people who are not, in fact, retarded. For example, I might say something like: “Geez, that guy in the White House is a retard.” When actually what I mean is: “I think George Bush is a stupid jerk.”

The problem with this is that by using these once-neutral medical terms as insults, we risk applying these same hostile feelings toward people who are actually retarded. Then we’re left with no decent way of describing someone who is retarded without implying contempt.

So I got to thinking about this and wondered if the word “drunk” is maybe used in a similar way. Drunkenness itself is not inherently bad – at least I don’t think so. In fact, many religious traditions have equated a state of deep inebriation with spiritual elevation. In any case, most people get drunk occasionally (Americans, at least) and if asked, probably would say there is nothing wrong with it.

However, the noun form of the word “drunk” has come to have negative connotations, implying a person who is chronically drunk or drunk in a way that is not socially acceptable, as in: “That guy is a drunk.” Or, “Go home, you’re drunk.” These imply that drunkenness is bad. Yet, many people would likewise use the term in a positive way, like: “We all got drunk and had a great time.”

Well, I feel like there is more to explore with this, but hey, it’s Saturday night and I gotta get dressed now so I can go out and get drunk.


5 Responses to Drunks and Retards

  1. Sara says:

    I always have trouble reconciling in my imagination the deeds of important historical figures with the idea that they were drinking heavily, if not at the exact time of preforming their great deed, at least on a daily basis. I especially wonder about writers like Fitzgerald who drank so much that it worried his flapper friends, but who managed to write with such clarity. Alcohol has such a negative connotation in our society today (mostly because of vehicular homicides) that it’s hard to incorporate it into a vision of the past, to recognize that our ancestors probably drank more than us and were totally ok with it.

  2. beeractivist says:

    Sara – a few such important historical figures who had probably been drinking during specific important events: 1) Martin Luther may have been tipsy when he testified before the Diet or Worms, thus causing his expulsion from the Church and touching off the protestant reformation; 2) George Washington and the rest of the crew that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution while they were in taverns; and 3) Moi, of course, every time I pen brilliance on this blog!

    Your point about car accidents is a good one. If we were not such an auto-nation I don’t think drinking would have such negative connotations. Henry Ford himself was a teetotaler who once said “Booze had to go when modern industry and the motor car came in.” Just one more reason to advocate for car-free living.


  3. Your friend, then, had the good fortune to never have his daughter had the r word screamed at her or thrown her way in public. Not all of us are so fortunate.

    And regarding the word “drunk,” well, the holocaust didn’t start with murdering “drunks,” they were gotten later after they got the “retards.”

    People aren’t being overly sensitive, and if they really are “just words,” then it would be perfectly acceptable for me to call your wife a “fat whore” while in public and expect with indignation and arrogance that you won’t get upset, because after all, “they’re just words.”

    Find out what your friend REALLY thinks. Trust me.

  4. beeractivist says:

    Correy – I think you’ve misunderstood this post. My friend has had the word ‘retard’ applied to his daughter quite often and he isn’t fond of it. Nowhere above did I say anything about people being “overly sensitive” nor did I say anything about terms being “just words.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Rick’s monologue bemoans, in part, the fact that the term “retarded” has become synonymous with “jerk,” “dumbass,” etc, none of which apply to his daughter – a person who is actually retarded. He is frustrated that his daughter can’t be “retarded” without being equated with people who choose to behave like jerks. The point in his monologue is exactly that words are not just words. They evolve in meaning, and he laments the evolution of this particular word from something that was once a term that described a medical condition to something that is now an invective. That invective hurts real people like his daughter and he wishes there was a term that didn’t equate developmental conditions with hurtful descriptions of bad behavior.

    I’m not sure what you’re point is about the word “drunk.” But to reiterate, my point was that I’d prefer to take pride in it rather than assume it is a negative status. Being drunk can be a very good thing and I wish it wasn’t always used as a shameful pejorative.

    As for what my “friend really thinks,” I worked with him on his monologue and watched him perform it a number of times. I don’t think I am misrepresenting any of his feelings above. I think you might have just misunderstood the point of this post.


  5. Hi Chris:
    I’m responding two months late.

    I do apologize, then, as it appears I may have misread your post.


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