Re-consider this: your words matter!

This past Friday, I went to my usual afternoon tea destination, Bridgehead, and decided to hit the books and get my weekly readings out of the way earlier than usual. I was particularly aware of my surroundings sounds that day. The incessant hiss and whir of the espresso maker, the stirring spoons clattering against metal cups and my neighbor’s noticeably loud conversation.

The R-Word

As an aspiring journalist, and a naturally curious person, I really couldn’t help but eavesdrop on my neighbor’s loud chitter-chatter. Their conversation drifted from their new classes, to boys and back to school. I was fairly disinterested until one of the girls used the word ‘retarded’ in a pejorative sense to put down her friend.

My ears perked up. And, I shuddered on the inside. Though I don’t identify as someone with a disability, I have witnessed how the use of the ‘r-word’ affects people in ways that hurt far worse than I can imagine.

My thoughts were racing. I know that my first reaction should have been to politely ask them not to use that word and to simply explain why.

Hi. Excuses me. Sorry to interrupt your conversation. I overheard you use the word ‘retarded’ and I just wanted you to consider that it hurts people that are affected by special needs and those that love them, even if you didn’t intend it that way. Your words matter a lot. And, really, the use of the r-word isn’t’ necessary. Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful words in the English language that you could use instead.

Yet, in that moment, I chose not to speak up.

My fear of ‘social judgment,’ and being embarrassed if they responded poorly, prevented me from say anything at all. So, shamefully, I had delayed my response until the opportunity to say something had vanished.

When this incident occurred I was in the midst of reading this class’s reading by Baym. And, it occurred to me when she said, “the mobility of some new media means that we can now have conversation that would have once been held in our home (café)” and can now be held “wherever we are” (fb, twitter, blogging)…” I realized that I could take this conversation online.

And so, as a response to what happened I decided to do a self-motivated seven day social media challenge. I decided to tweet and post on *facebook once a day about why it is not okay to use the ‘r-word.’

Currently, I am on day five of my challenge and like Baym, I have begun to realize that “through communication, people assign symbolic meanings to technologies.”

For me, that has been to personally begin to associate social media as a tool for activism. Realistically, I don’t expect the ‘r-word’ to disappear anytime soon. And, I still wish I said something in person to those girls, but maybe, just maybe, this exercise will raise a little bit of awareness.

Time to share. Do you use the R-word? Would you make a pledge to stop?

What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of online activism?

 Baym asks us to consider these questions when faced with a new communication medium. Let’s apply it to online activism.  What benefits might it bring? What are the risks? What are the challenges for users and non-users?

*As not all of you will be able to access my facebook account, I have included my daily posts (Plus, if you’re still not convinced, hopefully these posts will help).

Friday: Spread the word: The R-word hurts!

Saturday: Not Acceptable: Watch this PSA!

Sunday: Join the Social Challenge today! Through this site you can anonymously “challenge” Twitter r-word users.  Join:

Please watch:

Monday: A story: “The retard in the next booth”

Tuesday: Check out this blog called ‘Love That Max – a blog about kids with special needs who kick butt.’ Article: If you ask people not to use the word ‘retard’:

Wednesday: A moving blog post. Spread. The. Word.


7 thoughts on “Re-consider this: your words matter!

  1. Jason Wert says:

    Thank you for sharing our family’s story and for taking a stand against the r-word!

  2. I found your blog appealing because I too have been in the awkward situation where I have heard someone use a word that can be hurtful, whether it is sexist, racist, ableist, or so on. Sometimes I take a stand and ask people to reconsider using a different word, but other times, especially if I do not know the person, I often let their use of language slip. Like you I often feel horrible, but the thought of someone reacting negatively renders me speechless. Just the other day I was introduced to a TEDX video of Jay Smooth discussing how we talk about race called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race” that can be applied to your blog. Jay Smooth, a deejay for a hip-hop radio show in New York, is a well-known commentator of politics and culture. Like you, Jay Smooth has used technology such as Youtube as a form of activism to educate about issues.

    In this particular video, Jay Smooth discusses the sticky situation where someone feels it is necessary to inform an individual that something they said had connotations that they were unaware of. He asserts that very often the conversation involves well-intentioned people who just did not know the impact of their language, but still the conversation can go horribly because people do not react well to being criticized. He lays out a simply analogy that underscores this situation well. He states that we all should approach this issue as if someone has something stuck in his or her teeth. When someone says something that might be offensive it should not be seen as a personal attack, but an opportunity for that person to fix it. While it might be awkward for me to tell you that you have spinach in-between your teeth, in the end I am helping you and you can walk away a better person.

    I find it interesting that both you and Jay Smooth approached discussing this issue through the medium of social media. I feel many people align themselves with technological determinism yet overlook the role that individuals have in constructing the relationship between technology and society. When used in the right context social media can be a powerful tool. In particular, I think this extends to disadvantaged groups whose voice is often not heard in public spaces. One of the first places I learned that the r-word is offensive was through social media and with a generation of individuals more geared to communicating via the Internet it will become more vital. A recent study showed that people feel more comfortable telling the truth through a text. Given that you felt more comfortable Facebooking and Tweeting about this issue, it shows technology opens spaces for difficult dialog.

  3. Kim says:

    Love this new Blog. Will follow it closely!!

  4. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the post. Awareness is key and this will help. As a younger, less wise version of myself today, I used to use the R word. Never in a mean spirited way … just poking fun at silly things friends would do from time to time. Then I became the father of twins that have “special needs”. The word now make my skin crawl every time I hear it. Even when I know it was just someone poking fun at a friend …

    Keep up the good work

  5. chrisroud says:

    I agree with you 100%, that language affects individuals differently, especially using the example of the ‘r’ word. Language is such a powerful tool. Many people do not realize the power of language. Some people take offence to it while others may joke about it. This happens within politics as well. This video, a reporter discusses the use of language with the ‘r’ word and he takes offence to it. His video is a form of activism and he informs people to watch what they say [language] because it can hurt people.

    It is not only the ‘r’ word that is used. There are other examples, too, that I hear all the time whether I am on a bus or downtown. Consider the following phrases: “That’s so gay!”, “No-homo” and “I raped that exam”. All of the phrases use language that is deemed inappropriate within our society. The first two are obviously homophobic comments. Chris Crocker discusses how this phrase is used in society . Depending on the person who says it, I usually comment back. I work with grade ones once a week and if I hear a child say, “that’s gay”, I usually comment and say, yes, it is does make me happy doing whatever activity the child is doing at the time. Whereas, I would take a different approach if it was an adolescent or an adult and suggest that, “tests and exams do not have a sexual preference and therefore, are not gay”. With the phrase, “I raped that exam”; It really pisses me off because it is suggesting that it is okay to talk about rape in a negative context especially when we discuss school assignments as oppose to the actual crime of rape.

    You are asking a question about activism and in the class readings for the week, Baym suggests that there is a strong connection between technologies and viewing them as strong agents, also referred to as technological determinism. In the article, she references Marshall McLuhan saying that, “the medium is the message”. If us activists post blogs, comments, videos, rallies online and promote language awareness, I think we can make a difference. We can also promote events on social media websites where most of our generation is on online anyways. We need to get the media involved and for some of us at Carleton who have Journalism students as friends, it will get the message out even further. The benefits it can raise are making sure people are aware at all times about the power of language. On Facebook, for example, there is a news feed. Many of my friends post a lot of crap on Facebook. Some of it is good, mind you, but we should put videos to get people to notice these issues. If people see our videos, it would allow more people to understand the use of language.

  6. Sara says:

    Thank you for your awareness and shedding light on a topic that is very touchy. The “r word” is not any less hurtful or any less of a slur than a racial slur, or a negative statement agaisnt someone’s sexuality. This brings me back to my Sociology class where we were discussing Race, and racial slurs, whether it was appropriate to use the word such as the “n-bomb” if it is in music and because “we have reinvented it”. I strongly disagreed reason being that the painful history is still very much behind it therefore it does not matter the context it is being used, it is still very hurtful and not appropriate in any manner. It is the same with the “r-word” we have implemented new words to eradicate the “r word”, yet we still use it. I feel bringing awareness is one element in order to attain change, but it also depends on individuals to make a change in themselves and carry on the message and continue to create the awareness.

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