Ann Coulter and the Witness of John Franklin Stephens
Last week Ann Coulter sent media ablaze with a short tweet in response to the presidential foreign policy debate: "I highly approve of Governor Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." Her tweet has been favorited and retweeted by both supporters and detractors thousands of times since.
It would be easy to dismiss her statement. It's possible that Coulter made a mistake, that she didn't mean to imply that our Harvard-educated President is stupid. Or that she didn't really mean to offend hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability by using a form of what was once a clinical term (mental retardation) as a slur. But Coulter has defended herself, saying she has no regrets about the tweet. On Fox News, Coulter explained, "'Retard' had been used colloquially to just mean 'loser' for 30 years." To Piers Morgan she fired back: "It's offensive according to whom? Moron, idiot, cretin, imbecile, these were exactly like retard, once technical terms to describe people with mental disabilities."
Coulter's own track record demonstrates both a persistent use of the word and an inability to understand what it implies. A few years back, Coulter, who says she is a Christian, wrote a profile of Sarah Palin for Time in which she defended Palin's pro-life credentials like this: "she really did walk the walk on abortion when she found out she was carrying a Down-syndrome baby." Here, Coulter uses much more subtle language about disability than she did last week, yet she demonstrates a similar disregard for the worth of the person in question. Trig is not Palin's son, but "a Down-syndrome baby." His diagnosis comes first, his personhood second. And Palin has become an exemplar of a cause rather than a mother who loves her child.
Second, it would be easy, especially for Democrats, to dismiss Coulter's words because it is easy to dismiss Ann Coulter. But her decision to deride our President with this particular word deserves attention not as much for what it tells us about Coulter as for what it tells us about our culture's continued bias against people with intellectual disabilities. Derogatory use of the r-word crosses the political divide. President Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel employed it regularly to decry Republicans in Congress. It still shows up in liberal media, whether The New York Times or in a humor column within the New Yorker ("Penguins are retarded," reads the line in this piece). On an anecdotal level, I hear it all the time. From adults. From high school kids. From liberals and conservatives, from the powerful and powerless alike.