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.
The best part of the Coulter story came from John Franklin Stephens, a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome. Stephens wrote an open letter to Coulter: "[I've] struggled with the public's perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you."
He goes on:
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV …. Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.
Stephens critiqued Coulter without dishonoring her common humanity, thereby demonstrating the spirit of Ephesians 4:19: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." Stephens succeeded in publicly decrying Coulter's words without degrading her person.
Paul's words in Ephesians come in the midst of a list of admonitions, but they are far more than a command to watch our language. This command comes in the context of describing the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in Christ. It is because of a deep and life-changing understanding of the gospel that such life-giving talk happens. As we understand our common sinfulness and our common creation in the image of God, we can speak words that are filled with grace and truth and also believe and experience the reality of that grace and truth.
Our culture routinely talks about babies with Down syndrome as "mistakes" to be avoided—which is to say, to be aborted as early as possible. And no wonder, if pundits on the Left and the Right think it's both acceptable and funny to denigrate these individuals in public. The use of the r-word might seem merely careless or insensitive. It is both, but more important, it reflects a culture that measures human worth by IQ and economic productivity, not by the mere fact that they are created and loved by God. But the words of life, the words of truth, should be the words coming forth from the mouths of Christians. Even when we disagree with one another, even when we want to call attention to political differences, our language must reflect the truth of the gospel—that all people, Democrat, Republican, from the President to the "least of these"—have been imbued with value from the Creator.
I don't know if John Franklin Stephens is a Christian. But his words, far more than Coulter's, reflect the Spirit of Christ.
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