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The Word 'Retard': Free Speech Issue or Hate Speech Issue?

Ned and I went into a Newbury Comics store today and were browsing the buttons, figuring we’d buy a few funny ones for Benj for his birthday. We were laughing at the button that said, “Ask me about my explosive diarrhea.” But as my eyes scanned the long rows of the ironic, witty, silly, I saw a button that said, “I’m retarded.”

“Ohhh,” I said to Ned, pointing at it like it was glowing with radiation. I started to pick at it, thinking I would remove it, throw it on the floor. Ned said, “Sue, you can’t do that.”

“But they shouldn’t have that,” I said.

“You can’t vandalize, though.”

I sighed. I looked regretfully at the other buttons; the fun was over.

"They shouldn’t have that,” I said a little louder, suddenly realizing I wanted the guy behind the counter to hear me. I said it again and he looked at me. I was quivering for a fight, all of a sudden.

“You don’t have to — uh, buy it–” he said. It was the argument everyone makes: you don’t like what I wrote, don’t read it. You don’t like what’s on t.v.? Don’t watch!

It was a legitimate argument. It is the anti-censorship argument. First Amendment and all that. The breath and blood of a free country. Yes, I agree, I don’t have to buy it, read it, or watch it. You start taking away that right and you are on a slippery slope.

There’s the law — and then, there’s just plain humane behavior. Newbury Comics doesn’t have to sell that particular button. They can make the choice to have one fewer button on that stand– there were so many, nobody would have missed it.

We have so many other words in this language of ours. We came up with better words — and concepts — for blacks, for Jews, for so many. There are so many ways to say something. And no one is telling the Newbury Comics dudes that they can NOT sell those buttons anymore. But Newbury Comics can decide that it’s just not all that funny anymore.

I was shaking with anger as I headed for the door. I saw a guy that appeared to be the manager, and I tried talking to him. “You know, you shouldn’t have that ‘I’m Retarded’ button for sale over there. It’s not a good word.” I wasn’t sure what to say. There are a lot of words out there but sometimes my mouth can’t find them.

But he got it. He looked at me, and said, “Hmmm. Well, I’ll be happy to bring it up with my supervisor.”

I gave him my best smile. “Thanks!” I said. “That’s great!” And I left. One down, 299 billion to go.


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