By now, I am sure all of my readers have heard of Ann Coulter’s unfortunate tweet about the third Presidential debate, in which she said, “I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard”.
Her use of the word “retard” drew immediate and vociferous criticism, as one might imagine, including a well thought out letter from Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens.
Like many others, I was repulsed by Coulter’s use of the word “retard”. I think Coulter has every right to her opinion of the president’s intellect. Mocking presidents is a tradition that is pretty much as old as our tradition of having presidents. As I recall, President Obama’s immediate predecessor came in for a lot of it, too. I’m glad to live in a country in which we can mock our leaders. I just agree with those who believe using a word that is hurtful to people who are not in her line of fire is cruel.
But it isn’t her use of the word “retard” that has me most up in arms. What really drew my ire is her using the word “kind”.
Let me see if I can explain what I mean without getting both of my feet in my mouth along with whatever others I can borrow. I am certainly not suggesting that we should be unkind to people with disabilities, cognitive or otherwise. They get enough of that as it is. I like kindness, and think there should be more of it in the world, especially in the sense that I should practice it a lot more than I do.
But there is an underlying tone to phrase “be kind and gentle to the retard” that goes beyond just the use of the word “retard”. It draws a distinction between us of the three digit IQ’s and them, and makes it clear who are the actors and who are the acted upon. We get to choose to be kind. They get to hope we do. And there is something about that distinction that is patronizing, and condescending, and even unkind.
There’s a story I can tell that may explain what I am driving at. Back in my working days, I had a student, B. I worked with B on her language skills off and on from her baby days to her middle school years. B is what used to be called a slow learner. Concepts came hard to her. She needed to be drilled and drilled and drilled in them, but once she finally got them, she got them.
One day we were working on vocabulary. It was late in the day and I was having a hard time explaining what I wanted to explain. I said something snappish. I didn’t know it was going to sound snappish until I heard myself say it (that happens to me a lot), but it did. It was on the tip of my tongue to apologize when B looked at me curiously and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you okay?”
Who me? I’m fine except for that whole feeling about the size of a postage stamp thing I suddenly have going on. “I’m just tired,” I said, “but that was no excuse for me to sound mean. I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
We finished our lesson, and when I returned B to her mom in the waiting room, I told her the story, even though it meant telling on myself. I was proud of B for her skill in dealing with an uncomfortable situation and thought her mom should know. “Yeah, she’s like that,” her mom said proudly.
Some people are like that. You don’t have to be smart or mobile or otherwise “normal” to be kind. Ms. Coulter is not the gatekeeper of kindness to the world, and neither am I (and a good thing, too.) What you do need is to be able to feel like other people, no matter how different from you they are in superficial ways, are part of your tribe, part of your kind.