My college-age son and his friends use the terms "retarded" and "gay" pretty much interchangeably to mean substandard, bad, lame (in the sense of ineffectual or weak) or just plain wrong. I've suggested that he might want to be careful about where he uses such language, but he clearly isn't worried about being offensive with those terms.
Now add this to the equation: Last night we watched a recorded version of Comedy Central's "A Tribute to Sam Kinison." Comedy Central censors a lot of words, including names of body parts (although, curiously, they let "dick" remain unbleeped), terms for sex acts, and so on. And we could clearly see that the word "retarded" had been bleeped (it's a very easy word to lip-read). Note that Comedy Central does not censor the word "nigger" on the Dave Chapelle show, although this is a word Jon Stewart goes to great lengths to avoid saying on his own show (also, of course, on Comedy Central).
So I wonder: is the word "retarded" really that offensive? How about "gay" in the context described above?
From an Associated Press story (Young Jaded by Online Slurs) reported in the Boston Globe today (Sept. 21, 2011):
WASHINGTON - Young people immersed in the online world see racist and sexist slurs and other name-calling that probably would appall their parents and teachers. And most consider it no big deal, a poll says.
When the question is asked broadly, half of young people surveyed say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it’s OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because “I know we don’t mean it.’’ And they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.
Demeaning something with “that’s so gay’’ is so common that two-thirds of young people see it used, and the majority aren’t offended at all, despite a public-service ad campaign that tried to stamp out the anti-gay slang.
A similar effort by the Special Olympics and others to persuade kids not to use “retard’’ hasn’t hit home with half of those surveyed, who don’t find the word even moderately bothersome. Twenty-seven percent are seriously offended, however.
Some teens just text the way they talk. Calling each other “gay’’ and “retarded’’ is routine in high school, says Robert Leader, 17, a senior in Voorhees, N.J. So teens text it, too.