In my early twenties, I had no problem with calling people “retarded.” If you annoyed me or did something I considered less than intelligent, the R-word would spill out of my lips faster than butter melts on a hot griddle. It was even more ridiculous for me to use the words that I did, considering that my own little brother had both physical and mental disabilities.
It was different for me, though. I had never seen my beloved brother, or any other person with disabilities, as being “retarded.” I reserved that word for regular people who were just doing dumb things. Since it didn’t hold the same meaning for me as it did for others, it was okay for me to use it. I never meant the word as a comparison or insult to someone with a disability.
Using the argument above, I justified my use of the R-word to myself and others when I was called out for my use. I told myself that they just didn’t understand what I meant, and that they were overreacting to it since I didn’t fit into their strict views of language use. Besides, my brother was disabled! I would never use words that would hurt him. I was a part of the community, and I was sure that if I was allowed to explain my use of the R-word, no one would argue with me about it.
By the time I was 23, I was using the word less and less, but I couldn’t explain why. I would feel guilty if I let it slip out, and I would correct myself midsentence. I started explaining to my friends that I didn’t really like that word, and that I would like it if they didn’t use it. One friend of mine got rather angry at me for asking him to avoid it, and he spouted off that I was a “politically-correct grammar Nazi.” In a moment of righteous anger, my distaste for the R-word became exceedingly clear.
When I looked at my brother, I saw a bright and wonderful young man who faced multiple trials in his life. When I used the R-word, whether I believed it or not, many people saw me as referring to people like him. In the eyes of the many, I was insulting the person I love the most. My justification was simply a selfish rebellion against those who I saw as censoring language. The fact was that they were not censoring language, but rather asking that we see who our words are actually hurting, regardless of how we meant it.
Now that I am a linguist, I know a better way to say what I yelled at my friends all those years back: Perception trumps intention. Simply put, it means that what you mean with your words may not match up with how someone understands your words. The miscommunication that follows this mismatch is extremely common, but can often be corrected with a simple explanation. When you are repeatedly explaining the same miscommunication, or when you are told again and again that your words are hurtful, it may be time to stop justifying your words. It may be time to examine what you are saying and decide if you should change.