What’s Up with the New York Times’ Ethicist Using the R-Word as an Insult? Or, Why the Intelligentsia Still Thinks It’s Okay to Make Fun of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Last week, Kari Wagner-Peck wrote, in an open letter to Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times’ ethicist:

Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word “retarded” (along with all mutations of the word) for the same exact reasons. My question to you:

Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable?

She goes on to document three cases in which Mr. Klosterman mocked people with intellectual disabilities using the r-word, in 2002, 2008, and 2010. Here’s one example:

“You used to be able to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people. Now, it’s between hipsters and retards. I mean, either that guy in the corner in orange safety pants holding a protest sign and wearing a top hat is mentally disabled or he is the coolest fucking guy you will ever know.” (New York Magazine, 2008)

I’m guessing you’re with me here. Mr. Klosterman had some explaining, and perhaps some repenting, to do. (See below for his commendable response.) It’s problematic for anyone to use this type of language, and even more so when you are the ethicist for the New York Times.

But here’s the really sad thing. He’s not alone.

I wish I were talking about all those middle schoolers trying to be cool by using the r-word as an insult. Or the adults who never learned the personal reasons behind this trend towards political correctness. Or the drunk frat boys in the stands at a baseball game. Sure, plenty of regular people use the r-word all the time. I wish they wouldn’t. But they aren’t the people who think carefully before they commit their words to print and to public consumption. They aren’t the ones who have gone to school to learn the power of language to shape culture. They aren’t the ones who steward a national conversation about who and what we value.

What bothers me far far more then the use of the r-word by regular people is that the intellectual elite in this country use the r-word with impunity. Chuck Klosterman joins the ranks of Simon Rich who, for the New Yorker, wrote in an otherwise fabulous satire:

 For the first time since meeting Simon, I start to wonder if he is possibly retarded. He talks like my cousin Moishe, who was born with triangle head. His stories go on forever and have no meaning.

Klosterman joins the ranks of Time Magazine, which coined the phrase “celebutard” to describe Paris Hilton back in 2006. Their word popped up again recently when Sephora carried a lipstick by the same name (which was later recalled).

He joins the ranks of GQ, which in 2011 proclaimed Boston “suffers” from a kind of “style Down syndrome.”

He joins the ranks of his colleagues at the Times, who insisted upon using the medical term “mental retardation” even when it violated their own editorial policies. (See my previous post on this topic here.)

These writers are the same people who might be shocked (who might write an ethics column in the New York Times, say) if a colleague used racial epithets or slurs about sexuality. For very good reason, derogatory words to mock or denigrate whole groups of people have largely disappeared from public printed discourse. It’s time to do the same for the r-word.

It’s not just the media. You might remember that President Obama got in trouble for mocking participants in the Special Olymipcs. Or that Rahm Emmanuel used the r-word to denounce Republicans.

In the halls of power, in the press rooms of the country’s liberal media, and in the middle schools and cafeterias and pop-culture, it seems we are having a hard time believing that people with intellectual disabilities are just as worthy as respect as, well, anyone else.

But why is the r-word the last holdout? I don’t know about the locker room, but the New York Times and New Yorker and Democratic party seems to have banished negative words related to sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and race, for very good reason. But this word persists.

I’m guessing it comes down to prejudice and ignorance. I’m guessing most people who have spent much of their lives with words–writing, reading, studying–haven’t rubbed shoulders with many people with intellectual disabilities. I’m guessing they haven’t experienced the value and goodness of the lives of people who don’t do well on standardized tests and don’t care about resumes and masters degrees. I’m guessing they haven’t realized that IQ isn’t a measure of virtue or character.

I have never used the r-word. But I did have a latent disdain for, or indifference to, people with cognitive disabilities until my daughter was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. In the nearly eight years since, my mind has broadened to include her and other people with ID not because it is the politically correct thing to do but because it is what I want to do. I have been humbled by getting to know individuals with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Humbled and blessed and enriched.

I’m thankful to conclude with a wonderful twist to this story. Because, guess what? Chuck Klosterman read the letter. He thought about it. And he responded:

I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.

You can read his whole letter here.

So my hat goes off to Kari Wagner-Peck, who called him out. And to Chuck Klosterman not only for apologizing but for committing $25,000 towards whatever organization she decides will most improve the lives of individuals with cognitive disabilities. The money is great. But even better is the recognition that hopefully extends beyond this one man, that individuals with cognitive disabilities deserve the same respect, with our language and our lives, as everyone else.

If it had been a different word, though, would Chuck Klosterman still be the ethicist for the New York Times?

**Note–some comments on Facebook have alerted me to the fact that I may have implied the conservative news media and politicians are exempt from this problem. I don’t think that’s the case. I was pointing out the liberal news media simply because they are also the champions of politically correct speech.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. Wow. That’s a very good point, because I think had he used a degrading racial or religious slur, his chances of keeping his job would be slim…On another note, I couldn’t help by slightly cringe when you used the phrase “regular people,” as it brought to mine my own challenge/struggle (and perhaps others?) to define or see people as regular/irregular, normal/abnormal–and honestly, myself at times. In fact I don’t think this is a critique of your word choice per say (I know that was in no way your intent at all), but a reflection of the way in which your work has made me (others?) more aware of that insidiousness of how we exclude, label, or dismiss the lives of others who challenge our notions of success. Thoughtfully rich post. Thank you.

    • Maria, Thanks for your kind and thoughtful reply. I went back and forth about “regular people” and ended up there both because I couldn’t come up with something better but also because I didn’t think I was comparing regular to irregular but rather trying to provide an image of the “average Joe” (a phrase which I decided against because it has its own problems!) who doesn’t need to think about words being in print in public. I’m curious–in this context do you think there’s a better/different way to say it than “regular”?

  2. AJ, not only should he not use the word, he shouldn’t be writing for publication at all if that 2008 excerpt is any indication of his writing abilities. Someone pays this guy? And other people read him? Unbelievable.

  3. I know that was 5 years ago, but Klosterman’s quote in general suggests to me, “Ethicist, heal thyself!” For someone in his position to disparage the homeless and the intellectually disabled in this way is unacceptable, and I’m glad he (eventually) got that. (Furthermore, the idea that someone’s EITHER mentally disabled OR a cool f-ing guy… well, surprise, maybe they’re both!)

    As for the labeling, Wikipedia’s entry on “intellectual disability” contains this fascinating but rather discouraging comment: “The terms used for this condition are subject to a process called the euphemism treadmill. This means that whatever term is chosen for this condition, it eventually becomes perceived as an insult. The terms mental retardation and mentally retarded
    were invented in the middle of the 20th century to replace the previous
    set of terms, which were deemed to have become offensive. By the end of
    the 20th century, these terms themselves have come to be widely seen as
    disparaging and politically incorrect and in need of replacement.”

    So we have an uphill climb in our attempt to keep our descriptors of disabled persons from automatically sliding into the insult category. Sigh.

    • Jeannie, Sorry I’m so slow to reply but thanks for the Wikipedia info. In some ways it only underscores the point that people still think it’s acceptable to mock people with ID in a way that they don’t other groups (maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think racial slurs that have largely fallen out of use have been replaced with new ones). There’s a persistent cultural bias against people with ID. I hope and pray we can help eradicate the bias and not just the language that goes with it.

  4. “Retarded” is not a proper or exclusive noun, meaning it does not and has not only ever referred to people with mental disabilities. It can be used to refer to any type of retardation in any kind of circumstance. Physical retardation, the retardation of an athlete’s skill set if he or she regresses from one year to another.

    It is true that in many cases it is used to refer to people’s mental capabilities or to mock someone by associating them with someone who has retarded mental capabilities. But not always. I have used the word multiple times but have never (that I recall) used it in that way.

    In some instances it is very obvious when the word is being used incorrectly, that is, being used with all its baggage and nuances to heap scorn upon someone by inferring that they are inadequate in their mental capacity, but not in all cases. To say, “Joe Smith is a retard” is obviously improper. To say, “Joe Smith leaped from a moving vehicle, and that’s a retarded thing to do” is much less black-and-white. Perhaps they mean that only a retarded person would do it, but perhaps not.

    I find it infuriating that a few people using a word scornfully and improperly is cause enough to make that same word a cultural taboo. The lowest point of social action becomes the assumed norm in society and all suffer for it.

    That, in a word, is a retarded concept (no baggage included).

    • Gregory, just wanted to mention: we use “retard” in music, for example, with absolutely no malicious intent. And that makes sense because the word itself is from the French meaning slow down.

      BUT as I note in my comment below, historically whatever word we use to refer to the intellectually disabled eventually degrades into an insult. And that’s sad — not sad for those who think “Dang, I can’t even say retard anymore without being criticized” but sad because equating disability with an insult is so hurtful and wrong.

      • I didn’t read your comment from earlier. I agree with you.

        I find both instances sad, but not equally so. But both are connected in that a society that thinks equating disability with an insult is acceptable is the same kind that will journey down the “euphemism treadmill” to the point of the break-down of that society’s language and communication.

  5. The same problem exists with mental illness, too. The word “psycho” has absolutely nothing to do with violence. The confusion is caused by two terms. One is “psychopath”, which is someone who has no conscience, but is perfectly sane and not necessarilly violent. The other term is “psychosis” which means being out of touch with reality but again does not mean that the person is violent.
    Most mass murderers are in fact perfectly sane.
    Let us hope that we all can learn to be more careful with our language when refering to others.

    • I catch myself using the word “crazy” to describe people or things, and I’m trying to be more creative/descriptive with that word choice too!

      • Actually “crazy” does not necessarilly refer to mental illness, but it is a good idea to be PC. However it is difficult to find different words to describe some people and their ideas.

        I have never called anyone a retard simply because when I was a child at school, due to a traumatic indicident at a young age, I wouldn’t talk with the other children. So they took to calling me a “retard” So I know that it hurts from personal experience.

        I knew a boy once who had a mental disablity but he was kind of a savant as he liked to fix electronic things. He wasn’t a genius but I recognized that he had a gift in a certain area. Beyond that he was a good person and I judge people on that basis rather than intellegence.

        Quite frankly I would likely not do very well on a IQ test because it is heavy on math and science. But I have learned to value the fact that there are many types of intellegence and I happen to be a good writer so who cares what others think?

        Another form of intellegence is emotional intellegence and that is what many Down’s syndrome people seem to have. Regardless EVERYONE are children of God so I would never look down on anyone on the basis of intellegence.

        Anyway that was a very good article and I hope people will think twice before they say the “R” word.

  6. What do you mean by “intelligentsia”? I frequently hear the word retard used in an insulting way by regular, everyday people. Indeed, many of those who have said not to use it like that, in my experience, have been academics (although since I was close to the college of education, that shouldn’t be a shock).

    • Nemo, As I note in the post, I also notice every day people using the r-word in an insulting way. But my post focuses upon people I call the “intelligentsia”–the writers of news publications in this case. I agree that academics generally avoid this term and would even advocate against its use. But people who have a lot of education and spend their careers thinking about words (writers) AND who say they want to be politically correct in their language still use the r-word with startling frequency.

  7. Beady Blossom says:

    We have a group of about 40 adults with disabilities in our church and everytime I go to their meetings I am blessed and humbled. They have different levels of “function” but all enjoy regular jokes, singing, stories and sermons. I wish more people would visit the meetings and be blessed also.