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Amusing Snide Comment,

courtesy of my friend Dina Colosimo: "He has his own special learning curve" (of course, with the proper emphasis on "special").

Hattio (mail):
C'mon, Tell us who it was said about....
6.3.2007 1:46am
Dell Adams (mail):
What do you find amusing about it?
6.3.2007 9:49pm
Lee David (mail):
It's special, like the special olympics.
6.3.2007 10:14pm
Waldensian (mail):

It's special, like the special olympics.

Exactly. It is, therefore, in extremely poor taste.

Comments like this, made at the expense of people with developmental disabilities, are surprisingly common, particularly in popular comedy.

Yet such comments are offensive and wrong, not "amusing" and "snide." Safeguarding the dignity of our most vulnerable fellow citizens is a moral imperative. History teaches us that when we fail to do so, we are diminished, and in extreme circumstances they may even be endangered.

I used to go along with popular convention, and make jokes at the expense of people with developmental disabilities. But I have received a particularly focused education on the matter since then.
6.4.2007 1:17am
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
It is, therefore, in extremely poor taste.

I was waiting for that one.

The bigger problem is when words like special, which used to mean better, are warped to mean something the opposite, like handicapped, in an attempt to pretend that they aren't really handicapped. It is a joke to begin with so no wonder it is the subject of jokes.

Dignity is not a moral imperative. Especially when it is based on falsehoods. (Like the schools that now have 75 valedictorians so no one has hurt feelings.) Honesty and accepting reality are moral imperatives. Not Orwell's newspeak.
6.4.2007 10:55am
Tracy Johnson (www):
It must be "The Name of the Rose."
6.4.2007 11:09am
Houston Lawyer:
But was it said with the proper "Church Lady" inflection?
6.4.2007 11:53am
ys:
Come on folks. The chain of euphemisms is never ending as each previous one becomes too direct/insulting or whatever. Consider special/handicapped/retarded ... (yes, "retarded" was a nicer sounding euphemism to show that those people are just like everybody else, they just need more time to catch up - it was progress compared to "dumb", "village idiot", etc). And come to think of it, "dumb" was probably also a euphemism (they just cannot talk, rather than being idiots). Not knowing the latest euphemism could cause at least an embarrassment. When I was new to this country, and my kid then in elementary school was the opposite of retarded, I asked if there was some kind of a program for "special" kids. I was asked in turn, what the problem with my kid was. It turned out, he really qualified for a "gifted and talented" program. This had been later renamed "enrichment" ("gifted and talented" being too blunt) and probably something else by now, if it still exists.

For a home exercise, consider the even longer chain of names for the place where the opposite of eating happens.
6.4.2007 1:26pm
ys:

And come to think of it, "dumb" was probably also a euphemism (they just cannot talk, rather than being idiots).

I meant "cannot hear" of course.
6.4.2007 2:19pm
Lonely Capitalist (mail):
the place where the opposite of eating happens

Vomitorium?

And come to think of it, "dumb" was probably also a euphemism (they just cannot talk, rather than being idiots).

I meant "cannot hear" of course.


You were right the first time. "deaf and dumb" meant can't hear or speak.
6.4.2007 2:25pm
ys:

I meant "cannot hear" of course.

You were right the first time. "deaf and dumb" meant can't hear or speak.

OK, I am a bit retarded today (sorry, I meant "special").
6.4.2007 3:16pm
Waldensian (mail):

Dignity is not a moral imperative. Especially when it is based on falsehoods. (Like the schools that now have 75 valedictorians so no one has hurt feelings.) Honesty and accepting reality are moral imperatives. Not Orwell's newspeak.

Well, you're just wrong.

Recognizing other persons' dignity as human beings, and not describing them as dogs (for example), is in fact a moral imperative.

Protecting various people from hurt feelings as a method of building self-esteem is quite often a silly enterprise, but is an entirely different issue.

Let there be no doubt: The word "special" here is being used as an epithet, intentionally evoking the image of a disfavored and ridiculed group, namely people with developmental disabilities. That's in poor taste.

Meanwhile, although there's no way you could know this, the idea that you would lecture me on "accepting reality" is beyond ludicrous. You have no idea what reality in this area is.

If you think that the problem of protecting the dignity of people with developmental disabilities is somehow in the same league as "having 75 valedictorians," I invite you to have a kid on an IEP.
6.4.2007 3:28pm
ys:

If you think that the problem of protecting the dignity of people with developmental disabilities is somehow in the same league as "having 75 valedictorians," I invite you to have a kid on an IEP.

A valid point, but, for a moment at least, let's separate the real life problems from a linguistic word-chain that keeps extending. A time comes when any new euphemism becomes so associated with the designated, usually unpleasant object, that a replacement is manufactured. The quote in the original posting is one of those little pushes that cause that. So, sooner or later, "special" will go. Even "disabled" is not quite good enough for some as "variously abled" has been around for a while now.
And to swith gears to respond to Lonely Capitalist: vomitorium is clearly an ancient Roman euphemism to avoid using dirty words like Palatium.
6.4.2007 6:22pm
Dell Adams (mail):
Even "idiot" may have started out as a euphemism. If I remember what Victor Davis Hanson said in The Other Greeks, the Greek word it comes from originally meant someone who did things his own way (our words "idiom", "idiosyncrasy", etc., go back to the same root).

As a longtime reader here, I'm quite sure Professor Volokh didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings by saying he found his friend's quip amusing. I'm simply puzzled that he did find it funny, since calling someone stupid in various ostensibly clever ways is one of the most commonplace and hackneyed forms of humor, particularly in a school environment (whether grade school or, apparently, law school). I was thinking perhaps I had missed some aspect of this particular quip that restored its freshness, which is why I asked the Professor, perhaps too sharply, what he found funny.
6.4.2007 10:36pm
Truth Seeker:
Anyone know where one can find a collection of idioms for stupid, such as these?
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
Not the brightest bulb in the chandelier
One beer short of a six pack
A taco short of a combination plate
6.4.2007 11:18pm
glangston (mail):
There's nothing special about the word anymore since it joined the bad is good crowd.

At least EV didn't claim it was witty. I think his reference was to the Church Lady, with a nod to slackers. I don't think his reference was Special Education but I'm not sure denying it will satisfy some. My wife taught Special Ed as a Resource Specialist for 30 years.
6.4.2007 11:29pm
Lee David (mail):
I made the comment above that refered to the "special olympics". I thought that Dina's comment was amusing, as did Eugene. For me the rip on the euphimism "special" is what makes it funny.

Some background: I had a brother who was retarded, and who participated in the special olympics. His condition was caused by a birth defect, he was hyperactive, complicated by being epileptic, and there were more complications from contracting encephalitis. He would never progress past about a second grade level of education. He was hard to handle because of the hyperactivity. I am eternally grateful to those "special-ed" teachers that worked with him to get him as far as he could get. despite his limitations, he was a warm and loving human being. He was also aware of his difference and knew very well what "special" meant in the context of people handicapped as he was. The word may have made those who started using it as a euphimism feel better but it didn't do him any favors.

I have thought for a long time that we do ourselves and those less fortunate and afflicted a disservice, How long ago was the word special adopted to describe these olympics? Thirty or forty years? The word itself, in this context, conveys no explicit meaning by definition other than limitations. How long does it take for a word usage like this to propagate and become generally understood to be a euphamism for handicapped, five years maybe? This means that everyone has been in on the game for 30 or 35 years. The people participating in these games are keenly aware of their limitations and are out there making the best of it. I applaud them and the organizers. I have seen the determination and joy on the faces of the competitors. But to think that they don't know that special means handicapped for them is laughable.

The joke is on us. While the use of the euphimism may be a salve to our misplaced sensabilities, it is no better or worse than saying handicapped for those that that word describes by definition. If you have no compassion for those that are handicapped and less fortunate than yourself, calling them some other word will not magically bestow it upon you. Our arrogant condescencion should be laughed at, and snidely derided as well. That's why it's funny, not to mention that, if we honestly used the words that by definition apply; the language would be a lot less confusing and we would all be better off, while the handicapped would be no worse off.
6.5.2007 3:31am
NickM (mail) (www):
TruthSeeker - Slate had a podcast a year or two ago with a discussion of listener-submitted euphemisms for stupid. It may still be locatable on their website.

Nick
6.5.2007 4:43am
Waldensian (mail):
The linguistic issues are interesting -- it seems to me that disfavored groups try to dump stigmatizing labels, but often the new label becomes stigmatizing as well. No one can pretend this process makes sense when it plays out. For example, "colored people" seems antiquated to us (at best), calling someone a "colored" (noun) is objectivizing and almost certainly the usage of a racist, while "people of color" has emerged as an acceptable usage.

But I don't care a fig about that. The usage here is quite simple. I didn't get Church Lady from this, I got "special" as in "special needs" or "special ed." The simple fact is that "special" is, increasingly, being used as an epithet, comparing the target of the insult to persons with developmental disabilities. I think that's what's going on here.

Your mileage may vary, but I see the "snide" and "amusing" comment here as essentially equivalent to:

"He has his own retard learning curve"

"He has his own short-bus learning curve"

"He has his own special-ed learning curve"

I think using such epithets is bad. I think EV ought to apologize for it, and ponder, if he's a parent, what it must be like for some other parents to read tripe like this and see it called "amusing."

OR he should chastise me for reading something into his quote that wasn't intended. Seriously, if this really was a Church Lady reference, I'll apologize and shut the heck up. But I'll note, in my defense, that I wasn't the only one to read "special" as a reference to developmental disabilities.
6.5.2007 7:22pm
markm (mail):
"He has his own retard learning curve"

"He has his own short-bus learning curve"

don't make sense.

"He has his own special-ed learning curve"

does make sense - except that the meaning of "special" has been warped through use as a euphemism.
6.6.2007 10:21am