The R word

We’ve had spirited discussions in this space over the last 10 months about the public use of certain words.

Now we have a chance to have another, thanks to Ben Stiller’s new movie “Tropic Thunder.”


At the premiere, several groups protested the movie, according to former WCCO reporter — now CBS correspondent — Ben Tracy.

Dozens of people from organizations such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities protested the movie-industry spoof across the street from the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Mann’s Bruin Theatre on Monday. The protesters held up signs with slogans such as “Call me by my name, not by my label” and chanted phrases like “Ban the movie, ban the word.”

Dreamworks says it won’t make any changes to the film, but has changed its promotional materials and yanked the Web site, which contained the tag line “Once there was a retard.”

It’s just satire. It’s just a joke.

Craig Ludin, 32, isn’t laughing. He’s best at swimming, although he plays a good golf game, too. He works at Capital One Bank. He has Down syndrome. And he hates the word, according to Newsday.

“I’m sorry they have that opinion,” Stiller said.. “They haven’t even seen the movie.”

  • I do think that you need to see an entire movie (or entire book, et cetera) in context before making sweeping assumptions.

    THEN, I might take more seriously what you have to say about such things.

    As MPR says in their ads, context is important.

  • Nan

    I take it Ben Stiller does not have anyone in his family or life with a disability or special needs. How priviledged for him. Maybe he should voluteer some time, like a year, working directly with special needs people. Then he can decide if he is offended or not.

    Sign me,

    Mom of an Asperger child.

  • Andy

    I agree with you Paul.

    All I know is that a couple of dozen protesters are giving this movie a ton of free publicity.

  • Steve

    Re: Nan

    You’re making a broad assumption not only about Ben Stiller but also the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie then you really have very little room to criticize.

    His satire is most likely pointed at the Hollywood system that exploits “retards” to make up for empty plots and to illicit sympathy (i.e., Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, Rain Man, The Other Sister, etc.) Not to say those aren’t good movies, but much of their success was the lead actors playing an effective character with a disability, the plots behind them were rather sub-par.

    The satire of Stiller’s movie-within-a-movie is that people are willing to give a movie a free pass, neigh, they feel obligated to give a movie a free pass, just because the lead character has a disability. Studios know this and know they will make a lot of money by…exploiting the disability over making a good story.

    Stiller is simply pointing this out. You obviously missed that point.

  • Amanda

    I agree with Paul: context is key.

    It’s as if we’re segregating people with disabilities if we tip-toe around them. I understand the taboo comes from a past of disrespect and disregard. But I think we’re at a point in time where we understand people with disabilities are just like everyone; they poses different abilities and are of value to society and people around them.

  • Bob Collins

    It’s entirely legitimate to question the use of the word even if one hasn’t seen the movie. THAT’s the point of the post. What words are considered UNacceptable. What words are considered acceptable in a certain context and what words are unacceptable REGARDLESS of context and — this is the most important — how do we decide when each of those applies.

    Stiller, for example, said the word is acceptable in the context of the movie, but he didn’t explain what context that is.

    Does that go for the other words we’ve described here over the last few months? If not, why not?

    One of the ironies here is that the context of the film is quite possibly about race. You’ve got a white actor playing a black guy. And, as far as I know, the guy isn’t using the “n” word as part of that “context”. Why not?

  • fortheloveofpete

    i haven’t watched the movie. i hear the term ‘retard’ all the time around teens and pre-teens. we used to use the word ‘lame’ and never gave a second thought that we were condeming those who could not walk or walked with difficulty.

    would it be better if the teens and pre teens used the word “challenged”?

    “thats totally challenged, you’re so challenged”

    like, whatever.

  • bigalmn

    In addition to the word being demeaning, it trys to lump all different types of disabilities into one category which is not the case. Each person even if they have a disability similar to someone else is an individual.

    Each individual has value and provides a capability that fits into this world one way or the other. Lets work with the individual to take their capability or skill and help them maximize it for their good and societies good. Our society concentrates too much on the negative instead of working on the positive.

  • Bob Collins

    fortheloveofpete, when my kids were younger, it seemed “gay” was the word of choice for derision. As in “that’s so gay.”

  • fortheloveofpete

    ok so lets take a tally:

    so far in this particular blog we have offended:the mentally retarded and their families, those who have difficulty walking (and probably their family and friends as well) and those with same sex preferences.

    It all gets kind of stupid and over done as I can pretty much bet that the individual using the “particular word of choice” has no ill will towards those of that word.

    (I am using the word stupid in the context of being silly and not in the context of having ill will towards individuals who are not smart or have a genius IQ)

  • Bob Collins

    But fortheloveofpete, you’re not answering the pointof the post … WHERE is that line for what words are and aren’t acceptable and how does society determine where that line is. If the N word isn’t acceptable — and for the record, it isn’t. Than where is that line between the N word and the R word?

    Where is the point at which the “stupid and overdone” kicks in? Who gets to decide?

  • fortheloveofpete

    Good point Bob.

    Maybe because “N” was much more a degrading term towards a race who was enslaved, abused sexually, verbally, and physically for years by the white folk of these grand United States. That N term meant “I am less than you, you own me, you can sell me, I am worthless in your eyes and you are right I will never amount to much of anything”

    besides, in this day and age, everyone is self righteous to the public eye and the abuse has moved to cyber bullying where no one knows your name.

  • One of the ironies here is that the context of the film is quite possibly about race. You’ve got a white actor playing a black guy. And, as far as I know, the guy isn’t using the “n” word as part of that “context”. Why not?

    From an interview I heard with Stiller, the n-word is used once in the movie, in a conversation between Downey’s character and an African-American character. The frequency of that word’s use, I am given to understand, was reduced.

  • Bob Collins

    Our latest candidate in the “is this offensive” competition is here.

  • Nan

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for explaining what he is most likely pointing out…. well said.

    I still wonder if Stiller or anyone else would be offended by the R word if they had only (personally) experienced it in a negative context.

    CHALLENGE: Can anyone give an example of the R word in a posative context?

    . . .

    IF NOT, then how can it be acceptable in any context?


  • the r-word fall right in with the n-word and most importantly the w-word… all should be avaided for the sake of everyones betterment. visit

  • Mac Wilson

    “Ban the movie, ban the word.”

    This is the part that bothers me. I honestly believe that no government would ever put such draconian measures in place. What would the ordinances say? Doesn’t this sound like thought-crime to anyone else? Whether or not this word is acceptable in any context is one thing, but to ban the word? Unreasonable and unfathomable.

  • leci

    I don’t think the point is finding a positive context for which the R word is used, but looking at each individual context and determining whether or not one can come to the conclusion that the context means to use the word (in this case, the R word) in an offense way. Let’s face it, often times context defines words more than definitions. When a child who’s learning to read doesn’t know what a word means, they’re told to look at the context of the sentence, then paragraph, of the story to define what’s being said.

    As is my understanding from what I’ve heard of this argument and the movie, Stiller is actually slamming *actors* who’ve played challenged individuals to enhance their careers. While it could be said that the use of the R word maybe have been insensitive and ignorant, *in that context*, actors are being slammed, not people with challenges or disabilities.

    I think we’d find ourselves on a slippery slope to be asked to find “one instance” of anything in terms of language, because language is defined by context, which is what makes language so fluid and changeable. Even when Bob mentioned that “gay” was used derisively with his kids, years ago the word meant happy. It’s changed over time. Culture contexts change, and very suddenly a word is bad.

    I don’t mean to say the the offensiveness of words isn’t important, but bear in mind that years ago the same words that are bad today weren’t then. So knowing that words are defined by context, we should be careful to look at each context of said words closely, then determine whether or not the word is being abused, or being used to make a point.

  • Bob Collins

    Leci, I think a word that comes closest to the R word in the two examples of context you provide is “faggot.”

    One of the former stars of Grey’s Anatomy lost his job for using it to describe another actor on the series.

    Now take the use of the word in Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.”

    See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup

    Yeah buddy thats his own hair

    That little faggot got his own jet airplane

    That little faggot hes a millionaire

    As far I know Knopfler wasn’t calling someone a faggot, he was invoking it to deride those who refer to people as faggots. That’s the way I always viewed (heard) it, anyway.

    We’re all going to have to go see the movie. You know, we should have a News Cut night at the movie!

  • Bridget

    Bob, thanks for opening up this dialogue.

    Fortheloveofpete, your defense of the offensiveness of the “N” word versus the “R” word is completely vaporized by this eloquent quote by Timothy Shriver published in the Washington Post:

    “People with intellectual disabilities are routinely abused, neglected, insulted, institutionalized and even killed around the world. Their parents are told to give up, that their children are worthless. Schools turn them away. Doctors refuse to treat them. Employers won’t hire them. None of this is funny.

    For centuries, they have been the exception to the most basic spiritual principle: that we are each equal in spirit, capable of reflecting the goodness of the divine, carriers of love. But not people with intellectual disabilities. What’s a word commonly applied to them? Hopeless.”

    Perhaps I am biased, as I have a brother with disabilities who has wept over being called “stupid,” fought to make friends, and ached just to fit all — all by no fault of his own.

    Perhaps, also, I should write Mr. Spielberg at Dreamworks (a co-producer of the film) and ask him how he would feel about Jewish people being called the “K” word. His epic “Schindler’s List” will never have the same affect on me, but I digress…

    I refuse to “lighten up” regarding this movie. The population of people with intellectual disabilities is one of, if not the most, defenseless populations. If my brother could “lighten up” about the derogatory use of the term retard and laugh at his disabilities instead of fighting constantly to overcome them, I’d laugh right along with him. The thing is, it’s just not funny.

  • fortheloveofpete

    /I refuse to “lighten up” regarding this movie./

    you have that right.

    i have a drum and a banner for you to wave at your march.

  • terry

    I think the “r” word can stifle people, just like “idiot”, “stupid”

    or “moron” and I believe that a lot depends of the person’s attitude saying the word and also on the person’s attitude receiving the word. Some people are obviously trying to tease or put down people, some are being

    competitive or comic, others are using it as an adverb to define some specific behavior or feeling. It also depends on whether a person has a disability and has heard the word like about a gzillion times. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I might be a genius when it comes to one subject and rather unenlightened about another – like wouldn’t I feel like a beginner – not necessarily so intelligent – still learning about most things.

    I like people who are able to inspire others

    to try or to begin ….

  • jon

    I prefer “synaptically challenged” over the “R” word. I dont know if thats actually any better tho? Someone let me know?