So often, we get seduced into imagining that the moral life centers on big, dramatic life-or-death decisions. Of course, when we are faced with them, those are crucial and important. But so much of the moral life passes us by in the little decisions, so little that they don’t even seem like decisions, like the words we happen to say as we go throughout our days.
Speech patterns get engrained in us, and it is easy to say things that we would never say if we thought about it, simply because we haven’t thought about it, and we hear certain patterns all the time. I remember a time, not too long after I turned 21, when a friend and I were contemplating a rather spontaneous little trip. My way of expressing that I had decided we should go forward with it was a phrase I had grown up hearing: “We’re free, white and 21. Let’s do it.” Just as the words escaped my lips, I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach. Luckily, my Chinese-American friend was quite gracious about it. Neither of us ever discussed it, but I never used that phrase again.
The word to eliminated today is “retarded.” This post by Amy Julia Becker reminded me that today, March 7th, is the annual “day of activation” for the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign over at r-word.org. Becker tells some rather powerful stories of what it has been like for her, as the mother of a daughter who has Down syndrome, to hear other people comment “I’m so retarded” when they drop something or forget to put out the recycling, or to call others “retarded” as a casual insult.
I hope some of our readers will make the pledge to eliminate hateful usage of the r-word. But I also hope that we’ll use this occasion to reflect on all kinds of little speech patterns that are hurtful and harmful. It’s strange. If you call people on this sort of use of “retarded,” they usually insist that they mean no disrespect to people with mental disabilities, they just meant, you know, that their friend (or their own action) was … “retarded.” But that habit of thought–so deeply dismissing persons with intellectual disabilities that it doesn’t even occur to us that the word we are using has a relationship to them–is perhaps the most hurtful part of all.
Lent seems like a particularly appropriate time to examine our habits of speech and eliminate what is hurtful and unfitting. We may find, too, that efforts to change our speech make us more aware of certain habits of thought that also need to change. And, by attending to these little “non-decisions” of the moral life, we may find that when we get to the big moral decisions in life, our course has been made much clearer by our time attending to patterns of thought and speech that show respect to all.