What the right wing loves to mock as “politically correct speech” is simply the application of the principle that groups of people, especially those whose social status is marginal, should not be referred to by demeaning names. Sarah Palin, for example, the mother of a developmentally disabled child, objects to the use of “retarded” as an insult. (At least, she objects to it when Rahm Emmanuel does it.) And she’s right to do so. Whether she also objects to “illegitimate” or the older “bastard” as ways of referring to the grandson born to her unmarried daughter is not, so far as I know, on the record, but if she does object she has some work to do with some of her fellow wingnuts. She seems to have no problem calling children brought to this country, through no fault of their own, before they were old enough to speak “illegal aliens.”
The entirely praiseworthy effort to be polite is not without its ironies, all relating to what J.K. Galbraith called the Iron Law of Euphemism. Even a neutral-sounding label will soon become pejorative if attached to an unpleasant reality or a despised group. Recall that the Hoover Administration introduced “temporary depression of economic activity” as a less-scary substitute for “crash” or “panic.”
In the case of developmental disability, the clinical terms “idiot,” “moron,” and “cretin” were introduced in the 19th Century to replace the demeaning ordinary-language “natural fool” or “dummy” (which latter served also to label those whose hearing impairment made it hard for them to learn to speak). Later, physicians who didn’t want to tell parents that their children were “idiots” started to tell them that those children were “slow learners,” or, more fomally, “educationally retarded.” It took some years for “RE-tard” to gather its insulting potency.
If Rahmbo had called an idea “idiotic” or “moronic,” (or, for that matter, “lame” or “crazy”) no one would have thought twice about it.
As my teacher Mark Moore likes to say, a good democratic citizen should be reluctant to give offense and slow to take offense.