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Monday, November 12, 2007

Short school buses, grade-school cruelty and the language of limitation

I knew even as I was typing the title of yesterday's post that I would get at least one comment demanding an explanation... if not an apology.  I even briefly considered posting a preemptive note to head off people who might take offense, but decided to wait until the inevitable comment arrived.

It took most of the day... but it arrived.  And even though I would have taken it seriously no matter who it had come from, the fact that it was submitted by a regular reader who, it turns out I knew in a previous life, makes the need for a considered reply even more imperative.

For the sake of clarity, here's her comment:

"Hi, we don't really know each other (although our paths crossed a few decades ago at Hebrew U), but I'm a regular reader here...and I have to take exception to the title of your post...which I believe makes reference to the "short bus" used to transport mentally retarded students to school.  I'm sure you can guess where this is going...my son Binny has trisomy21 (down syndrome), and rides the short bus to his public school class (in the afternoon, after his morning at the day school).  Perhaps this is not what you meant, in which case I withdraw my comment, and commend you on your score!  Sorry if I come off sounding like the political correctness police, but as long as people look at my cute, innocent son and see something to mock, it's my job to stand up and say something."

Here's the deal. 

Yes, I intended the 'short school bus' descriptive to indicate some of what the commenter described... but I certainly didn't intend any of deliberately hurtful baggage she assigned to it.   

The idea of a short school bus is instantly understood by all as short-hand for anyone who is limited in some way or who has 'special needs'. To be fair, kids with both physical and mental limitations traditionally rode the short buses, but for the most part any such reference probably refers to the latter. 

In any event, it is pretty much taboo in polite society to use 'short school bus' as an insult directed at someone who might actually have ridden on one.  However, in the context I've used it here - as a deliberate bit of self-deprecating humor designed to announce that I see myself as lagging behind... in need of extra help... not hitting the benchmarks of my peers... in short, limited - I feel strongly that it should not be completely out of bounds. 

I don't accept the implied assumption that invoking the short school bus automatically summons the cruelty of unenlightened elementary and Jr. High School students.  Such young students are, admittedly, unbelievably cruel to anyone who is even a little bit different, not just the 'special' students who had alternative transportation provided.  But yes, special needs kids certainly bore (and continue to bear) a fair amount of rough treatment in this respect. 

But as kids get older there is an evolution - albeit not a complete one - in the sensitivity that they exhibit towards their peers.  Once they reach high school the short school bus still obviously exists, but social taboos have (hopefully) kicked in making it very un-PC to make fun of the special needs students.  But that doesn't mean that the vocabulary of limitation becomes entirely off limits.

Let's take a look at a list of words that have historically been used to describe a person of subnormal intelligence:

  • idiot
  • imbecile
  • cretin
  • moron
  • half-wit
  • retard

I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that any of these are acceptable to use, even in the heat of anger, towards someone who is genuinely limited.  But with the possible exception of 'retard' almost all the others would be considered fair game for tossing out in a heated argument... and certainly would be okay to use when referring to a third party who may or may not be present.

Example: "Can you believe that moron?  If I hadn't interrupted him I'm sure he would have given the vendor our entire client list.  What an idiot!". 

With that in mind, one can make a pretty strong case for using the same vocabulary when talking about oneself.

Example:  "I can't believe what an idiot I was during my date with Zahava last night.  She probably thinks I'm a complete moron... or at least an uncultured cretin."

My point is that we regularly use words when talking about ourselves - especially when admitting mistakes, pointing out embarrassing mis-steps and yes, when owning up to our limitations - that would be considered pejorative and socially unacceptable when talking about others.

Words, like people, evolve.

I can't think of too many words in the English language with more terrifying potential to give offense than 'nigger'.  Yet despite its history of insulting/demeaning usage, and still being fraught with racial baggage, within a very narrow scope of self-description it is considered not only acceptable, but even intimate, friendly and even funny.  Of course, if a white man could still hurl the 'n' bomb at a black man with impunity, the word could never have migrated to the informal salutation it has become within a segment of the African American community.

My point is that just as people and social norms evolve and mature, so do words and their applications. 

While most would still consider it unacceptable to remark that an obtuse or socially inept person was a retard, I think it is fair to say that it wouldn't raise too many eyebrows to laughingly call him/her an idiot... especially if the person was aware of having been 'slow on the uptake' and was in on the joke.

Oh, and although it isn't really cogent to the discussion at hand, I think it is worth mentioning that Zahava and I also have a child who rides a 'short school bus' every day.  And while he loves his bus and gleefully anticipates its arrival each morning, I am sure there will probably come a point in his life where his limitations will mark him for cruel treatment at the hands of his peers.  But I also know that this too will eventually pass and he will make his way in the world.

So while I am sensitive to how some people - especially parents of special needs kids - might be to my choice of yesterday's title, I prefer not to allow certain words to retain their power... not when I posses the ability to de-fang them and point out their innate silliness in a world where - let's face it - we all have limitations of one kind or another.

Posted by David Bogner on November 12, 2007 | Permalink

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The cruelest kids were the ones at the toney college-prep egalitarian Jewish Day School--too PC to call names but systemic exclusion from birthdays and overnights was pretty obvious and hurtful....public school was better both in services and in kindness, sad to say....but even by HS (really great charter school with involved parents) there was bullying. Fortunately, the Boy is a tall kid, with broad shoulders and only mildly CP--so he stutters a bit but was capable of holding his own. He discovered that when a peer says, "Beat it, Stupid," the winning response was "I was here first--you don't like it, YOU leave." Then the mob, oops, crowd took his side. Lesson: Nobody likes a doormat or a loser. Stand up for yourself.

As parents of these kids, we spend our lives hoping they'll have a future and hoping society will be kind to them. We might be a bit 'oversensitive' but its because we've been dealing with human unkindness for a lifetime....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Nov 12, 2007 3:40:25 PM

OK, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree (although if you would care to continue this discussion, please feel free to email me). It pains me to see that someone who (in spite of the "grade school" readability of his blog) is as careful and respectful of language as you are can fail to see that using insulting stereotypes, even in a self deprecating way, does not remove their power, but only serves to perpetuate them. Clearly, you knew that titling your post "The Retard of the Weblogs" was inappropriate, but all you have done is encode your sentiments in shorthand (nudge nudge, wink, wink). You say "My point is that just as people and social norms evolve and mature, so do words and their applications" - I'm sorry, but a "retard" is still a "retard", and the "short bus" is still the "short bus" - and neither one has evolved to mean anything positive or appealing. Like you, I am sure that my son will also grow up and make his way in the world; it just saddens me that the world that he will grow up in is full of people who find his intellectual abilities laughable and a vehicle for insult.

Posted by: Debbie | Nov 12, 2007 3:59:40 PM

aliyah06... In fairness you have described exactly the kind of scenario that I said was beyond the pale; saying something insulting to or about someone who actually has limitations. What you haven't done is relate to what I've said. Do we have the ability to take the power away from the bullies and Jr. high-schoolers by removing the edge on the vocabulary they employ?

Debbie... Let me begin by saying that I am very upset to see that rather than opening an exchange of ideas with you, my post has made you upset, angry or both. That was the furthest thing from what I intended.

I would like to continue this discussion, but I feel like now that it has been started here in the light of day it would be educational for everyone to continue it here.

I have a few things I'd like to say in response to your comment but I think I'll wait until a few more people have weighed in. I can see I'm too close to my own views to talk about them objectively so let's see what others have to say first. OK?

Again, the last thing I would want here is for this to cause any offense or hard feelings between us.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 12, 2007 4:23:52 PM

This is tough to express but I'll give it a shot. Anyone can be an idiot, someone who says something stupid. An idiot can be a fleeting label to describe someone who even once said something dumb. If you're taking the short bus, you have some kind of condition (pardon me if the terminology is wrong) which is long-lasting and is part of you. Not just anyone is taking the short bus. Saying "you're an idiot" is really equivalent to saying "you're dumb", which is just using an adjective (no one is comparing a person to a true "idiot" or person). Comparing someone however to someone who takes the short bus is comparing their actions, which one would have just judged in a negative light, to specific people who sadly can't help themselves. It's making a negative judgment of some kind.

Maybe the best way to decide is to ask the people on the short bus how they'd feel about this. Probably not great. But what idiots are you going to ask? (Boy, I'm really throwing a softball up there for somebody...)

Posted by: Benji | Nov 12, 2007 4:36:10 PM

Benji... But that's sort of my point. All of the words I have listed there were once used to describe people who were mentally retarded. that you now use them as generic insults for momentary lapses is proof that, with time and frequent use, they can be removed from the 'do not touch' shelf, eventually.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Nov 12, 2007 4:47:29 PM

Ah, yeah? "Idiot" was used in that context? I guess that's the reason that word has lost that level of negativity/controversy, whatever; I didn't KNOW about that association. But until people no longer know what "short buses" are (someday when our grandkids are flying their spaceships to school), I don't know if it can lose its current meaning.

Posted by: Benji | Nov 12, 2007 5:33:21 PM

David, I have never heard of the term "short bus" before, but I thought I'd put in my two cents. I think you are right in that there are terms that have lost most of their sting, and are frequently used by someone to describe themselves. At the same time, they are still pejorative, and I don't think anyone should use them - especially about themselves! I can't tell you how many times I have heard women who I describe as big and beautiful call themselves awful names.

Posted by: westbankmama | Nov 12, 2007 6:48:02 PM

Hmmmm...

I experienced a momentary wince when I saw yesterday's title. Not because I saw it as "picking" on those with developmental limitations (probably because I know you too well!), but because I worried someone else (who lacks my up-close-and-personal knowledge of you) might.

I think that the essence of the "politically correct" movement was to make people more sensitive to language and diversity. And having experienced first-hand some less-than-acceptable language directed my way (in some of my early employment situations), I can vouch for (and appreciate) the necessity for this sensitivity.

That being said, I do think culturally we have gotten a tad carried away with the whole thing. Jokes have been made about how you can no longer call someone "short" -- they are now "vertically challenged." You can't call someone "talkative," they are "exquisitely expressive."

Do I think that "short school bus" is as impotent a phrase as "vertically challenged?!" No, I do not. Do I think it is as potent as the "N" word?! Absolutely not.

But I think that there will always be a murky area between being politically correct and being disrepectful/hurtful -- and that area will be clarified or muddied a bit by one's personal proximity to the issue/idea at hand. And I don't have a clue as to how we go about navigating those murky areas.

On the one hand, being of a certain age, and having personally evolved past the "playground politics" which associate "short school bus" with a hurtful connotation, I appreciate the instantaneous communicative "short-hand" and the self-deprecating tone you sought to employ.

On the other hand, if there is the chance that you would 1) insult someone, 2) perpetuate a negative stereo-type by using a phrase, perhaps it is worth the mental gymnastics required to come up with a more sensitive (and perhaps more creative) way of expressing the same idea.

BTW, I used the phrase evolved past the "playground politics" which associate "short school bus" with a hurtful connotation to make a point. That point is that the vast majority (if not entirety) of the readership of this blog would be loathe to "find his intellectual abilities laughable and a vehicle for insult." While I can understand a healthy distrust of society's inability to treat with respect that which is not considered (for lack of a better word) "normative," I do think it is okay to consider a forum such as this particular blog to be a place where people can be trusted to be mature enough to "get" the vernacular short-hand without regressing into the cruelty of childhood pettiness. Perhaps I am being naive, but I prefer to believe that the kind of people who would delight in finding a pejorative angle to yesterday's title simply don't "hang out" here.

Posted by: zahava | Nov 12, 2007 6:49:39 PM

For me, personally, the idiom "short bus" didn't automatically connote its original meaning. There comes a time, when an expression becomes just that - an expression. That actually reminds me of a different post here, dealing with expressions (calling a spade a spade - which I had no idea even had any negative associations before reading the comments).

Anyway, obviously people should be sensitive towards people with special needs/limitations... and generally, I do not condone women calling each other "bitches" even with humorous intentions or various ethnic groups using pejorative names for fun. If you want people to respect you as a group and NOT use certain words to describe, you have to start with yourself. However, I do think that the name of the post/expression/list of the words you've provided have taken on a much more generic meaning... and there has to be a way to describe people, who even if with potential to be extremely intelligent, make extraordinarily rash/uneducated/ridiculous/dumb decisions. I don't see any realistic way around that.

Posted by: Irina | Nov 12, 2007 6:57:01 PM

David,

The reference to short buses caught my eye when I first saw it and Debbie's reaction is not a surprise, although I didn't expect things to go like this. I took it as I originally learned it as a child....short bus equals mentally or physically handicapped kids.

OK, so you didn't mean to hurt anybody. I believe that. I also believe you were trying to use self-depreciating humor. Heck, I do that to myself all the time, you've read enough of my posts and e-mails to know that. And most if not all of us have used pejoratives in private against others at sometime or another. It's not right, but it happens. And some people have really thin skin and need to learn to laugh at themselves instead of having the PC Police on speed dial.

However, this goes beyond PC. The problem is, whether you intended to or not, you did hit Debbie where it hurts....in her eyes your comment landed right on her child. She's a mother and that's her child. The love of her life. She gave birth to him. And because he has Down Syndrome, she has to deal with extra difficulties that most parents never experience. Ridicule is one of those things. No matter your intent, you got to her.

I can say this, 'cause my motor mouth and I have done that on many occasions. BTDT. :-/

Posted by: Karl Newman | Nov 12, 2007 8:28:31 PM

Sorry.. its offensive. I too am a mother of a child with DS. One only need to surf Utube to see we have NOT evolved. Words like these are still used for the same reason they were always used. EIther to degrade and abuse the self or others.

Posted by: steph | Nov 13, 2007 9:42:21 PM

I would never believe for a moment that the "short bus" phrase was meant as anything but humor...but it hits some of us special ed parents hard because we've gone to see our kids at school and heard the snide comments by children AND BY PARENTS about riding "the short bus"--while the phrase may have been relatively meaningless to some readers, those of us who've seen our kids excluded, ignored, sniggered at, unduly and meanly teased, knocked down, taunted, etc. for "riding the short bus" and being "a retard" (and these phrases are used interchangeably, then the phrase carries a lot more baggage with it.

I know you didn't mean to hurt or insult--that's not you. I understand it was humor--but I also understand Debbie's pain and concern, because it is mine as well.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Nov 15, 2007 3:15:25 PM

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