In the 1980s, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau created a minor scandal in Parliament when he muttered an almost inaudible phrase in angry response to opposition attacks. Expert lip readers would almost certainly have attested to the fact Trudeau had let loose with a common expletive regularly used in hockey team dressing rooms. Challenged by the opposition, Trudeau, with feigned innocence, responded he had merely said "fuddle duddle."
Virtually the entire public did not accept the explanation. Neither did the majority condemn Trudeau for the remark nor for his mendacious disclaimer. The incident did, however, attract significant media attention.
Closer to home in both time and space, full banner headlines were given to a remark alleged to have been made in the legislature by Tory Leader Brian Pallister. He is alleged to have used the word "retard," which apparently is no longer acceptable. There was a time when the phrases "retarded" and "mentally retarded" were in common usage and were employed by most people, even the professionals who worked with the individuals concerned. In recent years, however, the prevailing wisdom regards the term as being degrading and we have sanitized the language by substituting the term "mentally challenged" as being less insulting.
Political correctness as reflected in language usage is not limited to words such as "retard." We are admonished if we use the word "crippled" as against the more refined "physically challenged."
In an appearance before a legislative committee, I was admonished for referring to the presiding officer as "Mr. Chairman" even though the officer was a man. "Chairman" to the objector was a sexist term that implied only a male was qualified to preside at a meeting. I am quite certain I harboured no such opinion but I am equally sure I could not convince most militant feminists I was not their enemy as proved by my use of the word "chairman."
By and large, I agree with those who would use less degrading language to describe some of the human conditions people have to deal with. At the same time I would suggest it is unfair to categorize people who use traditional descriptions as being "derogatory to the people with intellectual disabilities and to all of us."
Would it really have suited the complaining government minister if Pallister had used the phrase "mentally challenged" to describe the object of his attack. I don't think so.
It is entirely probable that in the past people who used the word "retarded" or "crippled" did not do so with any evil or malicious intent. They used these terms to describe a condition that was commonly described in these terms. I have heard perfectly sincere and caring people use the description "retarded children." My own maternal grandfather was a hunchback, and the whole family, in Shalom Aleichem-style Yiddish, referred to him as "Aizer der Crimmer" (Aizer the cripple). We did not do so to insult him. We did so because it described his condition without any sense of degradation.
People who want us to use politically correct language should not be so intolerant. They would be well-advised to be more patient and, rather than scold, offer polite corrections. The complaining minister should simply have advised Pallister to use "mentally challenged."
In the meantime, Pallister will have nothing to fear from the general public and will suffer no greater loss of respect than did Trudeau.
Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.