H taught Jr. High a few years ago so I became an expert on Jr. High humor. I can't say it was enjoyable. H reported many conversations that went something like this:
Student to another student: "You're such a re@#$."
H: "We don't use that kind of language in the classroom."
Student: "Why not? It's not a swear word."
Imagine my surprise when I find myself engaged in this kind of conversation with grown ups. Accordingly I discover that when I call people out, I am a pearl clutcher or over-sensitive. I hear excuses like "It's just a medical term used to describe someone who is a bit behind in you know...development." I'm accused of not respecting my own child because I dare to suggest that this word could be perceived as an insult to her. You see I must be an awful person to think of that word in relation to my child. Not really shocking when you realize how many medical books still refer to Down syndrome involving mental retardation. Yet I bet if we pushed these users to tell me who they imagine when they utter these words, they would imagine the kids from the "special" room. Maybe even my kid. I bet it might even come to them unbidden.
Oh, they are awfully attached to a word one would expect to only be thrown about by a bunch of Jr. High boys (for the record my own Jr. High age son would rather die than use this word, and has been known to school people who do use it). And it's not just the R word they bandy about and then defend as doggedly as one would say a good cause. It's the multiple references to people with intellectual disabilities. Comments about the "short bus" or "Life Skills Class." They call people they don't think smart "special." And for all their defense, they only use the words, images, etc in reference to people they don't value. They use it because to not be smart in the rather limited way we see intelligence is worthy of insult.
But why do they defend themselves so adamantly? These people who would never say "That's so gay" about something they consider lame? People who would never let a racial slur slide from their lips? I suspect that for many being schooled on language is a new experience for them. They are not used to being told they are being ugly, insensitive, cruel. And instead of saying "Shit you're right" they have to defend their honor so to speak.
Still that is only part of the story. The other part of the story is that we live in a society that does not value those with intellectual disabilities. There are philosophers (cough Singer cough) who think it's a mortal sin to eat an animal but have no problem suggesting we just kill babies with disabilities. And while I am not suggesting that those who sling the word around think this way, we are all products of this kind of thinking. This is why I though my world had ended when I found out Jude had Down syndrome. Language shapes us and we use language to shape others, to shape our values and our culture.
Lastly, I just want to point out the simple fact that the word, the references, are just not funny (unless maybe you're 12 or something). It's not funny to mock special ed classes where kids are often pushed into just because there are no resources for inclusion. It's not funny to think about kids who need a bus with a lift for their wheel chair. It's not funny to use a word that arose in the heart of eugenics. Perhaps, it's time we mature our humor palate.