Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ending the R-word

This column ran in the Observer on Tuesday February 22, 2011.

"Spread the Word to End the Word." At Notre Dame and across the world people are uniting to end the hurtful use of the word "retard." Here is why I am joining them:

In middle school it felt like I was given the keys to the word. "Swear words" were off limits at school or in front of my parents, but somehow retard toed the line as appropriate. Some pushed back, including my mom emphatically, but once the word became the cool way of calling someone or something stupid there was no stopping it. I never used the word hatefully at people with disabilities, so I cleared myself of responsibility that I could be hurting someone's feelings.

In high school I started volunteering with Special Olympics. The judgments and preconceptions I had about people with disabilities were quickly replaced by enormous respect for the athletes and gratefulness for the energy they brought to my life. Working with the Special Olympics is my first memory of enjoying volunteer work. I left every practice or event inspired by being around so many people that seek friendships without reserve and that possess a full appreciation for all they receive.

Despite making friends with people who have intellectual disabilities and becoming increasingly involved in Special Olympics, I still used the r-word occasionally in high school. Hearing the word so often, my brain's subconscious had disassociated it from the cruel word people use to slander or mock those with disabilities. It was a challenge to eradicate it from my vocabulary. That was until one day when I was on a bus full of Special Olympics athletes heading down to a basketball tournament. I laughed at a story told to me by another volunteer from a couple rows up and responded without thought, "That's so retarded!"

All that heard me immediately got quiet and then a couple athletes looked at me and said with utmost seriousness, "Chris, we don't use that word." Most people never have that moment. After apologizing profusely, I committed to myself to never say the word again. I made the commitment because it became simple to me; why should we use words that offend an entire community of people just by hearing them? None of my friends, athletes or volunteers on that bus thought I was using it hatefully. The athletes stopped me because they were well aware of their medical classification as "mentally retarded" and that society found it acceptable to make retarded synonymous with stupid or ridiculous.

To all those concerned with censorship and the removal of a word out of regular discourse, no one is trying to police you from saying the word. Instead we ask you make a decision for yourself knowing that simply overhearing the word is offensive and often damaging to at least the 5 percent of people in the US with an intellectual disability and their friends and families. The number of people who disapprove of the word is growing, especially at Notre Dame where more than 2,500 students signed a pledge last year to end their use of the r-word. Special Olympians and people across the world who believe in the value of every member of our human family are asking you to be a fan of respect. On End the R Word Day, March 2, we hope you will enthusiastically pledge to end the hurtful use of the word retard.

If you want more information "like" Special Olympics Notre Dame on Facebook and visit!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is It Me Or Is The World Exploding?

It seems like everyday some new bombshell rocks the political world, both in the United States and throughout the world at large. There's so much I want to write about that I'm having trouble choosing a topic. Reproductive rights under attack? Labor unions threatened with a complete revocation of rights? The middle east exploding with revolution? Not to mention the continued GOP resistance to EPA proposed reforms and funding cuts to everything from NPR to school funding, and the very real threat of a complete government shutdown. Regretfully, my time is finite, so I'll limit myself to the first of these travesties.

I'm always hesitant to write about issues touching on abortion because it's such a violently divisive and morally ambiguous issue. The Planned Parenthood cuts, though, aren't solely about abortion. Planned Parenthood offers services such as birth control, STD testing, pre and post-natal care, treatment for serious reproductive diseases and, most importantly, information. Information about how women can protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies, how they can take care of themselves throughout pregnancies and how to deal with a host of problems completely unrelated to pregnancy and childcare, problems such as cervical and breast cancer. Check out this video from The Daily Show, where Jon Stewart examines the hyperbolic rhetoric that masks an attack on women's health.

I find it really appalling that female politicians can support measures that completely degrade them to the level of second class citizens undeserving of basic reproductive health care. It's important that politicians avoid tunnel vision.

Planned Parenthood is not about abortion. It's about helping women make educated, healthy decisions about their reproductive rights and physical health. Limiting access to condoms, STD tests and institutional support will not eliminate abortions, it will increase the rate of accidental pregnancy and force women to pursue illegal and highly dangerous alternative options.

The thing is, government money funds an extremely small number of abortions, and only in the case of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or pregnancies that endanger the mother's life. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, only 191 women used the government program, and abortions represent only 3% of Planned Parenthood's overall business.

I know this is a highly dramatic statement, but cuts to Planned Parenthood are a direct attack to women's rights. Women such as Michelle Bachmann are degrading themselves by denying their sex access to crucial programs. There's so much going on in the world right now to distract us from issues such as these, but we cannot lose focus on the government actions that threaten to set us back decades in the fight for equal rights. This is more than an abortion issue, this is more than a feminist issue. This is an issue of human dignity and equality.

You Say You Want a Revolution

The Muslim world (North Africa+ Middle East+Central Asia) has dominated the world politics of our generation. We have experienced, among other things, the gulf war, the war on terror (Iraq and Afghanistan), and now a period of widespread revolution. What we have seen is the worst the Muslim world has to offer, in the form of violent extremists, and the best it has to offer, in the form of people committed to improving their situation and assuring just governance--the middle part that we don't see is of course the everyday people trying to make a living just like everyone else in the world. The full effects of the recent revolutions are not yet known, but the only certainty is that the Muslim world our generation and future generations will interact with will be different from the one our parents knew.

What does it take to start a revolution?

This 60 minutes video gives a good idea of the Tunisian revolution, which sparked the ongoing "domino effect" of revolutions within the Arab world (North Africa+Middle East).

I found the part about the relative youth of the protest movement and the use of Facebook very interesting. It shows that not only is the Muslim world being redefined for our generation, it is essentially being redefined by our generation.

I know first-hand about the use of Facebook in fomenting this revolution. My girlfriend lived in Tunisia for three years, and she showed me the various pictures and messages related to the revolution from her friends who remained in Tunisia.

What happens now?

I am cautiously optimistic about the overall situation of these revolutions. I am glad that authoritarian dictators are being ousted and I am excited about the prospect of real democracy in these countries. I was quite pleased when I heard that the revolution in Egypt had successfully deposed Hosni Mubarak. Also, Turkey provides an example of a modernized, democratic nation with a predominately Muslim population; so it definitely can work.

However, revolutions tend to be unpredictable and there is always the possibility of things going too far one way or the other. For example, protests in Libya in the same vein as the Tunisian and Egyptian protests are being met with even more violent resistance from the authoritarian leader Muammar el-Qaddafi. We will see if Qaddafi concedes like Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali; otherwise, the violence in the entire region might continue to escalate. Something like that might even set back the extensive progress made in the last couple of month.

I sincerely hope that these revolutions play out in the best way possible. Not necessarily the best way possible for the U.S., but the best way possible for the people of the Muslim world. Which, I think, is ultimately in America's best interest (just maybe not oil interest).

Regardless of how it all works out, we ought to be following these events. As our generation comes into its own we will be dealing with the aftermath of these revolutions, one way or another, and it would be best to do so in an informed manner. That way we'll show our peers in Egypt and Tunisia that the youth of America are just as capable of bettering our world.