So, let’s talk about Ann Coulter’s now-infamous Monday night Tweet:
No, it didn’t skate right by without my notice, but thanks to all who emailed and Tweeted me to make sure I saw it. I was, honestly, rather nonplussed by it. Yet another hateful person using a hateful word. Color me surprised that Ann Coulter, known for not exactly being a paragon of humanity, would use the R-word in an attempt to insult the sitting President of the United States.
Those who would raise an eyebrow (or more) over her use of the word already knew that Coulter’s politics and attitudes didn’t align with their own. Those who love Coulter for the most part probably don’t care that she used it, although undoubtedly there are some fans of her particular brand of conservativism who have joined the pledge to end the word and might be troubled over her use of it and her subsequent doubling down just to make sure people got the message:
Coulter is a provocateur. She wants us to be talking about her use of a word she knows is becoming a hot-button issue in some parts of the United States, and she particularly relishes some of the more bizarre and hateful responses to it, like the transphobic @reply you can see from @SnottieDrippen right there in the above screencap. Har har, let’s call Ann Coulter a man, never heard that one before. Those responses, of course, play right into her shtick as a brave warrior against the meanie liberals just out to get her.
A lot of people asked me to comment on Coulter’s use of the R-word, so here’s my comment: I think it’s hateful and gross, and I think it doesn’t show us anything new about Coulter. We know that she hates the President and we know that she has no interest in disability politics, let alone disability rights, so it comes as absolutely no surprise that she’d use an ableist slur in a discussion about the President; a slur that, I would note, also hearkens back to older white attitudes about Black intelligence and the once widely-held belief that people of African descent were less developed than white people.
To see Ann Coulter wielding a double-whammy of racism and ableism, in other words, is par for the course, and it’s disgusting, but it doesn’t provide us with new insights into the way her and her supporters think. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to see this behavior and change their mind about her, or question whether she’s the best choice of a spokesperson or leader for US conservatism. People who like her are gonna go right on liking her, and people who don’t just have another piece to add to the arsenal.
Special Olympian1 John Franklin Stephens wrote an open letter to Coulter that sums up his objections to her use of the word, and as a person with Down Syndrome, he’s lived through the very real experience of having that word weaponized against him on a regular basis. I’ve been called a r#tard a few times in my day and it’s hurt every time, but I haven’t endured anything near what Stephens has:
I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.
Like other people with intellectual disabilities, Stephens points out, he’s more likely to struggle to access good health care, safe and comfortable housing and other basic necessities. That’s a consequence of hateful social attitudes about disabled people that make us the lowest possible social priority; if you believe we’re subhuman, you believe we don’t need education, social support, and basic respect.
While Stephens doesn’t come out and say it, his piece also makes a very important point to people like Coulter, who assume that intellectually disabled people don’t engage with society, aren’t watching, and can’t comprehend what they do see. Disabled people are watching. We engage with society. We see and understand. When you insult us on Twitter, or national television, or anywhere else, we see it and we talk about it amongst each other.
We may struggle to hold you accountable because our voices tend to be discounted; especially in the case of people like Stephens, who are treated like lesser human beings because their impairments change the way they process information and interact with the world. But we are still listening, and we still take note of what you are saying. And we, too, have political lobbyists and advocacy groups that work to, yes, achieve a disability agenda -- like ADAPT, which regularly stages protests and sends advocates to meet with lawmakers with the goal of freeing disabled people from long-term care facilities.
So often, the voices of people touched by disability, but not disabled themselves, are brought up in these discussions; friends and family members, for example, speak passionately about how much they hate to see words like this used, and what a profound impact they have. To see Stephens’ words going viral is exciting, and speaks to what may be a shift in the narrative, one where actual disabled people personally affected by this kind of rhetoric are heard, rather than directed to stand quietly at the side of the room while people advocate for them.
I’ll end with Stephens’ own words, because they ring very, very true:
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.
1. In the interest of political parity here, I’ll note that the President insulted the Special Olympics in 2009 when he made a self-deprecating comment about his bowling skills in an interview. He apologized to the organization even before the interview aired and invited some Olympians over to the White House, illustrating that he understood the power of his words and regretted them. Return
Image credit: Gage Skidmore.