Emanuel Not Forgiven for Using the “R”-Word02.05.10
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel apologized to the Special Olympics after it came to light that called the plan of a group of liberals looking to run an ad against Democrats “fucking retarded” during a closed-door strategy session back in August.
Special Olympics chairperson Tim Shriver wouldn’t accept at first. Sarah Palin called for his termination, who likened his slur to that of the N-word. Rush Limbaugh countered Emanuel’s snafu by calling all liberals “retards.”
Classic Washington drama ensued.
Now, I think everyone can agree that there is a scale of intensity and vulgar associated with certain slurs. Here in America, I think it’s safe to say that there are a few words that truly pack the most disdain, the most hideousness: nigger, faggot, and cunt. You call someone those names and you’ve turned a corner from which there is no return. Other than edgy comedy or for the purposes of transparency as in this blog, using those words is always offensive and inflammatory. (And even in the comic sense, the comedy is derived from the words offensive and inflammatory nature.) For the use of those slurs, it would immediately peg the offender as a racist, a bigot, or a misogynist, and would require more than a simply “I apologize” to clear the air.
I just don’t see the same in the case of Emanuel’s use of “retarded.” While it sure was inappropriate, childish, and counter-productive, I hardly believe it warrants his firing. Granted, I don’t think many people are on the same bandwagon as Palin (who vocally opposed Limbaugh’s use of the term, as well, but came short of calling for his termination) but it does bring up the issue of political correctness. It seems that our culture goes through phases where certain taboo words lose their stigma. Growing up, you never heard the words shit, douchebag, or dick on regular television or even standard cable. I distinctly remember the one episode of The Simpsons where one character calls their beloved dog, Santa’s Little Helper, a bitch – which technically was correct since she is a female dog – but my mother promptly turned off the set and forbade us kids from watching that show anymore. Now? You can hear just about everything on network TV, for better or worse.
(I digress – this isn’t about the vulgarity heard on television. That’s for another day.)
Emanuel’s management and leadership style is notably abrasive. This is nothing new; it’s essentially his well-known modus operandi. I don’t personally know enough about how he handles other co-workers and staff but I imagine this whole “retarded” business wasn’t an isolated incident. And based on the comments sections of many political blogs, I don’t see his words being all that egregious in this line of work. Not that it excuses his behavior. My first instinct was to dismiss his transgression as being not worthy of even mentioning, but then I thought about how I would feel if my boss were to use that term to describe an idea from a group of us employees and there’s no way that would fly with me. I’d be very insulted. He would lose some of my respect. You expect someone, especially one in the highest levels of management, to adhere to a certain level of professionalism at all times.
It’s one thing to need a thick skin to handle criticism and the demands of a high-stress, high-profile job. It’s quite another to just call people and their ideas derogatory names.