With LeBron James' mumbled "That's retarded" to dismiss a question at a press conference, we find ourselves again at the crossroads of language and culture.
What is James trying to say by calling this question — and I can't be certain, but I think he's referring to the question, a rambling one about whether Dwyane Wade was playing dirty basketball in the Heat's Game 3 loss to the Celtics, rather than the reporter — retarded? He's trying to say the question is dumb, and that it probably shouldn't have been asked. And him using "retarded" as code for that, instead of saying, plainly, "That is a dumb question," is the troubling thing.
When James calls something that he deems dumb and unworthy "retarded" in the above video, he's othering a concept. I wrote about othering briefly while discussing Kobe Bryant's use of "f----t", but it's basically the idea that we use words that we wouldn't apply to ourselves to make external concepts easier to distinguish and/or detest. For many, the current cultural connotation of "retarded" is not as the standard-use word to refer to the developmentally disabled, but as a word that can be applied to any bone-headed action to demean the actor as in some way disabled. It's ugly on a school playground, and ugly at a press conference after a heated game in the NBA playoffs that was watched by millions.
And, in a way, it's not so different from Kobe Bryant's ugly gay slur. LeBron calls something dumb to feel smart; Kobe calls someone weak and gay to feel powerful. This is the sinister allure of othering: when we exclude ourselves from being the things we find beneath us, we're also privileging ourselves in a rather grotesque way.
Watch Kobe again.
When Bryant says "f--king f----t," he's expressing his anger at NBA referee Bennie Adams for what he views as a poor call, but he's also making the use of "f----t" to call someone weak more standard. Don't believe me? Check the YouTube comments, where turnabout is de rigeur, if not nearly fair play.
These words don't matter as much as "n---er" in America in part because we don't have the same sort of history with "retarded" and "f---ot" — in America, there are few ways of using language as a weapon more vile than a member of the white majority using a word that was attached to slavery to dismiss a black American. But they hurt, and deeply.
(There's another troubling context here: James' use of "retarded" comes in response to a question from a female reporter. I wonder if he would have used that to slap away the same question from a man, but I won't pretend to know that the reaction would have been different.)
So what can be done? For James, the best-case scenario is seeing the video and some of the Internet reaction, apologizing sincerely and swiftly, and being proactive in acquiring knowledge of why his word choice was hurtful. (All athletes, and all public figures, could use some lessons on why communication is receiver-based.) The NBA's best-case scenario is probably fining James as it fined Bryant, and creating a standard for reactions to hate speech. (Yes, "retarded" is hate speech.)
But most of all, the NBA and its players — role models whether they want to be or not — ought to take the time to have a public and candid discussion about why Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (and Tim Duncan?) say the things they say. They occupy enough space in our culture to be visible and influential, and they use their talents to sell us a billion-dollar product over and over again. Taking a break from that, even for one day, to try to learn and teach, would be invaluable.