Kari Wagner-Peck on “the r-word” and Chuck Klosterman’s apology

Kari Wagner-Peck [Twitter] is the author of the blog A Typical Son, “the true-life adventures of a kid with Down syndrome and his middling parents…” She describes herself as like Erma Bombeck “in that I write funny about the ordinary and not so much in that I am angry.” She says that she swears a lot (but not more than I do), and she has a kid who has Down syndrome.

Wagner-Peck is a fan of Chuck Klosterman, who has written about popular culture for two decades, and now writes The Ethicist column for the New York Times. Dismayed by finding out that Klosterman, who is something of a pop culture public intellectual, had flippantly used the word “retard” in the past, she wrote him a letter to ask him why. Klosterman recently responded with an apology and an offer to make “a donation of $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities.” You can read Wagner-Peck’s letter, and Klosterman’s response, below.

I had the great pleasure of talking with Wagner-Peck at length about her blog, her inspiration for writing the letter, and why she felt that Klosterman’s response is important. In the process, she talked about the importance of one asking for help when trying to be heard, and of employing one’s authentic voice. She was a delight to talk with.

Tell me a bit about your blog, and how your experience affects your perspective on the use of the word “retard” and “retarded.”

The blog has a small, committed following of people. The intention has always been for “a typical son” to have a double meaning—it is meant for somebody to read it and think, “This isn’t that different,” or “this is what my parenting looks like.” Or, “Your kid seems like my kid, how is that possible?” And I am trying to put that out there with the blog. The other piece of it is about changing perceptions of people with cognitive disabilities or intellectual challenges. The focus of the blog is “I’m just as I am,” you know, the Walt Whitman quote. Who we are as human beings is enough.

One of the biggest obstacles that stands between people and seeing all of this is the word “retarded,” which is used in everyday conversation.

I think that it actually speaks to an underlying hostility toward people with disabilities. Retarded is used with the intended meaning of awful, peculiar, undesirable, strange, right? For people to say, “I didn’t mean that” after they say it is kind of like bullshit, you know? That might not be their intention in the moment, but the intention of the use of the word is that.

I am also curious to know how much of the use of the word is also about the anxieties about the people who use it. How much of it is about the person using it elevating themselves into appearing as if they have their shit together, when in reality they are just as fragile and anxious and out of control as everybody else.

Well, I think it is used in different ways. People will say, “That’s so retarded” when they do sort of a whoopsie instead of saying, “Ah, that was a lame move.” So it is just part of language that is. I really believe most people do it without intention, but my take is that it doesn’t even matter if there is intention. You wouldn’t say the N-word. In polite conversation, nobody says “That’s so gay,” or “Don’t be such a homo” anymore.

This group of people, people with cognitive disabilities, is on its way to securing human rights in the public arena that it is sort of reaching a tipping point where we are going to stop saying it.

Well just the fact that we are having this conversation seems indicative of that. When I was a kid it was such a common thing to say and no one would bat an eye. That we are talking about this seems to indicate that we are on our way.

Well Klosterman’s response seems to indicate that too. Nobody has done this. You know, Louis C.K. is still clinging to the right to say retard, and Bill Maher is still clinging to the right to use the word. And that’s okay. It’s like, “Isn’t that fucking hilarious?” That’s their fight. Forget about the environment, forget about people’s rights, that’s what they want to plant their flag on.

It is interesting that you have made this interesting headway with Klosterman’s response, because I believe that recently-ish, Louis C.K. has come out and acknowledged the problem with typical rape jokes are I think as a result of all of that fallout from Daniel Tosh’s tirade about rape. So in that sense, even though he is holding onto this thing about “retarded,” there appears to be room for public dialogue about these issues.

Right, and I have to be honest with you about feeling as though Klosterman was going to come back and say, “Oh, this is about freedom of speech,” or “You’re being too politically correct,” which would have been fine because it still would have opened up the dialog. But he didn’t. He did this amazing thing where he essentially said “I am wrong, I am sorry, and I am giving myself a self-imposed debt. I am going to pay $25,000 for what I have done.” What if he becomes the gold standard for how this is done by just simply saying I am sorry for what I have done?

So how did this all play out?

I have been a fan of Chuck Klosterman for years. I think he’s brilliant and funny. I am a pop culture person. He had taken over The Ethicist column for Randy Cohen at the New York Times and I love that. Later, I was doing research on the r-word and I came across this comment Klosterman made about hipsters in July and so I thought it had to be fake and mis-attributed to him. But it turns out he had said it. The comment was something like “it used to be hard to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people, but now it is about telling the difference between hipsters and retards.”

Note from Alex:

The comment can be found in a New York Magazine article from March, 2008. Klosterman is quoted as saying, “You used to be able to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people. Now, it’s between hipsters and retards. I mean, either that guy in the corner in orange safety pants holding a protest sign and wearing a top hat is mentally disabled or he is the coolest fucking guy you will ever know.” In response to the comment, author Lauren Salazar wrote that “in that moment, nerdy Chuck Klosterman got just a little bit hotter.”]

There was something mean about it and really beyond the pale. It wasn’t just, “That’s so retarded,” but it was a specific reference to those people. And then I was thinking, well, what can I do? I can’t really do anything because I am just this person writing about life and disability. I eventually decided that I wanted to write him a letter, which I sent to his contact information at The Ethicist. I didn’t hear anything and then I emailed someone I know at the times and that person told me that my letter had been forwarded to Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The Times. I waited a few more days and didn’t hear anything and so I made it an open letter.

From Warner-Peck’s letter to Klosterman:

Please enlighten me: What are the ethics of using the R-word?

I am the mother of a seven-year-old son who has Down syndrome.  I believe your response to my question could make all the difference in the world.

After writing it, I got onto Twitter and I didn’t know how to use it but people helped me get the word out. People really responded there and told me they loved the letter. I would send Tweets out to people to ask to spread the word and they did and it all felt really crazy to me!

Klosterman actually responded two days after I posted the letter, but I didn’t know because it went to my spam folder. I kept hammering away at him, and he must have been wondering what was wrong with me. So Sullivan called me to tell me that he had written to me and he emailed me again and apologized, saying he hoped we could move forward.

Klosterman’s response:

I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your web site. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.

I should not have used “retard” pejoratively. It was immature, hurtful, and thoughtless. I have no justification for my actions. I realize the books that contain those sentiments were published over 10 years ago, but that is no excuse; I was an adult when I wrote them and I knew what I was doing. I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed. I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I’m truly sorry.

Feel free to re-post this message on your web site. I deserve the criticism I am receiving, and I want other people to know that I realize I was wrong. I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities… I have done something bad, so help me do something good.

Again, I apologize — and not just to you and your son, but to anyone else who was hurt by this.

In that letter he said that I could post it online. That’s the other thing and I think it’s so important that he did that. It was great. I hate to use this word, but I think that what he did was really great role-modeling.

Yeah, absolutely. I like Chuck Klosterman, and his ideas and perspectives on particular topics have shifted paradigms and perspectives on how we see things in our culture. I think about the essay he wrote on the particular character archetypes the Real World created, and how that applies to our reality television culture of today, more often than I expected I would when I first read it. So in his doing what he did publicly, he is helping to augment the dialog you were looking to create.

It is pretty incredible. I mean, he could have gone back on some defense about hipster cred and about how this is just how he makes his living. And he didn’t. I think something hit him about this. Something struck him. It isn’t done in really elaborate language, it is really the language of apology.

And so he apologized and said he was wrong and he made this grand gesture of donating money to a cause, charity, or nonprofit of your choice, which you’re not being public about.

Yeah, I am not being public about it because it is not my donation. I have been in contact with him and he had suggested a few places in his letter, which I omitted when I posted it. I didn’t want to start a shit-storm about what I should do on my website.

Sure, and then you would have to defend the politics, approaches and ideas of every suggested outlet.

Right. But one of the organizations he recommended really seemed perfect to me and I think it was this grand gesture to allow me to pick but there was something about it being his donation, and I really agreed with his reasons for identifying them, and so we went with that. It felt really nice to feel as though we picked the right place. The organization is 100% inclusion based, meaning their mission is for the inclusion of people with cognitive disabilities to be in the world. That means in classrooms, at jobs, and independent living. That is only the really true path for people with disabilities, to live in the world with us. Then it isn’t about us and them, it’s about all of us.

So what did you learn from all of this?

I think what I realized, and I worry that this sounds like some Hallmark card Kumbaya or whatever, but just do it. I think I reached out in a really authentic way. I wasn’t preachy. That letter is how I talk. I really just wanted an answer to my question and I became fearless. You know, I didn’t know how to use Twitter but I got someone to help me and I just did it. I would just contact people I knew through my writing and asked for help and they did. My cause was right enough for them that they would help. I wasn’t asking for something for my family but for a lot of people’s facilities. I didn’t demand anything from people, or tell people this was a righteous cause. I asked for help. “Will you help me with this?” That’s all you have to do, you have to put it out there and ask for help.

What is really interesting is that companies like Change.org have had great success with taking causes and finding points of public leverage and achieving various demonstrations of change through them. Those petitions really do work, too, if they’re done right.

They do work!

But what is so fascinating about what you have done is that usually those kinds of public petitions that reach some sort of notoriety and achieve their goals are often about pressure, or about leveraging publicity to right some sort of wrong. It is about pressuring someone or some company to do the right thing, but here you have employed this actually curious tenor in your ask. That is particularly interesting in this era of Internet communication, which is often defined by how abrasive, aggressive or snarky it can be.

Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor, said something very similar to what you just said. She said “You don’t sound mad at him. I really believe you just want an answer to your question.” Yeah! I want to have a conversation. I think you can be direct and hard-assed, but I am from Wisconsin. We do things differently there. You would never get someone on your side by saying, “You’re wrong! What’s wrong with you?” You do it by saying, “Hey, what was that about?” I wasn’t raised to move a conversation in an aggressive way.

Well, I sometimes play into that narrative more than I wish than I do, and it is really inspiring to see you have success with this and achieve it the way that you did. I think a lot of people, including myself, can learn from this.

Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that. I really think that whatever our authentic voice, whatever it is… Whatever voice you use with your partner, or your kid, or when you’re at the store… You’re never going to be wrong if you just use that voice.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.