“Rahm Emanuel is a vulgar jerk,” said Mark Krikorian in National Review Online, but he shouldn’t lose his job for calling some fellow Democrats “f---ing retarded” in a closed-door meeting. Reports of Emanuel’s angry comment recently surfaced, prompting Sarah Palin, the mother of a Down syndrome child, to denounce “Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities,” and to demand his resignation. Emanuel didn’t resign, but has now signed a pledge promising to refrain from all derogatory uses of the R-word. I’m no fan of Emanuel’s, but let’s hope this ends the matter. He was clearly using “retarded” as a mindless epithet, not as a slight to the mentally challenged.

“Words matter,” said Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, in The Washington Post, and “retard,” to the mentally disabled and their families, cuts deep. We’re fighting casual use of the R-word because it “represents one of the most stubborn and persistent stigmas in history”—the bias against people with intellectual disabilities. Young people with such disabilities often experience cruel discrimination in public schools and in the workplace. Far too many Americans still think people with intellectual disabilities “are stupid or hapless or just not worth much,” and that’s why we recoil when someone uses “retarded” in this deliberately dismissive and insulting way. As the mother of a child with disabilities, said Laura Shumaker in SFGate.com, I can tell you it’s a word with a unique and devastating power to wound. There isn’t a parent like me in the country who wants to hear her child denigrated as “a retard.”

“I sympathize,” said Christopher Fairman in The Washington Post, but attempts to ban words almost always backfire. The minute you declare a supposedly offensive term taboo, you instill it with a power and shock value that make it all the more appealing to the foul-mouthed and the hurtful. And you’ll find that whatever sensitive, anodyne replacement term you introduce quickly acquires the same negative connotations as the term it’s replacing. Case in point? Retarded was originally a more clinical, sensitive replacement for older terms such as “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” which were themselves once inoffensive. So ban the R-word if you like, but if the goal is to protect “intellectually disabled individuals from put-downs and prejudice, it won’t succeed. New words of insult will replace old ones.”