While reading old newspapers recently (as one does) I came upon a curious headline: “Sterilization of retarded discussed.” It’s a small story, a few column inches in the back pages of a late-1979 Globe and Mail. A symposium at Montreal’s Centre for Bioethics had gathered, “doctors, lawyers, theologians, parents and professionals who work with the retarded …” to discuss forms of treatment.
What immediately struck me, of course, was use of the word “retarded.” We don’t use that word in that context anymore. The next thing was the issue of sterilization. While this is still a treatment option it is not as commonly used, or even encouraged, as it was in the past. So what happened between then and now to change social and professional thinking on issues of rights, treatments and language?
A small hint appears in the article. While the anonymous Canadian Press author—unedited, we can presume by the newspaper’s editors—does use the word “retarded,” a symposium organizer uses the phrase “mentally disabled.” That is, a leading thinker in the field is already making the language shift, and given the symposium theme, considering a shift in treatment as well. Meanwhile, the author and the various editors involved are reflecting the current values.
So what happened over the past 30 years to change things? For one, symposia like the one noted in the article. Probably dozens of them, before and since, maybe thousands around the world; and papers, articles, various conferences, back room debates, heated arguments over beers, petitions. In other words, small, teensy tiny incremental changes involving not only professional practices, but also social attitudes and expectations.
This is how advocacy of all sorts works—not with a bang, and not even with grand design. Erin Woods’ February article Black History Month was a small step in a process, which is added to other articles on issues of race, and conferences, and conversations, which lead to debates at General Assembly, which slowly helps to make our church open to the membership, participation and contribution of people from around the world. We ain’t there yet; come to Oshawa this June and you’ll see what I mean.
This is how everything that has changed for the better has happened. Change for the worse happens in different ways, sort of an anti-advocacy. Through a complicated mixture of neglect, denial, arrogance, laziness; through blind comfort. This is what is meant when divorcing couples say, “We just drifted apart.” They fail to respect each other; they take each other for granted.
Nothing happens without effort and nothing happens overnight. It takes work; we’re in this together; first to name needs, to identify options, to discuss them, to advocate for them, to educate. There was no name for child abuse 30 years ago; and when the cases broke the first response then (and now) was to defend the abusers and mock the victims. (For now: track the stories around college football at Penn State.)
There was no name for spousal abuse a quarter century ago when I was chair of a social services agency. We were designing a poster on the issue and wanted to have about a dozen or so anti-abuse slogans written in different languages. Even then the word abuse was being used in a new way in Canadian society; in many other languages there were no common phrases forbidding beating your wife. (In fact, in many cultures, including the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are many wisdom and philosophy texts that advocate such action.) We ended up with strained translations—weird stuff like, “A beaten donkey carries no load”—which might speak to the issue.
There’s hint of another change in the quotation above, which you may have noticed. That symposium then invited “theologians.” It is unlikely they would be invited to similar conferences today because cultural attitudes towards Christianity have changed drastically. We’ll count that as a bad change; and, it happened on our watch.