I was listening to this Chariots of Iron podcast where they were responding to listener mail about their use of the word "retarded" to describe someone who does something stupid. Apparently some people wrote in saying that they were offended by the word, saying that they had family members who were "mentally disabled" and that the word had been used in hatred against them, comparing the "R word" to the "N word" and claiming that neither should have any place in civilized discourse.
Of course this controversy is hardly new, it was over a year ago that Sarah Palin defended Rush Limbaugh's use of the term as "satire" while at the same time calling for Rahm Emanuel to be tarred and feathered for using it in a nearly identical context.
This, I think, is the problem. We are so used to our politicians and leaders using selective outrage as a political tool or a rhetorical device that we become eager to take offense at anything.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate reasons to feel offended, but it is my contention that taking offense is only a proper response to an action, never to something so contextually dependant as a word (of course words in context can make a verbal action). The way that language works words are mostly devoid of meaning until we put them in context. This is even more true in regard to that short list of words we have culturally decided to label taboo.
To me, it makes very little sense to create conflict and outrage in response to a misunderstanding. Therefore it seems prudent, before one becomes deeply offended at someone's comment, to ask them to clarify their meaning. If, after the necessary clarifications are presented, the comment still seems to be one that is meant to offend, or displays a characteristic toward which offense is an appropriate response, such as ignorance, prejudice, etc., then go ahead and be offended. But in almost all cases when someone calls, say, George Bush "retarded" they are not setting out to belittle the community of the mentally disabled, they are simply saying that George Bush is acting like he lacks the basic intelligence needed to, say, wipe his own ass. Context, and following from that, speaker's intent, is everything in this situation.
It is ludicrous to have a set of words, or even a single word to which one becomes offended automatically, regardless of context.
I can see only a few types of situation where it is appropriate to take offense to a comment:
1) The comment is meant to be offensive. Ex: "You are a fucking idiot" The proper response to an insult is to take offense.
2) The comment displays prejudice dividing humanity into a superior group to which the speaker belongs and their inferiors. In this case the speaker doesn't need to intend to offend or insult because the insult is built into the logical results of the statement. Ex: "I don't have anything against homosexuals, so long as they keep it behind closed doors, but I am against changing the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman." Here the logical progression of this philosophy divides humanity into the right: heterosexuals who do possess the natural right to marriage, and the wrong: homosexuals who do not possess that right and are therefore less-than. The insult is built into the philosophy expressed.
It doesn't make sense to get offended if one of these conditions do not apply. For example, when Dr. Laura Schlessinger (with whom I disagree on just about everything) said "Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger." talking about other peoples use of the word, it is completely irrational to be offended. She obviously wasn't calling anybody a nigger, nor does she even support the use of the word. She is in fact quoting someone else, and there is about as much reason to get pissed at her as there is to lock up a court stenographer who reads back a murderer's confession. We all tend to think that our emotional outrage response is completely valid and justified and that, what's more, it is an unforgivable crime to have tripped it. This is not the case so, if one had taken offense at Dr. Laura's comment, it would be prudent to ask her to clarify and find out if our outrage was justified, i.e. was she actually calling the caller a "nigger" or did she subscribe to the world-view of racism and intolerance that undergirds the use of that word in hatred, otherwise we have no reason to object to the comment. But Dr. Laura made it clear that she wasn't using the word in hatred nor did she believe that philosophy of hatred that was attached to the word. However, that wasn't good enough and Dr. Laura Schlessinger actually got fired for that quote (which is ridiculous, but has nothing to do with her first amendment rights as she later went on to claim).
In summary, we all need to chill the fuck out, not worry so much about words, and stop being so eager to get offended at every little thing.