An Open Letter to Chuck Klosterman, The New York Times, Ethicist

Dear Mr. Klosterman,

Words like “that’s so gay” or “homo” were used regularly and with impunity in our society. Often to elicit a cheap laugh. Those words came to denote something or someone that is stupid, peculiar or undesirable. As gay rights flourished the majority of society realized they were not just using words – they were using words that hurt people. Words that devastated people.

Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word “retarded” (along with all mutations of the word) for the same exact reasons. My question to you:

Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable?

I am particularly interested because you, Chuck Klosterman, are The Ethicist for the New York Times and the author of the following:

“Well, okay…not everyone. Not boring people and not the profoundly retarded. But whenever I meet dynamic, non-retarded Americans I notice they all seem to share a single unifying characteristics…” (Chuck Klosterman on Film and TV: A Collection of Previously Published Essays, 2010)

“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.” (New York Magazine, 2008)

“I don’t want to come across as insensitive, but show me a person whose intelligence equates to that of a dolphin and I will show you a fucking retard.” (Fargo Rock City: An Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, 2002)

Mr. Klosterman, you appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities. You are not using the word in an “I don’t mean it like that way…” sort of ignorance which I think would be much easier to redress. You are using the word in a “Those people are exactly who I am talking about” way.

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.


Kari Wagner-Peck

Portland, Maine

130 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Chuck Klosterman, The New York Times, Ethicist

  1. Sending it to him now- his words are hate words. Full of hate and anger- they are inhumane and disgusting! Great job holding him accountable!!! Would you care if I re-post and link back to you on The R-Word Reporter blog? Thank you for writing this!

  2. Beautifully written, and I for one, am eagerly awaiting his response!
    Try sending this to the” Everyone Matters” facebook page,,
    similar items have gone up in past few days….x

  3. Thank you for sharing this post. And he calls himself an “ethicist” Really? Here is my reply to Mr Klosterman which I sent today.

    After reading this, Chuck Klosterman, you should be ashamed!!! And you call yourself an ethicist? I think not. Hoping that you gain a sense of “ethics” and learn to show respect to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

    Just in case you needed to be reminded of the term “ethicist”

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    An ethicist is one whose judgment on ethics and ethical codes has come to be trusted by a specific community, and (importantly) is expressed in some way that makes it possible for others to mimic or approximate that judgement. Following the advice of ethicists is one means of acquiring knowledge (see argument from authority).[1][2]

    ethics : an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior : a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong

  4. “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 f*cking guy you will ever know.” Why can’t he be BOTH? “Cool” is breaking the mold. Leaders are cool. Inventors are cool. Deep thinkers are cool. Artists are cool. Know what isn’t cool? Sycophants are not cool. Promoting intolerance is not cool. Casting judgement on people you don’t know (and will likely never meet) is not cool.

  5. What a great response on behalf of your child! You are responding like all parents to an attack on our children. Why is the r-word not as offensive as the n-word or any other word used by bullies in their attacks?

  6. Reblogged this on BEST BUDDIES BLOG and commented:
    It’s incredible that this day in age we still don’t have a zero-tolerance policy for using offensive and disrespectful language / references in popular media channels. We hope that Mr. Klosterman and The New York Times have the courage to respond Kari’s question and commit to using respectful language and references in their published content.

  7. Thank you for trying to educate an ignorant, hateful man. If your words don’t affect him, maybe the emails (including mine) jamming his mailbox will get the point across. I have fought this fight for years, admonishing my kids and their friends for their use of the r-word. It is as hurtful as any other slur and has no place in educated, civilized society.

  8. How this man could even be part of The New York Times & socially accepted in the community, as well as an Ethicist is TOTALLY beyond me!
    I have an 18yo with Down Syndrome & I find the R-word extremely offensive when used by referencing it to someone as my son’s learning disability.
    I find your letter enlightening, thank you fellow Mom! Take a bow….we need more as yourself out there!

  9. I always wonder what would happen if he were to have a child, or grandchild, or niece, nephew born with Down Syndrome. Would he be proud of what he had written, and glad it had his byline?

  10. Oh my!! I use Ethicist articles with my students as writing prompts. I am sharing your letter on my Facebook page and on my blog as well. Most importantly I will be emailing him as well. Thank you for making us aware!

  11. I’m really disappointed to hear this about “The Ethicist”. I have heard him on NPR and found him an interesting guest. I teach students who have visual impairments and many of them have cognitive difficulties as well. There are usually other kids in the classrooms who have Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or brain injury. It has been honor and privilege to work with these kids and their parents. They make me laugh, make me cry, make me tear my hair out, make my spirit soar–just like every student does to every teacher.
    Maybe NPR needs to know about their “go to” guy on ethics, too.

  12. It’s disgusting what he’s saying, and I got that all for not being like everyone else “Mongol”, “Retard”, “Special Class”, “Spaz”, so I know what it’s like to get that. I’m physically sick just typing these, as the memories haven’t gone away.

    Encouraging these people is not on.

  13. This is the emaiI I sent.
    Your use of the word retarded is unethical.
    You can fix the situation you now find yourself in by educating yourself about why using this word is unethical and then issuing an intelligent and informative apology.

    Thank you.

    Liz Tree

  14. I shall be tweeting my feelings to this “Ethicist” and will be encouraging others to do so, as well. I’m just gobsmacked that someone that ignorant can be in such a position with the preeminent newspaper in the US.

  15. He’s a giant pig anyway. Arrogant prick who has always thought he was better than everyone else in the room, when all he really does is string pop-culture words together. The only reason the NYT hired him is because of his credentials with the self-chosen hipster elites.

  16. We are waiting Mr. Klosterman. I say “Mr. Klosterman”, denoting a respect you do not deserve but, because I have a three year old boy with Ds, I understand how degrading and hateful speech can injure a heart and mind. I shouldn’t be worried about yours because you obviously don’t care about someone’s heart or mind if you can use language in such a horrific and derogatory fashion. You owe families like mine a response and more than that, an apology. Then you need to stand on the front lines and use your newly found moral compass to direct a more appropriate dialogue. Amen? Amen!!!

    • So not only does he owe you something because you own rights to the word, he also now has to be an activist for your cause as well? You should just write his next book for him.

      • Ooooooh, silly me, it’s a moderated board to ensure only agreeable posts go up, shocking. Why would I think the people that can’t handle words would ever be able to handle words.

      • Dial it back on…
        As a parent of a child with a diagnosis of intellectual disability, I own far more then “rights” to the word. I own the right to protect my child. It’s far more deeper then not being able to “handle words” it’s not tolerating the thought and hate behind the words causing our loved ones to be belittled and viewed as less than. Your assumption that its just the word itself clearly makes me see how people need to be educated on the issue. Those that prey on belittling others that they believe are “less than” need to be held accountable, especially those promoting ethics. And we have the right to protect our children from the hate and hurt he’s helping promote through his words.

      • My motives are strategic. I want to force the nation’s largest paper to confront the ethics of a word that denigrates fellow human beings. My tact is to take on a man who uses this word in the most offensive sense possible and who makes money determining what is ethical and what isn’t. This isn’t personal it is political. This is about human rights.

  17. Oh Mr. Klosterman you have much to learn. It is obvious he has not had the privilege of knowing a person with cognitive impairments. If he had he would know the wisdom that comes from innocence, lack of ego and pure truthfulness. He is a very sad man who has blocked himself from grace.

    • yes, Rochelle! I have three kids, each with a very important job in this world. The fact that my Kevin has Down syndrome makes his job no less meaningful – and it’s definitely the hardest of all. Because, he teaches the Mr Klosterman’s of the world. Thank you, Kari, for leading the class today!
      And please God, give us the strength to continue our work with the grace we show the world. If they see our tears, please let them know they are tears of love. Amen.

  18. Wow! To be so ignorant and get paid so much for it. Only in America, but hopefully not for long. Perhaps he would like it better in Russia, it’s still hip to bash people for their differences there. Time to move along Mr. Klosterman ( Oh is that a Jewish name?) you should know better, shame on you, you sad, sad little man.

  19. You’re holding someone to the fire for something he wrote 3, 5 and 11 years ago? Seriously? You know the great Epidemic of Scary Words didn’t start until after EVERY SINGLE EXAMPLE you provided was written right? Got anything else from the Bush Administration that we should be up in arms about?

    I remember my mom teaching me that only sticks and stones could break my bones, what in the world happened to us?

    • You know what…. ur full of SHIT!!! Sticks & stones r SHIT!!! I know u do not have a child w/special needs, just cuz of the way u r speaking! NOTHING will ever JUSTIFICATE how u & ur friend speak! Live 24hrs in OUR shoes & then you’ll quickly realize how stupid & idiots u are! These children r a gift from God & u referencing them on their condition in ur daily conversation just makes u a DUMBA**!!!
      I wish u well &hope u never find urself or ur family in the situation I, my son, & my family find ourselves in!!!!!!!!! Cuz YOU WILL NEVER deserve to be BLESSED as WE a are!!!
      God Bless….

    • TO INCREDULOUS: Either you are not aware of today’s date, or you are not aware of the passage of time.. The first two examples are recent enough to be included in the ‘Let’s all use proper language when we refer to others’ time period. Even as far back as 2002, the terms homo and retard were getting bad press! What is wrong with you!?! Do you really think, in this era of bullying and mass shootings, that name calling is acceptable? It is time we tried to lift our fellow members of society and not tear them down.. and for an ethicist to do these things is totally unacceptable! And if he’s been caught doing it in print, how many times has he SPOKEN similar words in the privacy of his home or among his friends or family? It’s unimaginable!

    • My motives are strategic. I want to force the nation’s largest paper to confront the ethics of a word that denigrates fellow human beings. My tact is to take on a man who uses this word in the most offensive sense possible and who makes money determining what is ethical and what isn’t. This isn’t personal it is political. This is about human rights. As for your mom…

  20. I am sure Mr. Klosterman likes to think of himself as a highly educated, intellectually endowed person. However, trying to make a point sound as though it has meaningful gravitas by using fourth grade vocabulary selections belies a weakness to anyone who is truly educated. Anyone can clearly see his intended audience isn’t one of academia, or the deeper thinkers of society. Where have all the real journalists gone?

  21. My letter:

    Dear Mr. Klosterman,

    My brother and I are both 14. If I had to choose the one person I share everything with, it’d be him. He has such a great heart, and is always smiling. There is no one who has every met him, that hasn’t fallen in love with his personality.

    But, there is something else about my brother, that sets him apart from the rest of the world. He has severe special needs. He, as you so graciously put it, is a “retard”. According to you, he is the equivalent of a fish. That he is not worth anything, that he is not dynamic.

    You have probably gotten backlash for your comments. Most of it is probably from activists, parents. But I’m 14. I have never known anything BUT my brother, and I never will. I’m just a kid, a nieve, growing child- but even I can see how mean you’re comments are.

    Mark my words, there is absolutely NOTHING funny about what you said. There is nothing ENTERTAINING about your comments. All I see is immaturity.

    The word “retard” is extremely offensive. But, to me, when I hear the word “retard” I think of my brother. The word “retard” shouldn’t be the equivelent of “stupid” or “worthless”. It should be the equal of “brave” “caring” and above all “beautiful”.

    I would love to get a response from you. And not a generic, “I’m sorry if I offended you,” I would really appreciate it if you could explain to me, a fourteen year old girl, exactly how my best friend, my brother, is like a dolphin. Why you think he is stupid. Because I just don’t understand.

    Thank you for your time,


  22. Inspirational! I am Inspired by the post and all of the comments! Hate speech goes hand in hand with hateful action. Thanks for exposing the truth. I can’t wait to see Klosterman’s response.

  23. I agree with every word she’s saying, but no one should flatter Chuck Klosterman by calling him the Ethicist of the New York Times.

    Chuck Klosterman is a novelist and pop culture writer, famous for books like ‘Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.’ He has no training in ethics (a degree in English from the University of North Dakota is all he can claim), and these days, he mostly seems to write for a sports website called

    He does, however, have an occasional column in the NY Times Magazine, which he titles “Ethicist.” I have no idea why they let him call it that. If I were given a column in the NY Times Magazine, and I chose to call it “The Guy to Whom You Should Mail $100 A Month for the Rest of Your Life,” it wouldn’t make it true. Sadly. I think. I may try this.

    The NY Times doesn’t employ an official ethicist. You can tell, because they occasionally pay Chuck Klosterman.

    • Hi! I am the “she” who wrote it.

      Klosterman has been The Ethicist for the last 16 months and writes a weekly column titled The Ethicist in the Sunday Magazine.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • I am the “she” that wrote this.

      Klosterman has been The Ethicist for the New York Times Sunday Magazine writing a weekly column since June, 2012. (PS I miss Randy Cohen:(

      Thanks for stopping by!

  24. The writer seems to be at a loss for making an intellegent or informed opinion. I have worked with mentally and physically handicapped people since 1972. They can be the nicest and most interesting people in ones life. From reading this persons ignorant comments, I know that I would rather spend a day training Special Olympians than hanging out with that writer.

    • I think Klosterman has so objectified people with cognitive disabilities they are only fodder for cheap laughs. They are not human beings to him.

  25. The word retard does NOT “contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable” if it is NOT used to offend. I suggest you read Stacie Lewis’s blog post on the subject. She will make you think before attacking people who use the word in NON offensive contexts for NO good reason.

    Here is the link- And furthermore when we write letters and join in the end the word campaign,this is the message we are giving off. It is okay to attack people who use the word in non offensive contexts. Is that a good message to give to our non disabled pals? You tell me.

    And when we make assumptions like “oh people who use the r word are heartless” we ARE just as bad as the people who make assumptions about us. If they cant make assumptions, why should we? It makes us hypocrites- yes it does. Not only that, it proves we are oversensitive PC bullies.

    The ones who actually take time to find out the context, engage in discussions and dont take part in the campaign are the ones who are mature, tough yet NOT heartless and will succeed. And for the others… hmmm lets just say they will FAIL big time and will get nowhere.

    All that being said, I wonder why he felt the need to attack others. Maybe he did it out of pressure? Who knows? And I appreciate you writing a letter. If no one says anything, he will simply wont stop.

    Sophia Robertson
    Phil and Clara’s mom

    • Listen, here’s the deal. You made up your mind before your read my letter it was wrong. Maybe based on your friends post which I most certainly not read solely because you suggested it.

      I am not “attacking” anyone. I sent this letter to him via an email. He did not respond so I made it a public letter. He is employed by the largest newspaper in the country as an ethicist. He answers people’s ethical questions. I have a ethical question. It isn’t like I sent my letter to a sport columnist or a movie critic.

      “The word retard does NOT “contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable” if it is NOT used to offend.” That’s ridiculous. It does not matter if Mr. Klosterman intends to offend. When people use the N-word not meaning to offend does it make it less offensive?

      “oversensitive PC bullies”? For real? This is your idea of bullying? I am not asking for him to be fired or his books burned. I asked a question.

      “All that being said, I wonder why he felt the need to attack others. Maybe he did it out of pressure?” If he didn’t mean to offend – your words – who is he now attacking? And who exactly is “pressuring” him to ridicule people with cognitive challenges? Aliens?

      I think you need a dictionary.

      Best of luck to you.

      • Your comparison to the R word to racial slurs is spot on – I’ve noted it for years, & though we shouldn’t have to cite higher authority for backup, the Federal gov’t agrees- section 1982 of the Civil Rights Law, US Code, protects those with cognitive disabilities equally as well as racial minorities. Slurs are slurs – their acceptance leads to an institutionalized disenfranchisement in society. I’ve been told (when my daughter was younger) to remove that “R” from public parks (I came close to a few fistfights) but what’s worse, when my daughter needed more extensive treatment, I had to send her 150 miles from home – I live in a populous and prosperous NYC suburb, but bigoted NIMBYS never stop fighting to keep needed facilities far away. When slurs are accepted, they enable disenfranchisement on a large scale.
        The real blame on this issue, though, lies with the NY Times editors. I’ve had this issue with my local paper, Newsday. Syndicated features like comics and op-ed pieces are all vetted. Self-censorship? Of course! News companies not only seek to sell papers, but they also have to sell advertising. Papers will go broke when they offend their readership, & smart advertisers don’t want to be associated with a publication that offends their customers. Bigots like Klosterman are a dime a dozen, but it takes the press to give them a soapbox. Forget writing to Klosterman, that just feeds his ego. Boycott the NY Times instead!

      • I appreciate your comment and your passion. You obviously have a personal connection to the WORD can cause pain. You know the discrimination. For me, I just want my letter answered. Whether that be by Chuck Klosterman or someone else at The Times. They opened the door for this public forum.

    • I read the suggested link and am confused. When is the R word ever used in a Non-Offensive manner?! I use to think, it’s not a bad word, their not offending my son directly, and I too was on the fence, Until I listened and was made aware of the way it was being used. “Your such a retard” or “Stop acting retarded” (when an individual answers incorrectly or does something stupid). My son has a diagnosis of “Mentally Retarded” in all the contexts that I have heard the word being used, it is in the manner of a put-down of the persons intellect – referencing that they are acting or behaving like a person that is mentally retarded. Um, SUPER OFFENSIVE to me, my family and my son. This context implies that the people that are acting idiotic, stupid or “retarded” as you deem ok to say, is behaving like my son and all others that have this diagnosis.

      To give a better example, let’s say I started using the word to describe idiotic and stupid behavior as being “Sophia Robertson”.

      Someone does something that is not intelligent, idiotic or stupid and we start saying, “You’re such a Sophia Robertson” Stop acting like a “Sophia Robertson”. This context is clearly offensive and implies that all those behaving stupidly and being a “Sophia Robertson” are “less than” on the intellectual ladder. So being a “Sophia Robertson” is clearly and utterly an offensive put down because they are inferring their behavior as acting like you.

      The same can go for those that are blonde and the “stop acting like a blonde” comment comes into play. IT. IS. COMPLETELY. OFFENSIVE!

      It has nothing to do with calling a person with this diagnosis a “retard”. It is the implication that those that are acting idiotic or stupid are being referenced as my sons diagnosis, therefore behaving like my son. THAT. IS. OFFENSIVE. PERIOD.

      So YES the use of the word as the world has been taught to use it is degrading.

      I bet those that use it didn’t even bother to look it up in the dictionary until it became an issue of it’s non-use. That’s the first time I flipped to find the definition. Because the world has been taught to use it to explain those with stupidity, low intellect, or idiotic behaviors – inferring they are acting like our loved ones.

      It’s true that more needs to be done to accept our special children, but to allow this name calling to be referenced back to our loved ones diagnosis or behaviors NEEDS TO STOP, and starting by ending the word is the beginning.

      so if we chose to replace the word “retard” with “Sophia Robertson”, in all contexts that it can be used……..How can it not be offensive in every manner when it directly correlates back to behaving like you?

      I don’t know how you could see it in any other way after trying it.

      Maybe all that think it is not offensive should replace their names for the word and experience what we do as parents, friends and family of loved ones every time we hear it.

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  29. I love reading this stuff. It’s important for people to know that their seemingly “harmless” words are not only repulsive but completely inappropriate. I too have a deep connection with individuals with multitudes of abilities and also have blogged about the “r-word”. I hope your blog resonates with people and I think it’s awesome that Chuck reached out like he did and admitted that he was out of line. If you are curious, check it out : )

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  32. If a child is caught shoplifting some candy it is one thing. If an adult is caught shoplifting some candy it is another thing. If a judge is caught shoplifting some candy it is an entirely different thing. That a sophisticated, educated person who makes his living publically teaching ethics makes this “n word” error it is nothing short of bizarre. It introduces an interesting ethical question: “When is ‘I’m sorry I was wrong’ enough- for a judge or an ethicist?”

    • First thanks for taking the time to comment. Here’s the thing – I agree Klosterman may be held accountable in way a person who had another profession might not be. I suspect that is why the self-imposed debt and the absolute apology. No one has come close to what he did in regards of ‘owning up’ to using the word. For me it is a important statement i hope others will follow.

  33. Honestly, I have read many entries in your blog and you seem almost militant, even angry at times about the public’s general reaction to your son. I would suggest some softening and even try a little kindness, you don’t have to explain his entire diagnosis, you don’t owe anyone that but, in general, people are not clear on medical diagnoses, unless they are in the medical field or have had someone with a disability in their family (I am both). As far this article goes, for you to blast a columnist for using the word “retard” which in his context was used in the vernacular and not aimed at a specific person who is disabled (which would be hate speech) As a mother of 3, just relax a little more and maybe take your high horse down a notch, you aren’t right about everything nor are you an “expert” in vernacular vocabulary or in down’s syndrome even though your son has it. Just my two cents. Maybe it can give you a little perspective.

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