Whose table for the retarded?

A Reflection on Stanley Hauerwas, “Community and Diversity: The Tyranny of Normality”

John O’Brien


In the past 30 years I have often eaten my portion of the casserole before rising to address the annual meeting of an association that supports people with intellectual disabilities. Noticing in a footnote that Stanley Hauerwas delivered this paper as a talk in a similar setting opened my way into his wise and puzzling contribution. As I imagined Hauerwas’s words in the familiar setting of a celebratory meal I wondered, “That night, who shared the table with these people he calls ‘the retarded’ and who, to Hauerwas’s way of thinking, was missing?”

The paper’s wisdom needs no interpretation . We are called to the difficult work of creating good communities. Good communities include diversity and difference based on a conviction that we cannot be whole without others being different from us; in such communities people can be different without regret. In building good communities we must act from conviction deep enough to overcome our fear of difference and safeguard our temptation to either separate those who carry frightening differences away from us or attempt to discipline them into simulacra of a tame and bland normality. The prevalence of thin, impoverished, ahistorical, and misleading ac- counts of difference in relationship to society, community, and family makes forming the neces- sary conviction difficult. The language of rights and the language of equality are not sufficient to carry us as far as we need to go toward communities that enhance us all. People with mental re- tardation have an important, if easily ignored, role in deepening the conviction that sustains community sufficiently to keep the language of rights and the language of equality in their proper context: they call us out of too thin official explanations and theories and quietly confront us with differing gifts.