Special “special” edition

by Michael Bérubé on April 2, 2009

While I was at LSU talking about disability and stuff, a graduate student asked me about Obama’s “Special Olympics” gaffe on The Tonight Show.  I said more or less what you’d expect: that it was a stunningly foolish and thoughtless remark, and something of a bitter irony that the United States’ first African-American president had become the first president to use “Special Olympics” as a laugh line.  Guess we didn’t see that coming!

Now, of course I know the joke was supposed to be self-deprecating.  But there are much better ways to be self-deprecating!  Obama could have mocked his bowling skills by saying “I brought my Z game,” which would have been Very Funny because it would have been a play on the sports-cliché of bringing one’s A game, you see, and it would not have offended any Z-Americans, since they have notoriously generous senses of humor.


Then again, a joke about one’s Z-game would not have provided us with the “teaching moment” we’re apparently living through as I write.  The timing of Obama’s misstep is interesting: the Special Olympics has launched a new initiative to retire the R-word, and I hope they have more success with this than I did back in 2005, because my little post on cognitive-disability slurs seems to have had precisely zero effect on the frequency with which “that’s so retarded” is uttered in public and “WTF are you a Fing retard” appears in the blog comment sections in Left Blogistan. (Though not here!)

(Extended aside:  before anybody asks me about Tropic Thunder: strange as it may sound, I actually kind of appreciate how the movie was trying to skewer the Rain Man – I Am Sam – Radio representation of intellectual disability.  It did so in a ham-handed and aggressively unfunny way, but then, it was a ham-handed and aggressively unfunny movie, though not quite so aggressively unfunny as Burn After Reading.  My sense is that it was trying to do for Vietnam War flicks what Galaxy Quest did for SF: to wit, parade and lampoon the cheesy, well-worn tropes of the genre and then work those tropes back into the script for a clever and meta- closing sequence.  Except that Tropic Thunder forgot about the “clever” part and the “funny” part.)

The rest of my reply had to do with the fact that we really, really don’t know how or when or whether to laugh when the subject is cognitive/intellectual disability. The Ringer made a remarkably brave attempt at it, starting from a patently offensive premise (Johnny Knoxville feigns intellectual disability in order to win the Special Olympics) and offering some, but only some, genuinely surprising and warmly humorous moments as the plot unfolds.  (I think Stephanie Zacharek’s review of the film had this just about right.)  And the reason humor is important here will become clear (I hope) at the end of the post.

First, though, here’s what the graduate student said in response: she said that she’d been hearing not merely that this should be a “teaching moment” with regard to cognitive disability but also that we should take the opportunity to revisit the term “Special” itself, in order to ask whether the word hasn’t become the kind of default euphemism that needs to be retired along with the R-word.  “Well,” I said, “I imagine that the Shriver and Kennedy families would have something to say about that, and I don’t imagine that they’d take it as a friendly amendment.”  No doubt, said my interlocutor, but whoever made the suggestion to her had also suggested that Special Olympians themselves take the lead in determining the appropriate language for cognitive disability.  “Hmmmm,” I hmmmed, “now that’s an idea.”  I promised I would throw it up onto the Internets for further discussion, and that’s exactly what I am doing right now.  Discuss!  Or don’t!  Or best of all, just listen when someone with an intellectual disability speaks to you about this!

I did say one more thing that morning, as well.  (Just so you know.)  I drew on something I wrote recently that may or may not appear someplace or other, in response to a request that I write a (very) brief essay on the languages of disability.  Here’s the relevant snippet from the essay I submitted, which I more or less paraphrased at LSU:

The last time I taught Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (a text that has become as important for disability studies as for queer theory), I couldn’t help noticing that at certain moments in Goffman’s text, the most heterogeneous conditions are yoked by violence together, as when Goffman writes that “ex-mental patients and expectant unmarried fathers are similar in that their failing is not readily visible” (48) and that “a woman who has had a mastectomy or a Norwegian male sex offender who has been penalized by castration are forced to present themselves falsely in almost all situations” (75).  What’s going on in these weird passages?  I think Goffman is winking at us, as one of the “wise”: he knows that stigma has a temporal dimension, that social opprobrium, like everything else, can be historicized.  He just doesn’t get around to saying so explicitly until the closing pages of his book, when he suggests that “when, as in the case of divorce or Irish ethnicity, an attribute loses much of its force as a stigma, a period will have been witnessed when the previous definition of the situation is more and more attacked” (137).  Divorce and Irish ethnicity aren’t discrediting attributes any longer; likewise, mastectomy and unwed fatherhood have lost much (though not all) of the stigma once attached to them.  Mental patients and sex offenders, by contrast, continue to be stigmatized, and many people might add that sex offenders are properly stigmatized.  My point—and, I think, Goffman’s implicit point—is not only that stigma has a history but that different forms of stigma move at different speeds.  Why, it is even possible, in today’s modern society today, to find openly gay men and women in elective office—something that was unimaginable at the time Stigma was published.

And yet disability remains deeply and widely stigmatized; I often suspect that cognitive disability is the slowest-moving of the stigmas, and will remain a subject of horror and avoidance for decades to come.  We argue about terminology, in other words (and it is always about speaking in other words), because we don’t yet know which fights to pick and which battles we can actually win.  Perhaps someday, when physical and cognitive disabilities have finally lost much of their stigmatizing force, we’ll be able to look back and determine which arguments about language made a difference, and which were simply clever language games.  Until then, we work in the dark, we do what we can.

I should have added that Stigma practically develops an entire lexicon of disability unto itself; and I might also have added, had I more room to work with (as here, on the Internets), a citation to the passage where Goffman writes, “There is also ‘disclosure etiquette,’ a formula whereby the individual admits his own failing in a matter of fact way, supporting the assumption that those present are above such concerns while preventing them from trapping themselves into showing that they are not.  Thus, the ‘good’ Jew or mental patient waits for ‘an appropriate time’ in a conversation with strangers and calmly says: ‘Well, being Jewish has made me feel that . . .’ or ‘Having had first-hand experience as a mental patient, I can . . .’” (101).  Yes, indeed, here are your good Jews and your discreet ex-mental patients, disclosing their “failings” via the proper disclosure etiquette (and see how the lexicon just taught you the term “disclosure etiquette”?).  I tell you, Goffman knows exactly what he’s doing by juxtaposing these two examples, and it isn’t about likening the two, any more than women who’ve had mastectomies are like Norwegian male sex offenders.

“Another strategy of those who pass,” Goffman writes seven pages earlier, “is to present the signs of their stigmatized failing as signs of another attribute, one that is less significantly a stigma.  Mental defectives, for example, apparently sometimes try to pass as mental patients, the latter being the less of two social evils” (94).  It’s passages like this—and “teaching moments” like ours—that lead me to think that cognitive/intellectual disability is the stigmatized identity that trumps all others, the one everyone else wants to distinguish themselves from, the one that will be hardest to destigmatize.

Which leads me back to humor.  The passage about divorce and Irish ethnicity losing their stigmatizing force goes on to say how “the previous definition of the situation” might be attacked: “first, perhaps, on the comedy stage, and later during mixed contacts in public places, until it ceases to exert control over both what can be easefully attended, and what must be kept a secret or painfully disattended” (137).  I think The Ringer was sincerely trying to destigmatize cognitive/intellectual disability with humor, and at least trying to imagine mixed contacts in public places.  And maybe we can use this teaching moment to think more productively about destigmatizing cognitive disability.  But we don’t quite know how to laugh, just yet, and we don’t quite know what to say.

x-posted for still further discussion

{ 93 comments }

1

Elf Sternberg 04.02.09 at 7:48 pm

I can’t help but think that your student objecting to “Special” was demonstrating a perfect example of the euphemism treadmill, the phenomenon whereby we adopt euphemism for uncomfortable or distasteful topics, the topic itself continues to be distasteful and uncomfortable, and the stigma associated with the topic slowly perjorates the euphemism until the euphemism becomes as distasteful as the previous term for the topic, and a new euphemism must be found. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There is no “appropriate language.” There is only language, and our reaction to the condition. Any attempt to come up with a term that hides the reality of the condition will only eventually become as distasteful as the term it supplants. I strongly suspect that cognitive disability, because of the innate “there but for the grace of God/genes go I” horror associated with it, cannot be destigmatized. Our best bet is to identify the causes of disability and cure them.

I am most certainly not a Kassian: I do not believe that an actual cure for a disability deprives the rest of us of a necessary ennobling or edifying “there but for the grace…” lesson.

2

john c. halasz 04.02.09 at 9:00 pm

What ever happened to the notion that literature is supposed to be harsh and cruel, rather than literary studies degenerating into an elaborate orchestration of politenesses to deny and cover up the desperate drive to repair the irreparable? Give me back Benjy Compson and Flannery O’Connor any day, against the driveling “sensitivities” of such self-referential entitlement!

3

Kathleen 04.02.09 at 9:15 pm

Wow, the first two comments here are…. prize-winning.

4

counter36 04.02.09 at 9:24 pm

In re: the stigmatization of disability, and thinking of your line about gay people being elected, it’s clear physical disabilities are no longer an impediment to elected office (although all of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are either Vietnam veterans like former senator Cleland, or appointed like current governor Patterson. Maybe commenters can name anyone elected outright who had a disability unconnected to the red badge of courage.) My point was going to be that even though it’s been almost 40 years since Eagleton was dumped from the ticket, I don’t think American political space will be accepting of people with past or current mental disabilities. Somehow the stigma blends over into trustworthiness in a way it wouldn’t with a physical disability.

5

bob mcmanus 04.02.09 at 9:53 pm

Well, at least now we know who and what Obama is, which is at least one level below Ronald Reagan in compassion and understanding. Way to distract, Berube.

6

Bruce Baugh 04.02.09 at 9:57 pm

Invoking Flannery O’Conner in service of a demand not to have to care about others’ condition is pretty impressive. “Everything That Rises Must Converge II: If They Don’t Rise, We Don’t Have to Think About Converging, So Keep Putting the Boot In, Boys”.

Michael: “We don’t quite know” seems a really good summary of where I, at least, am with a lot of this stuff. There are basic principles and good guidelines, but in practice, it seems like there’s not much alternative to going ahead and trying things, seeing how we react, and revise accordingly.

7

Adam Kotsko 04.02.09 at 10:11 pm

It’s a little unsettling that South Park arguably handled the Special Olympics with greater sensitivity than Obama.

8

john c. halasz 04.02.09 at 10:15 pm

Flannery O’Connor was a “cruel” writer, a past master of the mean-funny, as well as, possessed of a rather reactionary sensibility. That is just description, not criticism. A thwarted invalid herself, she was not inclined to substitute pity for the rigor of moral “perceptions”.

Spinoza, too, thought satire ought to be eliminated, as invoking the baser passions and ad hominem instincts.

9

Soren 04.02.09 at 10:21 pm

I’m curious as to how a word can be “retired.” Perhaps stop using it yourself, then ostracize others who continue to use it?

10

Righteous Bubba 04.02.09 at 10:28 pm

Rename the Special Olympics after a fine person with a nice long name. Similarly use nice long specific – and true! – names for each and every touchy condition – slang is best when short.

“Special” is a pejorative at my daughter’s elementary school. Interesting that I haven’t noticed “autism” receiving contempt yet, but maybe I’m listening selectively.

11

Tom T. 04.02.09 at 11:45 pm

Why, it is even possible, in today’s modern society today, to find openly gay men and women in elective office

There’s a long history of people with apparent cognitive/intellectual disability in elective office, though, too.

12

Charlie 04.02.09 at 11:52 pm

Personally, I feel that trying to engineer social behavior by enforcing changes in language comes pretty close to Orwellian style fascism.

Plus, it’s retarded.

13

arc 04.03.09 at 12:18 am

Elf:
I was going to make the very same point myself.

People suppose we can change attitudes by changing the language. But, as you point out, what often happens is the attitudes stay and the new language becomes another way of expressing those attitudes. Terms for people with cognitive disabilities are an excellent example of this, so are those for people with dark skin.

My favourite though, is toilet, as there’s no term for the device or the room which isn’t either crude slang or has its origins in euphemism.

However, I think there is a possibility for language change to contribute to changing attitudes. If you change the language at just the right time as attitudes change too, perhaps you can pull out the rug from under people while they’re disoriented at all the new words. Also, having terms re-appropriated by the people they’re applied to is always fun.

I’m not sure about either this ‘horror’ and ‘enobling’ ‘there but the grace of God’ stuff though. Historically white males of the proper classes have had horrors and ‘enoblements’ about all sorts of people – essentially anyone who looks different, thinks differently, or acts differently. I don’t think our reactions to the mentally disabled are really that much different from the typical reaction of an earlier age to black people – there goes a parody of a human being, which evokes, depending on the person, mirth or pity or a desire to shut them out somehow and forget about them.

I think we need to be extremely careful in our thinking if we’re considering eliminating particular traits from our society. A lot of the reasons for wanting to ‘cure’ the mentally disabled speak more about our society than it does about them.

*) We value productivity and intelligence highly – perhaps too highly, intelligence in particular is endowed with a quasi-mystical worth. Are these people (children, foetuses) going to be insufficiently productive or intelligent?

*) Caring for intellectually disabled people is expensive, it requires a lot of resources and people with special training. Are we unwilling to spare the expense? It is stressful on families – which suggests they don’t get enough support.

*) The life of an intellectually disabled person is often (but not always) frustrating, unhappy, sometimes painful, and frequently short. I have a lot of sympathy for not wanting people to have to live like this, and there are certainly forms of disability for which this seems inevitably part of their biology, so to speak. But how much of it is because we marginalise them, stigmatise them, and have not time, patience or money for them?

*) Finally, and I’m back where I started, I think much of the story is that we simply cannot accept how different they are. We don’t want them around because they challenge us too much. Our attitudes towards them have too much in common with our former attitudes towards blacks and homosexuals, and our improving but still deplorable attitude towards the deaf and the ‘mentally ill’ for me to be anything but highly suspicious of them (our attitudes), especially when they’re accompanied by admissions of horror or enoblement.

And I do mean ‘ours’ – it’s a genuine first-person plural not one that’s really a masquerade second-person one. My reactions are not that much different to anyone else’s, I suspect – I am horrified, I’d prefer not to know. And I can see my statements here – treating the mentally disabled as a kind of challenge to our morals and values – could be seen as also being patronizing and not too far from what Elf says Kassian’s view is (although I’d like to think I’m being a bit less solipsistic than that). I’ve got a long way to go – so do we all.

14

lt 04.03.09 at 12:44 am

The comments of Elf, John, and Charlie are a great example of how hysterical reactions against so-called political correctness are as unimaginative and tiresome as the thing itself was ever accused of being. Yes, not being willing to be more creative than to use an insult near and dear to the hearts of third graders puts one on a par with Faulkner and O’Connor. Using tired insults about marginalized groups is transgressive and edgy! Almost as edgy as jokes about how your wife is fat. And don’t censor me!

15

garymar 04.03.09 at 1:03 am

I wholeheartedly disagree with Michael’s throwaway line about Burn After Reading. It was mildly amusing throughout, but in the last 5 minutes the laughter was forcing tears out of my eyes, I was almost choking, and couldn’t stop laughing until I had left the theater and got in the car. Rarely have I been more surprised in the movie theater.

16

John Protevi 04.03.09 at 1:37 am

desperate drive to repair the irreparable

One of the main points of Michael B’s many writings on disability is that we don’t know what is “irreparable” until we try to work with the people who have been so labeled. Since we now know that, e.g., people with Down syndrome are capable of a lot more than people thought they were say, 50 years ago, we really don’t know the limits of the “irreparable.” And since we don’t know those limits, we might as well try to push them as far out as we can. Which is something like Spinoza meant, it seems to me, when he told us we don’t know what a body can do.

17

john c. halasz 04.03.09 at 2:01 am

“…how hysterical reactions against so-called political correctness are as unimaginative and tiresome as the thing itself was ever accused of being.”

How now, chica/o? Is this another instance of “revealed preference”? Flannery O’Connor would have been entirely “unnecessary”/superfluous, and, at any rate, redundant/derivative, if Dostoyevsky had had a sense of humor,- oh, maybe in that archaic “animal spirits” sense of the word,- rather than being merely hysterical, in the unfunny sense of the word.

18

Jonathan 04.03.09 at 2:10 am

I regret not being able to make the short drive to see you in Baton Rouge, but Burn after Reading is “aggressively unfunny?”

19

Peter 04.03.09 at 2:31 am

It was a slightly tasteless comment, but hardly an earth-shaking thing. I’m just as glad that the controversy seems to have blown over.

20

lt 04.03.09 at 2:39 am

@16 – I haven’t the slightest idea. My point was quite simply that there’s a difference between exploring the deep dark truths of literature, of whichever strain, and being a jerk.

21

Keith M Ellis 04.03.09 at 2:41 am

As a disabled person (!), I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say other than that I find it interesting that there’s varying sensitivity and opinions on this subject among the disabled.

I don’t feel any particular stigma attached to myself, but my sister seems to be much, much sensitive to such things. Aside from temperment differences, there’s other differences at work, particularly gender differences. We have a congenital disease, an extremely rare (only seven families in the world) collagenopathy that manifests developmental abnormalities in bone growth during youth and osteoarthritis in adulthood.

I should make clear that the disease has been much more virulent in her than me—she had six surgeries by the age of eighteen, I only had one. This certainly makes a big difference in how we perceive our conditions.

Anyway, one thing the disease has done to all of us in my family who have it is that we walk with a slight waddling gait. I don’t recall anyone ever mocking me for mine; in fact, I was really surprised when a high school friend recognized me at the large state university we both attended by, he said, “that walk”.

In contrast, my sister was often ridiculed about her walk. I really believe that it has a lot to do with gender social differences regarding appearances.

In the six or so years that I’ve been truly disabled (I’m in chronic pain, don’t work, and rarely get out because it’s so painful and difficult to get around), I’ve never had anyone refer to me by any term, much less a perjorative like “cripple”. I’m not sure how I would react. But I don’t feel particularly vulnerable to stigmatization on this basis; when, in contrast, I’m certain my sister does. What accounts for that difference? I don’t know.

Personally, my experience has been that much more troublesome than language is how people deal with disabled people. Pity is demeaning and destructive and yet perhaps the majority think that expressions of what they either know to be pity (or wrongly think is something more noble but really is just alienating pity) is somehow virtuous and caring. Healthy people are very clueless about what it’s actually like to be disabled and so how they treat the disabled is, because of ignorance and perhaps fear, more psychologically powerful than how they use language. (Not that language use is unimportant, mind.)

22

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 2:43 am

Burn after Reading is “aggressively unfunny?”

Yes. Like a surprising number of comments in this thread.

Elf @ 1: Any attempt to come up with a term that hides the reality of the condition will only eventually become as distasteful as the term it supplants.

I hear you, and I’m not suggesting that mere linguistic change does the job that needs doing. But I don’t think it’s necessarily trivial, either, or that we’re talking about language that “hides the reality of the condition.” You will not, for example, convince me that there is no significant distinction between the term “person with Down syndrome” and “Mongoloid idiot,” or that the widespread adoption of the former term did not coincide with (though was not the cause of) more progressive disability policies in the US — and substantial changes in the reality of the condition.

Our best bet is to identify the causes of disability and cure them.

No, because this throws incurable disabilities under the bus. I like to joke that we have all these 5K “Races for the Cure” w/r/t autism because “Race for the Reasonable Accommodation” doesn’t fit so well on the T-Shirt. Now, I’m not against curin’ stuff when it can be cured, and I don’t believe there is a Polio Restoration Society or a Smallpox Appreciation League. But I do think that our best bet is to stop collapsing “disability” into “disease.”

John @ 2: What ever happened to the notion that literature is supposed to be harsh and cruel, rather than literary studies degenerating into an elaborate orchestration of politenesses to deny and cover up the desperate drive to repair the irreparable?

Wow. Just wow. OK, thing one, nobody said anything about what literature is supposed to be, so let’s just put that little joker back in its box. Thing two, nobody said anything about repairing the irreparable, so let’s just let that phrase do what it does best — namely, reveal the ignorance of its user. Because the question isn’t whether cognitive disability is “reparable.” The question is how best to accommodate people with cognitive disabilities.

Bob @ 4: Way to distract, Berube.

You mean I’ve distracted you from the fact that Obama will eliminate the dollar as the official US currency, replacing it with money from Othercountriestan, and from the fact that Obama has utterly trashed our close relations with the British thanks to his inappropriate gifts, thereby undoing all of Bush’s good diplomatic work? Sorry about that.

Soren @ 8: I’m curious as to how a word can be “retired.”

Well, just ask the people over at Special Olympics. Or think of a six-letter word beginning with N and ending with R. Perhaps I should speak instead of stigmatizing the word?

Charlie @ 11: Personally, I feel that trying to engineer social behavior by enforcing changes in language comes pretty close to Orwellian style fascism.

I guess it’s a good sign that we had to wait 11 comments until this showed up. But yes, it’s official, people who say “retard” are the Jews of liberal fascism.

But it’s weird — the English language is so rich in insults. I have to think that people who rely on “retard” just aren’t very imaginative.

23

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 2:45 am

And Keith @ 20: Personally, my experience has been that much more troublesome than language is how people deal with disabled people. Pity is demeaning and destructive and yet perhaps the majority think that expressions of what they either know to be pity (or wrongly think is something more noble but really is just alienating pity) is somehow virtuous and caring. Healthy people are very clueless about what it’s actually like to be disabled and so how they treat the disabled is, because of ignorance and perhaps fear, more psychologically powerful than how they use language. (Not that language use is unimportant, mind.)

Amen to that. And just as I’m not against curing stuff that can plausibly be cured, I’m not against the mitigation of chronic pain, either. I hope you’re managing that as well as it can possibly be managed.

24

bob mcmanus 04.03.09 at 3:36 am

You mean I’ve distracted you from the fact that Obama will eliminate …blah blah

No, I think the long post moving away from the opening is meant to cover Obama’s essential lack of compassion and empathy, soon to be evidenced by trying to eliminate pensions and healthcare for retired autoworkers, meeting with Pete Peterson and slashing Social Security, etc etc. Things we can resist if we understand the neo-liberal corporate tool the President for Goldman Sachs actually is.

Like the Bush nicknaming, this Kinsleyesque “gaffe” i a much better indicator of Obama’s sentiments than his empty rhetoric and broken promises. Reagan Redux, but worse.

A smart rhetorical tool, to change the subject from Obama and his contempt for the vulnerable to a discussion of jokes.

25

Jonathan 04.03.09 at 3:36 am

Do you think Burn after Reading‘s alleged unfunnyness related to the rest of the discussion, or did you just choose it on a whim?

26

rm 04.03.09 at 3:38 am

Speaking of movies, I wonder if you have a take on “The Other Daughter.” Seems to me it does a better job than I Am Radio Man of letting the disabled characters be characters, rather than Very Special catalysts of moral lessons for the actual protagonists. But, as one struggling with some of these issues myself, I’d love to hear your opinion.

27

Jane 04.03.09 at 3:58 am

Intelligence is so fundamental to our humanity that I don’t think insults related to its lack will ever go out of style. Why pick on “retard” specifically? How is it more offensive to those with cognitive disabilities than “idiot” or “moron”?

28

john c. halasz 04.03.09 at 3:59 am

“Thing two, nobody said anything about repairing the irreparable, so let’s just let that phrase do what it does best—namely, reveal the ignorance of its user.”

Glad to do so, since you seem to be strangely ignorant of the non-knowing that is the peculiar worldly vocation of literature, -(rather than the academic vocation of assuming that everything must be subsumed as a form of knowledge, by which those less privileged in the cognitive hierarchy are merely “cognitively impaired”, which is rather like assuming that perversion is a unique attribute of homo-eroticism, rather than a property of sexuality in general, which is to say, that “cognitive impairment” is a widely distributed attribute, not an exception to the normalizing rule),- such that the “virtue” of literary study must be some kind of medical vocation, eliminating the causes from which it arises, despite of its utter incompetence to do so. “Nobody said anything about repairing the irreparable”- why, yes, that is precisely what nobody says. Which is the impertinence of literature to silently say.

29

rm 04.03.09 at 4:16 am

Gee, John, you have a very large number of abstruse propositions that you expect all of your interlocutors to take as given, and which — when you find your audience not agreeing or even not saying “hear, hear” — you seem to think give you license to hold everyone in contempt who doesn’t have just the same thoughts you are having.

[Here, I first wrote a joke alluding to mental illness, until a moment’s reflection told me that I should battle not with monsters lest I become a monster, i.e. that I have some bad prejudices in me that were coming out on a comment thread that deals with those very prejudices, and in spite of having some experience with that exact stigma. So, damn it.]

Everyone else, sorry for feeding him, but you see, he does not know he’s a troll. He thinks he’s engaging in a conversation.

30

lisa 04.03.09 at 4:21 am

I think the challenging thing about defeating stigma is that we have to change our prior idea of what people are supposed to be like. We can’t overcome the stigma of mental illness until we give up certain models of mental health and normalcy. I wonder if we can overcome the stigma of cognitive disability until we give up the strange way we understand talent, intelligence, the value certain kinds (and only certain kinds) of intelligence/ability are supposed to lend to the person themselves–their very being, not only their social status.

For some reason, the other day I got kind of weepy and choked up with gratitude because of the way gender and sexuality is opening up (not that it is open yet, but it is opening up). I am too embarassed to relate what brought this about but I realized how intensely liberating it has been for me, even as I lead this straight, married life, to have this breathing room within the gender norms that still exist. We’ve been saved from so much even just by the small successes that people who challenge identity norms have achieved. I can’t help that think that breaking down assumptions about the relationship between intelligence and personhood (among other things) will be liberating for the non-disabled in surprising ways. Obviously, we should do it just because stigma is wrong but I just wanted to mention that the beneficial side-effects of destroying stigma reverberate to those without the stigma.

31

Delicious Pundit 04.03.09 at 5:04 am

What an interesting post. Some bullet points from a member of the comedy community:

• This area is one of the rare times I should thank Standards & Practices, because we wanted to use “spaz” on a show I was working on and they wouldn’t let us, and in the future I think I’m going to be glad they kept us from it.

• The point about comedy as a way into the experience of difference is extremely well-taken. Think Richard Pryor. Even guys like Milton Berle or Sid Caesar in the 50s, I imagine, started to show Jewishness on TV in a way that it never was shown in the movies. Now, I can see where it might be hard for the cognitively disabled community to come up with a Richard Pryor, but from what I’ve read of your work I believe your point is we don’t know what that community is capable of; we’re only just now starting to try to find out.

• I might be wrong, and I didn’t see The Ringer, but I think the Farrelly Brothers have also tried to be kind of straight-up with their disabled characters. Maybe it’s the gross-out guys wanting to extend the same freedom they enjoy.

• I actually liked Burn After Reading — I like the fact that the Coen Brothers do self-consciously minor works — but it’s the kind of tepid like where I wouldn’t dream of trying to change anyone’s mind.

32

bad Jim 04.03.09 at 5:07 am

I’ve made the same sort of joke that Obama made, and probably will again, because any sort of disability, and particularly mental disability, is part of the human condition. We all make stupid mistakes. Certain sorts of mistakes are characteristic of the young, others of the old, and inevitably they remind us of those for whom such behavior is characteristic.

Those of us of a certain age begin to notice a certain tendency in ourselves, typically more pronounced in our seniors, which incrementally diminishes the intellectual distance between us and the others whom we instance by comparison. Is it insulting or inclusive to excuse a lapse by calling it a “senior moment”? My athletic performance has been inconsistent all my life. I bowl better slightly drunk, for example, because it seems to damp either my attempts at control or my response. Is it actually disrespectful for me to describe the occasional gutter ball as spastic when I experience it as an inability to coordinate performance and intent?

When we deprecate our own performance in hyperbolic terms, we’re not disparaging the less abled, we’re expressing a shared frustration with our common shortcomings.

33

ChrisB 04.03.09 at 5:15 am

And then of course there’s
Clinton Deploys Very Special Forces To Iraq
http://www.theonion.com/content/node/29257

34

kmack 04.03.09 at 7:25 am

@ 30 Thanks for stating constructively what I, and many others here and elsewhere, I imagine, must be thinking. To admit, some would find your notion of ” shortcomings” objectionable. Why should we ever think in terms of baselines of performance relative to different ranges of apparent capacity–even when one is being self-critical by relegating oneself to a range where, in absolute terms of performance, much less could reasonably be expected?

Moving on and up…. I understand trying to sustain “teaching moments” for worthy causes. Overheated rhetoric about “a stunningly foolish and thoughtless remark”–in response to what was, by itself, a minor faux pas–seems unlikely to be successful in the long run.

Btw, is there some code that enables easy translation of the “bitter irony” here? What is the distinctive relation between Obama’s being the “first African-American president” and the disabled? He will be the first African American president to say and do all sort of dubious things: he is, after all, merely an important human being. Is the implicit idea that African Americans typically are or should be endowed, by virtue of our history, with understanding and compassion for the marginalized? (The list of thereby aggrieved parties grows longer: (white) women, LGBTs, the disabled….) I realize that we are the go-to comparison case of a group that used to be oppressed and whose equality is now (supposedly) taken for granted. But the familiar, “bitter irony”-type theme seems to hint at something more.

35

Tracy W 04.03.09 at 7:51 am

I think there are very many different experiences of disability. My own is generally invsible and I can manage to learn to do the things I want eventually, so to me it’s just an annoyance, not an essential part of my identity. So perhaps I doubt that mental disabilities will ever be destigmatized, because I only really see the downsides of mine, to me it’s like stigmatising bacterial infections or nasty burns, they’re stigmatised because they’re not good and that will be so regardless of society.

Arc: Finally, and I’m back where I started, I think much of the story is that we simply cannot accept how different they are. We don’t want them around because they challenge us too much.

Isn’t this true more generally? We generally don’t want to hang around with people who make us uncomfortable. For example, people tend to read newspapers that match their political views, not ones that are vastly opposed. There are exceptions of course, people who actively seek out arguments with people they disagree with (this does not describe me at all :) ). But on the whole, I think most people don’t want to be challenged too much. And it can be really hard to grasp that other people think differently, be that because of disability or cultural differences or from different academic spectrums or the like. I keep running across surprises like that myself.

36

arc 04.03.09 at 8:47 am

Personally, I found Tropic Thunder both funny and clever. I’m not going to try too hard to defend the funny bit – de gustibus non disputandum est and all that – but I will make an attempt to get you to re-think the clever part.

It’s not so much about Vietnam war films so much as about making any kind of movie, particularly in Hollywood. There’s a lot of stuff in there: the actors’ obsession with their careers and their images, the ‘artistic’ director who thinks he’s in control, the big man aggressive director who actually is but only cares about money, etc. Everyone in the movie is a fake, half of them are compensating for something, and the one who might at first seem to be the most genuine is the most fake. Method acting is lampooned. But that’s all fairly obvious.

One bit of a theme there is to show us the use of stereotypes in Hollywood. As you note, it comments on the potrayl of people with cognitive disabilities in hollywood film. But you have to go a bit further – it’s also commenting on our reactions to these people. From all we see of the (fictional) film Simple Jack it’s intended (in the fiction) to be a heartwarming tale and sympathetic treatment of someone who is fairly seriously cognitively impaired. Hollywood makes films like this, the most obvious comparison is to Forrest Gump and they do well. But they never, as Downy’s character points out, go all the way. Simple Jack does, and fails. Why? Well, they don’t exactly tell us, but why do you think a film like that would fail? It would certainly receive the same kind of shock and horror reaction that Tropic Thunder itself received, except more so. But moreover, we don’t want to see these people, we don’t want to know about them. As I said previously, it’s mirth, pity and horror – we have huge difficulties in seeing them as actual human beings. Speedman, who took the role to try to prove himself as a serious character actor, can’t understand why it didn’t succeed – he’s just done the same thing as Dustin Hoffman and
Tom Hanks, hasn’t he? (of course, when he does get an audience who love the film he doesn’t care that all they do is laugh, he just wants the attention….)

Simple Jack is presented as an object of comedy to a certain extent, to be sure. But it’s not an intellectually handicapped person being displayed in the fiction – it’s a second-rate actor playing an intellectually handicapped person. We might laugh at this portrayl – but I think the film also asks ‘why are you laughing?’

Race gets a similar treatment. I thought Downey’s portrayal of a black man was quite convincing – only to be horrified at myself when it’s pointed out by the real black guy (Brandon Jackson) that he’s essentially acting a walking pile of stereotypes. There’s also a lot of clever self-commentary and meta stuff going on there: Brandom Jackson’s character himself is a walking stereotype, so they (surely consciously) commit in the outer narrative the sin they have their characters commit in the inner narrative. and Downey is actually playing an Australian playing a black man, and he’s not very convincing as an Australian, which I thought was entirely appropriate. Generally the film they’re making (apart from the clever subtext) is just like the kind of film they’re making in the film – over the top, hammy, and populated by stock characters.

I can see why the in-your-face style humour might not appeal. I was wincing half the time I was laughing, myself. But the film is nothing if not clever.

37

arc 04.03.09 at 8:48 am

actually, they have it for cheap down the road. I might go and buy it right now and watch it to bits. That’ll larn ya!

38

ajay 04.03.09 at 9:39 am

The Ringer made a remarkably brave attempt at it, starting from a patently offensive premise (Johnny Knoxville feigns intellectual disability in order to win the Special Olympics)

I appreciate that it’s not used now, but I always thought that “handicapped” was a better word than “disabled” – for both physical and mental conditions. If something’s disabled, it doesn’t function. If you disable a car, it won’t move. If you disable a burglar alarm, it won’t go off. But if a person’s “disabled”, he can still function. A handicap, on the other hand, is just something that makes a task more difficult for you – a golf handicap makes it more difficult for you to win the match, a physical handicap makes it more difficult for you to (for example) walk, a mental handicap might make it more difficult for you to remember things, etc.

31: yet another difference between the military and the rest of the world; “special” in a military context exists in phrases like “special operations”, “special forces”, “special weapons”, “Special Air Service”… and also in German phrases like “special commando”, “special treatment”.

39

John Emerson 04.03.09 at 1:21 pm

Living the good life with autism: people with Aspergers are a “special” group able to speak for themselves. I haven’t read this book yet except on Amazon, but this more autobiographical book was good.

40

Steve LaBonne 04.03.09 at 1:23 pm

When you’re wondering about how best to use language, in this context as in many others: Gautama Buddha, astute practical psychologist that he was, has left us some very simple and helpful guidance. (Which I have many times failed to follow myself, to my later regret.)

“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

“A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people.”

41

Paul 04.03.09 at 1:35 pm

Obama made a verbal gaffe about the special olympics and he is half black. So what ? Color has nothing to do with his making a dumb comment.

42

John Emerson 04.03.09 at 1:37 pm

37: I’m sure that there are plenty of people with Aspergers and people in social services who don’t think much of Schneider, because that’s how life is. And one man’s experience and opinion can’t be the last word on anything. But he really expresses one Aspie’s view perfectly. It turns out that they find us annoying and hard to understand (to the extent that CT readers are “normal”, anyway.)

43

Tracy W 04.03.09 at 1:51 pm

Steve LaBonne – so in other words, according to Gautama Buddha if you manage to get everything right, only non-knowledgeable people will say you got things wrong.
This falls into the category of true and absolutely useless advice. How do you know the right time, how do you know the truth, how do you know you have a mind of good-will and affection, how do you know the statement is beneficial?
And even assuming all those pleasing five factors apply you still have the problem of the ignorant people quite possibly jumping down your throat.

44

Steve LaBonne 04.03.09 at 1:56 pm

Uh, no, Tracy. What he was saying is basically, before you speak do a gut-check on your real intentions and your real reasons for speaking. Trust me, that will keep you out of a lot of trouble. Try it.

45

fred lapides 04.03.09 at 1:59 pm

Obama fucked up. He quickly apologized. Move on. All this talk talk changes nothing and O. is still our president and “special” people remain shortchanged by the god of creative design.

46

Consumatopia 04.03.09 at 2:53 pm

No, I think the long post moving away from the opening is meant to cover Obama’s essential lack of compassion and empathy, soon to be evidenced by trying to eliminate pensions and healthcare for retired autoworkers, meeting with Pete Peterson and slashing Social Security, etc etc. Things we can resist if we understand the neo-liberal corporate tool the President for Goldman Sachs actually is.

This is where the joke’s self-deprecating nature becomes relevant. It occurred to me how differently this would have played out if Bush had uttered this line, but I suspect that if Bush had said something like this it would have been making fun of somebody else’s bowling performance. One might see something of a pattern here–Obama’s gaffes (off the top of my head: Special Olympics, clinging to guns/religion, Sweetie, “likeable enough”) have all tended to be failed attempts at being friendly or connecting with others. He gets caught up in wanting to be liked, he forgets himself and his manners (or in this case, the worst thus far, his decency).

So long as it’s just occasional remarks that he apologizes for shortly after, it’s unfortunate but not the worst character flaw to be possessed by a White House occupant.

47

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 4:26 pm

Obama fucked up. He quickly apologized. Move on.

Well, as Bob McManus pointed out @ 23, that’s precisely the problem with this post — it tries to cover for Obama’s essential lack of compassion and empathy by, you know, bringing up all kinds of irrelevant stuff about disability. Blah blah.

rm @ 25: I haven’t seen The Other Daughter. Thanks for the tip! But leave John alone @ 26. He’s not a troll. He’s e-auditioning for the part of Lucky in Godot.

Lisa @ 28: I resonate in sympathy, but I have to say stigma isn’t always wrong. See, e.g., Norwegian sex offenders and American robber barons. Indeed, the latter probably need more stigmatization. But your point about models of normalcy and intelligence seems quite right. Jamie is capable of all kinds of impressive cognitive feats — keeping track of the attributes of over 100 kinds of sharks, memorizing the Beatles catalog, most recently memorizing the dates of each state’s entry in the US — and yet is, without question, cognitively disabled. Which brings me to . . .

ajay @ 36: good point about handicapped/disabled. Very few people (other than me!) remark on the fact that “disable” has a residual neutral, nonpejorative sense (no one thinks one is denigrating the smoke detector by disabling it), or that “disabled” implies total loss of function (except when one is on the 15-day disabled list) whereas “handicap” simply implies challenge — which is why “physically challenged” was used for a while in its place.

kmack @ 32: Btw, is there some code that enables easy translation of the “bitter irony” here?

Why, yes there is, as it happens! And it’s mentioned in this very post! See Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. The bitter irony of having a member of a widely stigmatized group become President, against great odds, and then make an offhand joke about another stigmatized group. And you really think this post engages in “overheated rhetoric”? How sensitive your thermometer must be!

OK, break, then a couple more replies.

48

Perezoso 04.03.09 at 4:35 pm

strangely ignorant of the non-knowing

You simply do not know what the un-knowable be!

That said, pedagogues could do worse than pass along Miss O’Connor’s stor-ays: really no more satirical than KafkaSpeak. Like FK, F O’C knew what the unknown was, and lacked not an awareness of handicaps, spiritual and physical . Misfits for the Peoples

49

Perezoso 04.03.09 at 4:40 pm

strangely ignorant of the non-knowing

You simply do not know what the un-knowable be!

That said, pedagogues could do worse than pass along Miss O’Connor’s stor-ays: really no more satirical than KafkaSpeak. Like FK–or say Soren K– F. O’C. knew what the unknown was, and lacked not an awareness of handicaps, spiritual and physical . Misfits for the Peoples

50

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 4:47 pm

Arc @ 34: I’m not going to try too hard to defend the funny bit – de gustibus non disputandum est and all that – but I will make an attempt to get you to re-think the clever part.

No, I got that part — and your explanation of the movie seems quite right to me, which is why I compared it to Galaxy Quest. But Tropic Thunder, like Burn After Reading, is so invested in making its characters look ridiculous and/or disgusting that there’s no place for any readerly sympathy except with the writers themselves, as we join them in their very hilarious ridicule of these very hilariously ridiculous people. After a while, this humble reader/reviewer doesn’t find that kind of thing all that hilarious. Clever, yes, but in a purely self-delighting way. Galaxy Quest manages to give us ridiculous characters without mashing them to a pulp in a script that beats their ridiculousness into us at every opportunity, so that the thrilling meta- ending actually works, whereas I can’t imagine that anyone really gives a hang about whether the principals survive in Tropic Thunder.

That said, the scene in which Ben Stiller is forced to recreate “Simple Jack” for a live audience is pretty interesting. Kind of like a disability minstrel show. And quite clever. High point of the movie, for me.

Speaking of movies: Delicious Pundit @ 29:

I might be wrong, and I didn’t see The Ringer, but I think the Farrelly Brothers have also tried to be kind of straight-up with their disabled characters.

Yes indeed! I said so on my own blog some years ago, and got in response a very nice note from film critic David Edelstein, who said, more or less, “yay! finally somebody agrees with me about this” and directed me to this review, which gets the Farrellys just about right, de gustibus etc.

51

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 4:49 pm

And one last thing. Speaking of Richard Pryor, an Internet friend wrote yesterday to remind me that he was, in fact, our first black President. (Well worth checking out for its anticipation of both Obama’s Islamic socialism and Bush’s standard podium chuckle-and-shrug — see 5:20!)

But as Bob McManus correctly intuited, this post isn’t really about Obama’s status as Teh Most Vicious President Ever. It was mostly about representations of disability (in language, in film, in the general culture), it was about forms of stigma and destigmatization, and it was about whether people think the term “special” is too euphemistic for anyone’s good. Thanks to everyone here who realized that.

52

Perezoso 04.03.09 at 4:58 pm

The SO gafffe may have been tasteless, but was fairly (ticky tack). MB. Now, BO praising Reagan, entrepreneurship, partaying with Kissinger, Paulson, David Brooks, giving HRC the SoS position, etc.: ~(ticky tack). McHeinous not completely mistaken in his assessment of BO as a sort of Reagan like character (BO and MO’s condescension to the Windsor gang somewhat Reaganish as well).

53

Duncan Cross 04.03.09 at 5:00 pm

Michael –

I wonder if you missed the joke. I tend to agree with this understanding of the Obama’s comment, from Gene Weingarten, humor columnist for the Wash. Post:

No one has quite understood the joke Obama was making. He was not making fun of Special Olympians’ performances!

[…]

If you analyze it carefully, Obama is not comparing his 129 game to the performance of a developmentally disabled kid. Obama is reacting to Jay Leno, who is wildly applauding the president’s 129, while making it clear through eye rolling and body language that he is being condescending. It’s that condescension that the president is picking up on, and applying to the Special Olympics: He is laughing about how we make a big, ol’ slaphappy hypocritical fuss over these kids’ sometimes klutzy performances: That we are rewarding less than stellar athleticism with undeserving, uncritical applause.

Granted, the joke may still be insensitive and inappropriate by this understanding, and maybe even still a “stunningly foolish and thoughtless remark” – but it is a far more interesting statement about stereotypes and prejudices when it comes to the intellectually disabled.

When I was a student, one of the problems I had with seeking “reasonable accommodation” for my (sometimes disabling) illness is that people treated me as if I was therefore “special”. My problem wasn’t intellectual impairment, but simply a lack of time and energy necessary to get the work done. If I requested accommodation, my instructors would assume that my request meant I couldn’t otherwise compete with everyone else, and thus my efforts were held to a lower standard than my classmates – with the consequence that I got less from my education than had I not asked for accommodation in the first place. I quickly learned just to grit and grind – and hardly realized how little social life I had.

The problem is that when confronted with a request for accommodation, most people find it a lot easier to simply lower their standards, rather than lift a finger to help a disabled person meet the able-bodied standard to the extent he or she is in fact able to. Arguably, the same dynamic is intrinsic to the Special Olympics; it’s great that intellectually impaired people have a place to compete and have fun, but let’s not pretend that a) this is a substitute for a world in which intellectually impaired people have as good a shot at the Olympic as anyone else, much less b) this helps integrate said persons into able-bodied society.

54

Duncan Cross 04.03.09 at 5:02 pm

Sorry – my HTML didn’t take on that post: everything from “No one…” to “…uncritical applause” is quoted from Weingarten. My contribution resumes with “Granted, the joke….”

55

Uncle Kvetch 04.03.09 at 5:20 pm

Really good thread.

My understanding of the gaffe is as follows: Obama mentions his lousy bowling score, Jay Leno claps his hands and gives a jokingly condescending, preschool-teacher-style “That’s very good, Mr. President!” and then Obama makes the “Special Olympics” remark.

Now, I’m not sure why, but I think the fact that it was Leno who established something like a Special Olympics footing (good grief, more Goffman!), which Obama then duly played along with, slightly mitigates the magnitude of the gaffe. But I’m wondering what ProfB and other folks here think about that.

56

Righteous Bubba 04.03.09 at 5:40 pm

McHeinous not completely mistaken in his assessment of BO as a sort of Reagan like character

I would have preferred – and of course not gotten – some leftist in place of Barack Obama but “Reagan-like” is pretty silly.

Now, I’m not sure why, but I think the fact that it was Leno who established something like a Special Olympics footing (good grief, more Goffman!), which Obama then duly played along with, slightly mitigates the magnitude of the gaffe.

Not quite sure what the point of suggesting mitigation is: Obama said the dumb thing, he apologized. If it was mitigated should he apologize less? I don’t think any more or less of him as a human being over it myself, although I’m sure some do.

57

Brock 04.03.09 at 5:49 pm

But it’s weird—the English language is so rich in insults. I have to think that people who rely on “retard” just aren’t very imaginative.

While I agree that “retard” is overdue for retirement, I have to disagree with the implication that only the imaginative are entitled to be insulting. We need expressions of contempt, and one shouldn’t have to be a fucking Welshman to sling them about.

This comment reminds me of my teachers who would say something like “Swearing is for people with poor vocabulary.” Fuck that shit. My vocabulary is great, but sometimes swearing is exactly what’s called for.

Oh, and you’re totally fucking wrong about Burn After Reading.

58

kmack 04.03.09 at 6:22 pm

@ 49: I guess “bitter irony,” in your world, can come easy.

I wasn’t aware of Goffman’s theorizing that because African Americans, say, are a “widely stigmatized group,” the good ones couldn’t possibly be expected ever to show any insensitivity to other stigmatized groups. No “offhand” jokes, no standard-type biases, no moments of less than universal understanding and compassion. Instances of failure here, no matter how apparently minor, must be “stunningly foolish and thoughtless.”

Seems like an ironic reading of Goffman–though one that comes from a place that seems too familiar to feel “bitter” to me.

As my “thermometer” is tuned, your implicit expectations feel like a tired double standard. Yes, even black folks have their other-stigmatizing failings. Some of us are sexist, or homophobic, or classist, or ableist.

Oh, the unconscionable hypocrisy, ingratitude, or callous illogic: Call in Goffman, or his self-styled interpreters!

At least with Obama as the “first African-American president,” our use in compare, contrast, or condemn “teaching moments” couldn’t be higher profile. It’s still your world in the end.

59

Murray Jay Siskind 04.03.09 at 7:28 pm

Or think of a six-letter word beginning with N and ending with R.

Yes, this word is retired–unless you’re Dr. Dre, or Snoop Dogg, or Eminem, or Kanye West . . .

Don’t get me wrong, this is not to incite one of those absurd Well-Girls-Can-Call-Each-Other-Bitches-So-Why-Can’t-I-? arguments. I have no particular interest in calling anyone, “special,” “retarted,” a “bitch,” or the N-Word. However, I do think it’s important to note that Michael’s example really doesn’t exemplify a word that has been retired. Rather, it’s merely a term that has fallen out of mainstream discourse–and quite rightly so. Thus, I do think there’s a certain amount of creedance to the comments suggesting that words either can’t–or shouldn’t be–retired. Also, “special” seems to be quite different than the N-word. On it’s own, and extracted from the context of needs, accomodations, difference, the word “special” is entirely innocuous. The N-word, however, can never be uttered without bespeaking a context of prejudice.

That said, if we want to go really low-brow and into the realm of the really aggressively unfunny, we can think back to Dude, Where’s My Car?: Special treats are always, always good. So in that respect, I don’t want to see “special” go golfing with Curt Schilling just yet.

60

Rich B. 04.03.09 at 7:55 pm

I think discussion of the “euphemism treadmill” are underestimating the effect. It does not just get you nowhere — it actually moves you backward.

While you once had “retarded” as a scientific term with a negative connotation, now you have “special” as a new term, which is developing the same negative connotation (the treadmill part), PLUS the old word, which is still out there, and now seems worse now that there is a better alternative.

While we all agree on the inherent viciousness of “The N Word,” one wonders whether it is not actually worse now than it was decades ago, that we have to reach back before “colored folk” and “Negro” to get to it.

61

salient 04.03.09 at 9:08 pm

it was about whether people think the term “special” is too euphemistic for anyone’s good.

I think any euphemism is (in this context) too euphemistic for anyone’s good. The use of euphemism implies we feel we ought to, or have to, use a euphemism: that it’s somehow fundamentally inappropriate to acknowledge the truth with direct, accurate language. (In this case, I see formal clinical language as having substantial overlap with direct, accurate language.)

I agree with ajay’s earlier post; “disability” is not sufficiently accurate in the relevant context, and “handicap” is much more accurate & therefore appropriate. I don’t like “challenged” because it’s less accurate: a physically handicapped person, for example, is not always more challenged when attempting any physical task. The word “handicap” localizes the context appropriately: when one hears the word “handicap” it’s natural to anticipate the person experiences a contextually localized range of challenges, probably with a specific common cause.

So, “handicap” in my eyes is the available word that allows us to intuitively anticipate the greatest degree of independence, individuality, and ability in a person with a handicap. It also has a normalizing effect on handicaps ( I may be using “normalizing” interchangeably with “destigmatizing” ?) — I think in particular, it’s easiest for a person to intuitively understand and identify with a person with a handicap, because we can relate the experience to our own experiences with localized challenges. And it’s that kind of identification that would undo the othering process that underlies stigma.

62

salient 04.03.09 at 9:10 pm

While you once had “retarded” as a scientific term with a negative connotation

The word “retarded” is indeed a euphemism to the core: to retard is to hold back [something], to delay [something], and retarded is to be held back, to be delayed. And, importantly, that’s exactly where the quasi-scientific phrase* for a cognitive handicap originates from. It’s not very clinically accurate, and it’s a euphemism that draws a crude analogy to physical motion. Not good.

*I call “retarded” quasi-scientific precisely because it does not accurately model a cognitive handicap, and because it makes use of a poor analogy to physical phenomena. I don’t really care who historically used the term.

now you have “special” as a new term

Which is also not good; it’s a more general euphemism than before. Again: The less precise we are, the more we are suggesting it is inappropriate to be precise, that we shouldn’t directly acknowledge a specific condition. This, in turn, implies a characteristic of inherent impropriety that I believe does not exist and should not be implied to exist.

63

Bloix 04.03.09 at 9:19 pm

My understanding of “Special” in Special Olympics is that it’s not there for everyone, so it really doesn’t matter whether it’s too euphemistic for general use. It’s there for the participants and their families. I see no problem in having a positive, non-descriptive name for these events, which are intended to be, and are, a source of pride for the participants and joy for their families.

64

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 9:33 pm

Duncan @ 51, Uncle Kvetch @ 53: No, I don’t think it makes much difference, because the underlying assumption is that the Special Olympics involves that kind of condescending, patronizing applause. That’s precisely the stereotype that The Ringer sought to undermine by having its cognitively disabled characters talk back to it (in various ways).

Brock @ 55:

I have to think that people who rely on “retard” just aren’t very imaginative.

While I agree that “retard” is overdue for retirement, I have to disagree with the implication that only the imaginative are entitled to be insulting.

I don’t see how you get that implication. All I mean is that people who rely on epithets from third grade might want to try to do better. It’s a big language with many many words. And I don’t know anything about those fucking Welshmen, but I read somewhere recently that Ireland is an island of saints and scholars. How recently? Oh, about the amount of time it takes a head of Guinness to settle.

kmack @ 56: As my “thermometer” is tuned, your implicit expectations feel like a tired double standard. Yes, even black folks have their other-stigmatizing failings. Some of us are sexist, or homophobic, or classist, or ableist.

Um, actually I understand that black folks are fully human, with all that implies. You know what would be a double standard? Refusing to criticize Obama for making the “Special Olympics” remark when I know perfectly well I would criticize any white or Asian or Antarctican person for the same. If President Hillary Clinton were to make an off-the-cuff little Polish joke on late-night TV, that would be a pretty bitter irony too, and it would be OK, in my world, to criticize her for it.

But, like I said, this really isn’t about Obama. You might want to take up the whole Obama thing with Messrs. McManus and Peresozo, since they seem to have strong feelings about Teh Evilest President Ever.

And Mr. Siskind @ 57, if that is your real name, as far as I’m concerned, when a word is no longer uttered in mainstream public discourse, it is retired. You can’t actually stop everybody from saying it, like those liberal fascists want us to do. But you can develop a general consensus that anyone who says it in a public forum should be shunned in a Michael Richards Crazed N-Word Rant kind of way.

65

Kathleen 04.03.09 at 9:39 pm

Rich — there are important reasons why the N word is “worse” now than a few decades ago, and why it’s okay for some speakers and totally not okay for others, and they have nothing to do with a “euphemism treadmill” and everything to do with use and social life and liberatory activism. The word now stigmatizes certain users more than it stigmatizes its putative designees, which is le awesome.

salient — since when has the main job of language been precision? Would you apply the same standard to the word table? That it’s never describing exactly what sort of table one might mean and therefore is RIGHT OUT? Obviously not. Would it really be useful to ask everyone to describe themselves very very precisely “I am of cheerful disposition, with a faint pain in my knee and occasional eye twitch”? I think the most important debate about which term to use is not about a handle for outsiders to grab onto more or less precisely but about a banner for insiders to rally under: “disabled” has a sharp, sophisticated literature and politics attached which makes it very good for the “banner” purposes. That literature also extremely wise about how everyone fits under the “disabled” banner part of the time for some purposes and no one fits under it all of the time for all purposes.

66

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 9:49 pm

Well, there’s a good way to fix the imprecision of language when it comes to disability. All we need to do is to carry around millions of examples of intraspecies difference on our backs, and haul them out and point to them when the need arises.

67

Charlie 04.03.09 at 10:02 pm

Remind me to put huge blinking signs saying “sarcasm sarcasm sarcasm” or “irony irony irony” in front of posts from now on.

It seemed sort of redundant, but hey, my bad.

68

Duncan Cross 04.03.09 at 10:09 pm

My comments weren’t about the applause, but about the notion that there needs to be a “Special Olympics” in the first place. It seems to me the stereotype of condescending applause, however unfortunate, is a natural consequence of the event itself – the idea that the developmentally disabled need an Olympics of their own. Admittedly, I don’t know enough about the organization itself – I’ll rent The Ringer if you think it will help – but I also don’t see you arguing against the notion that the Special Olympics are essentially lowered standards, rather than accommodation for disabled people in able-bodied competition. I’d welcome any effort to educate me past that stereotype, but you are still working against the implications in the very name of the organization.

69

kmack 04.03.09 at 10:12 pm

M.B. @ 62: We have arrived at the straw man, who is arguing either for not criticizing Obama at all in this case or for finding that Obama is at least as bad as Reagan. Of course, straw men do have their purposes. I concede.

70

Michael Bérubé 04.03.09 at 11:00 pm

Remind me to put huge blinking signs saying “sarcasm sarcasm sarcasm” or “irony irony irony” in front of posts from now on.

It seemed sort of redundant, but hey, my bad.

No, clearly my bad. Your only misstep, Charlie, was showing up after John C. Halasz had made the point non-ironically. He even left the “clueless” tag open, too.

And I’m just not seeing what’s necessarily condescending about applauding accomplished athletes who have developmental disabilities. Yes, they need an Olympics of their own, just as Paralympians do, because otherwise people like Jamie who genuinely enjoy participating in organized sports wouldn’t have much of an opportunity to do so. And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s OK to applaud people who are making their best effort — appreciatively, and not patronizingly.

71

Steve LaBonne 04.03.09 at 11:09 pm

It seems to me the stereotype of condescending applause, however unfortunate, is a natural consequence of the event itself – the idea that the developmentally disabled need an Olympics of their own.

No doubt an intelligent cheetah would feel the same way about human 100 meter dashes.

72

Duncan Cross 04.04.09 at 12:34 am

My point is not that you shouldn’t clap appreciatively and authentically; of course you should. We all should. Still, lots of people who also genuinely enjoy participating in sports (like me) but have no chance of ever competing in The Olympics (also like me) find ways to enjoy sports without adopting Olympian pretenses. It’s the implicit assertion that mentally disabled athletes can’t be “accomplished” by ordinary standards, hence their separate, special Olympics – that’s what makes it at least seem condescending. If that’s not true of mental impairment, why call the organization the “Special Olympics”? I know the organization doesn’t intend the condescension, but it’s just not the case that the rest of us are bigots for inferring a little condescension in their choice of title.

As contrast, the Paralympics exist for people who are very specifically physically disabled. The rationale for creating a separate Olympics-style competition is directly tied to the athlete’s physical limitations. The athlete classifications within the Paralympics are based on specific physical categories. For example, I count as disabled under US law, not enough to compete in the Paralympics. And still, we might invite Oskar Pistorius for his views on whether the Paralympics counts as “reasonable accommodation” for his competitive drives.

I’m not saying the Special Olympics is a bad organization. But I don’t understand why that’s preferable to finding – even working towards – a way to let the same people participate in the many community sports and athletic leagues available to able-bodied people, and why that wouldn’t be do more to combat pernicious stereotypes about mentally-impaired people.

73

Matt McIrvin 04.04.09 at 12:54 am

I think discussion of the “euphemism treadmill” are underestimating the effect. It does not just get you nowhere—it actually moves you backward.

I think the euphemism treadmill is real, but I don’t see why it should bother anybody very much. Is it really such a bad thing that more and more old terms for a stigmatized population become offensive over a 25-, 50- or 100-year timeframe? It isn’t as if we’re going to run out of words. Human creativity at language is great. People can make up new terms, and language changes on that sort of time scale anyway for all sorts of reasons.

It seems to me that maintaining some imagined constancy in language is a poor reason to keep legitimizing terms that have long since turned into insults to the people they refer to. So “cognitively disabled” is going to become an insult like “moronic” and “retarded” in 30 years. Why should I care if I’m using it now?

74

salient 04.04.09 at 1:49 am

Well, there’s a good way to fix the imprecision of language when it comes to disability.

My apologies. I was not arguing against imprecision. I was trying to discuss a general problem with euphemistic language used to identify potentially stigmatized groups. Perhaps it is not a problem at all.

I was intending to say, I think precise language can have a de-stigmatizing effect; all I meant by precise here was avoiding coy euphemism. I never intended to make any grander or broader statement about what language ought to be used for. (And I never intended to suggest we should avoid words that broadly classify or categorize people, or that we should invent millions of phrases to separately describe each disability according to arbitrarily fine distinctions; that would be absurd.)

That literature also extremely wise about how everyone fits under the “disabled” banner part of the time for some purposes and no one fits under it all of the time for all purposes.

OK. And all else being equal, I would consider it a waste any of my time to argue at length about whether the word disabled is more appropriate than the word handicapped — I’ll let those who do the research and work lead the way. And as you said, the word disabled has a sensitive history.

In this context, I was arguing very specifically against the notion of “retarded” as some kind of “scientific” word that got tarnished by adolescents — my point was that the use of this euphemism to describe a disability was problematic long before Beavis and Butthead got ahold of it. I tried to generalize this, and explain why I feel using euphemistic metaphors as identifying words is inherently problematic. Since I was going on about why I felt that way anyway, I figured I’d mention the localizing implications of “handicap” that I think are important or relevant. That’s why I brought up my thoughts on handicap vs. disability.

75

jfxgillis 04.04.09 at 2:09 am

Michael:

First, regardless of whether it “makes much difference,” there is one criticial difference between Duncan’s description and quote about Obama’s comment and your description: Duncan’s was accurate and yours was not. Second, I think it does make much difference because in the false, popular, dominant media, right-wing noise-machine iteration–which you disseminated–the target of the jibe was the athletes in the Special Olympics, whereas is the final analysis, the target was the caregiving, cheering, non-disabled spectators at the Special Olympics.

To make it personal: Obama’s comment was directed not at Jamie but at you.

And that in turn leads to a couple of related points. On a minor level, I guess that means you deny that any of the cheering and clapping at a Special Olympics is condescending and patronizing. I think some it probably is, and certainly some of it is at least desultory. More significantly, though, I think what it reveals is the attitude of a typical non-involved indirect witness to the Special Olympics, someone whose experience of it is highly ediated by local news coverage (in this case, the President of the United States but still just a regular person whose understanding of the Special Olympics is absent personal involvement) toward the clapping and cheering.

It sure LOOKS condescending and patronizing to someone not intimately involved, or to someone who is used to cheering at much more mainstream and objectively measurable achievments, running fast for real, hitting a home run for real, scoring a hat trick for real.

The comment was indeed thoughtless and even ignorant, but you’re closer to the actual offense when you discuss the genuinely appreciative applause of the spectators rather than when you try to stand up for disabled participants who were not the subject of the comment.

76

Michael Drake 04.04.09 at 2:23 am

“I have to think that people who rely on “retard” just aren’t very imaginative.”

Just what are you implying, Bérubé? [/mild sarcasm]

Anyway, I’m wary of this policy, since it will rob us of epithets like ‘crazy,’ ‘whackjob,’ ‘nutcase’ and ‘insane’ as applied to select ideological foes. (The mentally ill are every bit as maligned a minority as the physically and mentally handicapped.)

For my part, as someone with very close family members who suffer from terrible mental illness , I think such epithets are really only offensive when they are used against the authentically ill. Like, say, Michele Bachmann.

77

Michael Bérubé 04.04.09 at 3:53 pm

I’m wary of this policy, since it will rob us of epithets like ‘crazy,’ ‘whackjob,’ ‘nutcase’ and ‘insane’ as applied to select ideological foes. (The mentally ill are every bit as maligned a minority as the physically and mentally handicapped.)

Yeah, and there are people who object to that language for precisely that reason. For myself, I always stipulate that Charles Krauthammer is the only person qualified to diagnose another person’s mental state from great distances without having met them, but that nevertheless it is possible to speculate that entire factions of the GOP are now clinically “batshit,” to use the technical term. But, of course, real mental illness (to which I am no stranger, either) is very serious business. And yet another reason why I’m not opposed to curing or mitigating things that can plausibly be cured or mitigated.

jfxgillis @ 75: I’ve now watched that clip a bunch of times, and it’s ambiguous, but I think you have a point; Obama’s joke may well be directed, as you put it, at me. I don’t see how that makes it any better, or any less usable by Obama’s (clinically) batshit opponents on the right. But when you start talking about the quality of the applause at Special Olympics and the quality of the athletic performances, I think you should check out the World Games first. Does anybody here at CT remember the 2003 Games in Dublin? IIRC, the applause was general all over Ireland. The next Special Olympiad is set for 2011 in Athens. That’ll be our next chance to see if these folks are running fast etc. for real.

78

jfxgillis 04.04.09 at 5:12 pm

Michael:

Point the First:

I don’t see how that makes it any better, or any less usable by Obama’s (clinically) batshit opponents on the right.

Well, it probably doesn’t since they tend to have no commitment to truth or to fair criticism. If they did, however, it would reduce and/or eliminate their ability to cast themselves as the “defenders” of weak and vulnerable and sentimentally appealing Special Olympians. The ethos of it is (or was) pretty powerful. If they were forced to defend the caregiving audience, though, your rejoinder might be something like, “Well, thank you kind persons. I support full funding for I.D.E.A. You with me on that, too?”

Point the Second:

But when you start talking about the quality of the applause at Special Olympics and the quality of the athletic performances, I think you should check out the World Games first.

I’ve reconsidered that assertion, so let me modify it somewhat. I know there were times when my own applause was condescending and desultory. Probably the difference between sibling and parent. Projecting my own sometime condescension, I assume some of it is always such in any such audience. I concede that that may be an invalid and untrue assumption.

However, I think my other point stands. To people whose experience of it is mediated–that is, the audience looking at the audience–it appears condescending and patronizing. They just don’t have the knowledge to be able to attribute the applause to anything else. It’s really embedded in the false analogy between the “real” Olympics of “Stronger, Higher, Faster” and the Special Olympics of Not-as-strong, Not-as-high, Not-as-fast. Which, unfortunately, seems to me to be intrinsic to Eunice Shriver’s original project.

79

Michael Drake 04.04.09 at 5:33 pm

“Charles Krauthammer is the only person qualified to diagnose another person’s mental state from great distances without having met them…”

You forget Bill Frist’s prowess in this dept.

80

Gandalf 04.04.09 at 6:28 pm

To people whose experience of it is mediated—that is, the audience looking at the audience—it appears condescending and patronizing.

I just want to point out that this popular idea of what the parents/organizers are like at a S. Olympics event isn’t entirely unfair. For better and for worse, one of the explicit goals of the S. Olympics organization is to build self esteem in the competitors (compare this to the Olympics or the Paralympics, where the sense of achievement is somewhat contingent on one’s performance). It’s understandable that the average American might think that praise is lavished rather liberally at a S. Olympics event, and without particular regard to performance.

81

chris 04.04.09 at 9:43 pm

I doubt that mental disabilities will ever be destigmatized, because I only really see the downsides of mine, to me it’s like stigmatising bacterial infections or nasty burns, they’re stigmatised because they’re not good and that will be so regardless of society.

I appreciate this perspective. No one wants to be denigrated by others, but I think people go too far when they suggest that everything is a matter of plural ‘abilities.’

My mother was deaf for most of her life. Had she lived to discover that others want to describe her not as handicapped but as differently abled, she would be infuriated. Being deaf was a burden to her, not just an alternative way of experiencing the world. Perhaps this was because she became deaf at about age 7; so, she was acutely aware of having lost something. Perhaps those who are deaf from birth would not have this awareness. Nonetheless, it cannot be wrong to acknowledge that humans are better off when all their senses work, can it?

In the same way – perhaps less precisely – mental disabilities are not as desirable as mental ‘normalcy.’ The standard of normalcy may be vague, but there is meaning to the idea of the normal.

82

lisa 04.05.09 at 11:36 am

You’ve got me thinking about stigma and I may be wrong about this but I think ‘stigma’ more naturally applies to the case of an unjust social burden caused by others’ unjustified disrespect.

It doesn’t make sense to me to say that rapists are stigmatized or child molesters are stigmatized. I don’t think that is a stigma. We find people like that repellent but I don’t think stigma accurately describes that reaction. When you say that is a stigma, it implies (to me) that the reaction is unwarranted.

Chris @ 81: I don’t think that when you remove a stigma you fail to recognize the difficulty someone may face with a disability or an illness. The deeper problem with stigma, I think, is that it involves a kind of disrespect for the person–the idea that they are lesser, inferior and so on. It’s a sweeping judgment that they are worth less somehow. Mental illnesses are stigmatized and to say that is a problem is not to say that being mentally ill is somehow special and beautiful, if only people would realize that. To remove the stigma of mental illness is simply to try to do away with some of the assumptions that surround it–that mentally ill people are necessarily incapable of reasoning, that they are scary, freakish, a threat to others, revolting, etc. I think people do valorize certain differences sometimes as a way of combating stigma and you are probably right that in some cases they try to erase the difficulties those differences can bring. But it’s important to separate out the difficulties that come from being stigmatized and the ones that come from the loss of some kinds of goods that disability or illness or other stigmatized traits bring.

83

John Emerson 04.05.09 at 5:38 pm

I’m generally sympathetic to the PC approach to insults based on disability, but I’ve paid a terrible price, and when the motherfucker community gets organized I’ll be naked before my enemies with no usable vocabulary at all in key situations.

84

MarkUp 04.05.09 at 7:07 pm

John, I take it you’ll be staying home then on Loyalty Day?

85

George W 04.05.09 at 7:18 pm

Would also like to put in a plug for the Farrellys in this context. Making Matt Dillon look like an idiot for using the R-word in “Mary” was one of the nicest things I’ve seen a comedy do. Entirely unexpected, too.

86

Hattie 04.05.09 at 9:58 pm

Ah, the desire to be normal. Berube has really scored here. He needs to write a book on this topic. I imagine he will.
And there is another thing: Obama and his bunch are snobs. There, I’ve said it.

87

arc 04.06.09 at 6:52 am

Ah, Michael (@50), you’ve shifted the ground on me. First you say it’s not clever, now you agree it’s clever but say the characters are ridiculous and unsympathetic :-]

I agree that the characters are pretty ridiculous, and I share your outlook that a story where none of the characters are sympathetic usually is a poor story. But one can have sympathy for ridiculous characters: there are many great comedies filled with ridiculous characters that are nevertheless highly sympathetic. Obelix, for example, is pretty ridiculous, and verging on the stereotypical, but quite loveable.

To be sure, most of the characters in Tropic Thunder are essentially one-joke characters. However, (and we’re getting into de gustibus territory here) I actually found myself with a lot of sympathy for both Speedman (Stiller) and Lazarus (Downey) , with their ridiculous goals : Lazarus being intent on being the ultimate method actor, to the point of undergoing an identity crisis, and Speedman just desperately wanting Lazurus’s actorly recognition and an audience that loves him. These goals are expressed in a ridiculous fashion, but they’re exaggerated forms of genuine goals people actually have, and I thought that the story coped with them, and Speedman’s eventual maturation, pretty well given the kind of film it is. I also thought the story of the agent who finally wakes up to the fact that friends are more important than money, and the only person in his life that passes for a friend is his client Speedman, and the only way he can communicate that is by getting Speedman his damned tivo was kind of touching, in a way.

I’m with you about Burn after Reading though. I found the main characters to be venal, shallow, selfish and cold-hearted, which I suppose was the point but as a result I had very little interest in what happened to them. The only characters I found remotely sympathetic was the gym manager guy, and Brad Pitt’s character, the only two people in the film who had any interest in helping anyone but themselves. Pitt was also endearingly vacuous and stupid, and seemed to be just excited to be in a spy novel. I guess I also had sympathy for the FBI agents – they’re bit parts who’s only real role is to be rational observers completely baffled at the bizarre proceedings (I feel like that myself sometimes).

Bit disappointing fare from the Cohen Brothers, though. Normally their entire cast is pretty endearing. I even liked the nihilists.

88

arc 04.06.09 at 7:16 am

chris @ 81:
Unfortunately for anyone wanting clarity and simplicity here, many of the Deaf do in fact regard themselves as ‘differently abled’ and not disabled, and do not want to be thought of as such. They don’t necessarily have any desire to be ‘cured’, and some regard technologies such as cochlear implants as a threat to their identity and their community. Deaf issues are fairly prominent where I live, in New Zealand. New Zealand Sign Language has recently been recognised as an official language, and the public sector is tending to adopt politically correct language to avoid referring to the Deaf as disabled, and granting them a capital letter to signify their status as a cultural group.

You might say this is political correctness gone mad, but why should the Deaf, who are at least as readily identifiable as any other subgroup in society and much more cohesive as a community than most, be accorded any less respect than, say, Black Americans, in these matters?

I appreciate that not every deaf person would agree with this, and I don’t really know what to think myself, I’m just pointing out that it’s a pretty difficult issue, involving problems over who gets to speak for whom.

On a personal note, I think I can plausibly regard myself as a fringe member of the Deaf community here, although I’m not myself deaf. I’d have to say that my involvement in the community, meeting deaf friends, and learning NZSL has been a completely enriching experience, one that I would have been much poorer without. It’s also broadened my horizons as to what is possible for humanity.

It’s these facts: that the Deaf don’t (all) want to be ‘cured’ and absorbed into the mainstream, and that they have a lot to offer wider society, that make me very wary about wanting to eliminate these points of difference.

89

john c. halasz 04.06.09 at 7:48 am

Not only is Berube a standard liberal academic/Platonic intellectual, who desires to convert the whole world, and human existences within it, to cognition, such that it is only recognizable and validated through being incorporated into “the” hierarchy of knowledge and knowers, so that even in inverting that hierarchy, he maintains it, but he prolongs the Greek gymnastic ideal into the “Special Olympics”, since the cult/spectacle of physical mastery is the last vestige of ” respect” for the anonymous, laboring masses, by which they can be recognized and incorporated into an orderly “community”.

Yes, there is some peculiar status anxiety operative here, as if what one did not know how to assimilate, cognitively and physically, into the sacrosanct human ego must be eliminated from the world-picture. Certainly, “stigma” qualifies as such an item, since shame and rage can’t be a part of the human condition, under certain extensions of such a concept. Fate can neither be acknowledged, nor answered to, since that would be a besetting sin of modernity. It would be tantamount to a defiance of logic itself! Better to alleviate human beings of their own existences than to confront the conflicted differences the world imposes.

As for Obama, my gosh, a crack appears in that perfect facade! He reveals, on the Jay Leno show no less, his utter “guyness”. Who woulda thunk it? I guess all those poker games taught him nothing about his worldly ambitions.

Hattie:

Ah, yes, that self-stultifying desire for normality. But then, the self-idealizing identification with normality is one of the prime mechanisms feeding into fascism, no?

For the rest, y’all can go back to discussing amongst yourselves about how freedom = autonomy, (which renders it a fungible quantity).

90

ajay 04.06.09 at 9:20 am

It’s these facts: that the Deaf don’t (all) want to be ‘cured’ and absorbed into the mainstream, and that they have a lot to offer wider society, that make me very wary about wanting to eliminate these points of difference.

… which always reminds me of the Arthur C Clarke short story, in the form of a message explaining contritely that we are the descendants of alien colonists who contracted a horrifically disfiguring disease, causing the rest of civilisation to sever contact with our world in disgust; but they were now returning, having developed a treatment. “Don’t worry,” it finished. “If any of you are still white, we can cure you.”

91

Tracy W 04.06.09 at 10:17 am

Arc – on the other hand, consider a hypothetical case where a mad scientist operates on his children to remove their hearing (assume if you like that he does so without causing any pain to the child). Would you consider that scientist to have committed a crime?
And how about the case where the scientist moves his children from say NZ to Japan, meaning his children grow up in a very different culture to the NZ one?
I appreciate the view of the Deaf culture, I find it very mind-opening. But I keep coming back to this hypothetical problem, is making a kid deaf really as unproblematic morally as changing the culture the kid is brought up in?

92

arc 04.06.09 at 11:28 am

Tracy:

I think it’s incredibly dangerous to let your views on morality be dictated by bizarre concocted gedankenexperimenten which read like bad Star Trek plots. It would be much more morally instructive and healthy to go find some deaf parents who, say, have refused to have their children fitted with cochlear implants and talk to them – see why they made the decision, what factors were important to them. And talk to the children, too, see what they thought about it. Then you are being guided by the real experiences of people who have really faced the issue, not by some feeling you have as you pontificate on your B-grade science fiction story in your armchair on a dull sunday evening. Thought experiments are intuition pumps, and in this case I think what might be happening is that it’s amplifying your intuition that deafness is bad – which is exactly what the ‘we’re not disabled’ Deaf are trying to get you to question.

Having said that, there is a specific reason why your example fails to show us anything about deaf children, and that is simply that generally speaking we find there’s an asymmetry between allowing a situation to occur and causing the same situation to occur. In the case of tampering with childrens’ development, we don’t normally have a problem with children being left as they are (unless we think that it’s a terrible situation that should be corrected, which of course many think about deafness. but it would be begging the question to include this in our reasonings at this stage), but we would be nothing short of horrified to learn that someone had bought about what would otherwise be considered a ‘normal’ condition. And that might be another intuition your thought experiment pumps – our dislike of overly directed and overly artificial interventions in natural development.

I’ll try to be succinct – my first attempt at this got awfully long. But consider:
(a) being born male versus being born female and your mother operates on you to surgically reassign your gender. (we could translate your example to this one and by parity of reasoning conclude that it’s awful to be male because of our horrified reaction to such gender reassignment)
(b) being born with very dark skin versus your father altering your skin to be very dark (because you weren’t dark enough for his liking, maybe).
(c ) growing up in Japan because your parents moved there when you were small, versus growing up in a ‘Truman Show’-like environment constructed by your parents to resemble Japan, with Japanese TV and hired asian actors speaking Japanese to you.

These are gedankenexperimenten themselves, of course, but all but the last are not too far removed from actual things people really do (or have done) to their kids. Even the last one is perhaps not too different from people who deliberately isolate their children almost entirely from the wider society. So in these at least our intuitions are based to some extent on actual cases. Especially if you’ve read about things themselves or talked to someone who has been involved in such things, but even just our horror of this kind of interference is based on our experience, as a society, of these kind of examples, and child-rearing generally, even if you don’t have any kind of direct knowledge of them yourself.

93

Tracy W 04.06.09 at 6:11 pm

I think it’s incredibly dangerous to let your views on morality be dictated by bizarre concocted gedankenexperimenten which read like bad Star Trek plots.

Luckily, to the best of my knowledge, everyone on the planet is entirely safe from having their views on morality being dictated by thought experiments (be they like bad Star Trek plots or not), as thought experiments are immaterial and thus are incapable of holding a gun to anyone’s head and dictating anything. Every thought experiment I have ever met is so pacifist as to make Gandhi look like a drill sergeant.
And, given that I am not at all worried about thought experiments dictating my morality, I find them useful in thinking about morality and in arguing about it. That’s why I introduced my thought experiment, to describe my discomfort with the Deaf analysis you discussed.

It would be much more morally instructive and healthy to go find some deaf parents who, say, have refused to have their children fitted with cochlear implants and talk to them – see why they made the decision, what factors were important to them. And talk to the children, too, see what they thought about it. Then you are being guided by the real experiences of people who have really faced the issue ….

Firstly, I have read a number of accounts. Secondly, I do have my own disability and I would be quite happy to get rid of it in a second – my experience counts for something too, at least in my estimation, even if you’re not interested in it. Thirdly, it does strike me that there’s a bias in Deaf thought, in that the Deaf culture is very strong so for many Deaf people not being deaf means cutting off a large chunk of their identity. Women will commit FGM on their daughters because of cultural reasons, are we to accept that as another cultural practice?

I deconverted from Christanity despite the advice of many Christians, and with no regrets, I do not see any reason to believe that the advice of people inside a culture is always right.

Thought experiments are intuition pumps, and in this case I think what might be happening is that it’s amplifying your intuition that deafness is bad – which is exactly what the ‘we’re not disabled’ Deaf are trying to get you to question.

Thought experiments are not necessarily intuition pumps – especially if they are posed by other people. To be very obvious about things, I am intentionally questioning the Deaf culture idea that a lack of hearing is not bad. Thank you for taking the time to debate this with me, I have always found written descriptions of the Deaf line of thought a bit frustrating as they don’t address my discomfort.

Having said that, there is a specific reason why your example fails to show us anything about deaf children, and that is simply that generally speaking we find there’s an asymmetry between allowing a situation to occur and causing the same situation to occur.

This is why I specified a scientist choosing to move his children from NZ to Japan to get around that asymmetry. We are not horrified to hear of parents choosing to move their children to another culture, or at least not enough to call for it to be a crime, despite it clearly being a case of causing the situation to occur, we are horrified when we hear of FGM.

(a) being born male versus being born female and your mother operates on you to surgically reassign your gender. (we could translate your example to this one and by parity of reasoning conclude that it’s awful to be male because of our horrified reaction to such gender reassignment)

How odd. Why do you think it would be awful to be male under such circumstances? I don’t like having a disability, but I hardly think it’s awful. And my brother with the brain injury says he wishes it never happened, but he seems about as happy as he was before the accident. Everyone’s life has a few bad things happen in it, and if we live long enough we’re going to wind up losing the bodies of our youth anyway, it seems foolish to me to decide that that makes your whole life awful, that attitude will surely just open you up to more pain down the line. I don’t know of any philosophy or religion that advises an attitude such as your one here.

Leaving aside the oddness of your argument that it would be awful to be male under such circumstances, gender reassignment surgery as I understand it always involves pain and some loss of functioning relative to someone born with the original gender.

Your scenario (b) – we don’t prosecute parents who let their children become very tanned. Sunburnt perhaps, tanned no.

Scenario (c) – in the Truman show the show producers controlled the life of Truman, eg inducing a trauma of water by killing his father, picking a spouse, etc. Leaving aside that excess control, the movie did strike me as raising interesting questions about how our parents do pick our lives for us by where they bring us up. Sadly I don’t have any interesting answers to said questions.

Thank you again for taking the time to discuss this. As I said, when I first came across the Deaf analysis you describe I found it very mind-opening and it is interesting to be able to pursue this.

Comments on this entry are closed.