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.