On July 15, GQ magazine published a list of Worst Dressed American Cities, written by John B. Thompson, complete with commentary on why each city deserved the dubious honor. Boston ranked first and the author described it this way: “Due to so much local in-breeding, Boston suffers from a kind of Style Down Syndrome, where a little extra ends up ruining everything.” Dr. Brian Skotko, a Children’s Hospital physician who is an expert in Down syndrome studies, wrote a compelling piece denouncing the comment, which was picked up by a number of media outlets, not just in the Boston area. GQ scrubbed that portion of the article, though as of this writing, no explanation, retraction or apology has been added.
A number of items related to the GQ controversy showed up in my Google reader this week, and I actually included it in Sun-Beams, though I did not intend to create a separate post about it. One of the items in my reader was a commentary in the Boston Globe, and while it was well-written, the comments below the article were what stood out to me the most. Some commenters were supportive of the author’s position, while others balked at how hyper-sensitive our society has become. One person expressed the opinion that “Words will only offend you if you let them.” I agree.
But that’s not the point.
Did GQ offend me? Honestly? Only mildly, because I don’t consider the individual who wrote it to be worth my time. Having a child with special needs gives you Magical A-Hole Radar, and I was upgraded to the Premium Model when Nathan came along. The real issue isn’t offense – it’s that Mr. Thompson’s comment reinforced a dangerous stereotype that exists in our society: that people with Down syndrome are worth less than everyone else.
Knowing that the termination rate for children diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome is approximately 90%, why is there a test currently being developed to detect Down syndrome earlier during pregnancy? Even a GQ magazine writer is smart enough to know that it’s not to celebrate the arrival of these unique infants into the world, but to stop it. Would the rush to market this test be just as strong if the researchers believed that people with Down syndrome had value that equaled or surpassed their own?
In 2009, President Barack Obama, in an effort to joke about his lack of bowling skill, famously said it was “like the Special Olympics or something.” I doubt that he intended to offend individuals with intellectual disabilities when he made that comment. However, something inside him – a man who is powerful, intelligent and media-savvy – told him that it was okay to use an organization devoted to bettering the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities as a punch line. He apologized, but damage was still done.
At one time, slavery was legal in this country. Men, women, and children were bought and sold at will, with regard only for their worth as labor, not as individuals. A war was fought and blood was shed to free them from the bonds of slavery, but equality and inclusion in society would come much later. A century later, African-Americans had gained freedom, but they still fell far short of being valued. Some still believed it was acceptable to ridicule African-Americans in the name of humor; they probably thought that they were “better” than those they ridiculed. Their friends laughed. As a people, African-Americans and those who supported equality rose up and said We Aren’t Going to Take It Anymore! and today many African-Americans hold positions of power and influence in government and business in our country, including President of the United States.
People like me who protest remarks like Mr. Thompson’s are often dismissed as hypersensitive – just a bunch of crazies who see an insult at every turn. What we understand that they don’t, is that all language – whether an intentional insult or a bit of pop culture humor – has an impact on our society. If the message that one segment of our population is an acceptable target for insult (or extinction) is repeated often enough, then society will accept it as truth, until the day comes when the targeted group stands up and says No More. But as the technology to detect Down syndrome in utero becomes more advanced, the number of individuals with Down syndrome, and the friends and family members of this unique and precious segment of society, will continue to dwindle.
And when that day comes, who will stand up and declare No More?