Last Wednesday, I experienced first hand what “going viral” really means. Cowards: “The Change-Up” and Disability Slurs was picked up by r-word.org and subsequently exploded. My email was pinging like mad with notifications of comments, new Twitter followers, and new Facebook likes. Welcome, new followers!
Most of the comments were supportive, and I am grateful. Only two individuals chose to challenge my assertions. One was a drive-by commenter who had little of value to add the conversation. I will presume that the second commenter was sincere and wished to engage in dialogue, so I’m going to repost the comment here along with my reaction.
Actors ACT. Movies are FICTIONAL portrayals. The people who write the scripts for movies aim for authenticity in representing the way people talk. Language like this DOES get used by a lot of people. Is it right in real life? No… of course not. But it happens and because it happens there is NOTHING wrong with an actor, screen writer, director, etc using the language to tell their story. If Hollywood avoided using any all offensive language, MOST movies rated PG and above would not exist.
I can appreciate this assertion – to a point. The director/producer David Dobkin asserted in his interview that the scene was intended to portray the character negatively. Any number of choices could have achieved the same result. In fact, targeting a more vocal group might have made the point more forcefully. The (cowardly) choice they made, however, was to insult the group that was least likely to cause trouble. Note that in the interview, Dobkin’s negative characterization used the phrase “He’s a mouth breather” – yet another slam, though a less direct one, on individuals with Down syndrome, who often have a slack-jawed appearance due to low muscle tone.
Let me ask you, with yours (sic) sensitivity, do you think that Huck Finn should be banned for using racial slurs? Was Mark Twain a racist or an artist using words… even ugly ones, to tell an important story?
Ah, yes, the Huck Finn argument. The commenter assumes that I would ban all offensive speech. First, I think most people would be hard-pressed to draw much serious critical comparison between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and “The Change-Up.” Nonetheless, I have no desire to ban either. Huck Finn is a classic literary work, and as such it should be discussed and the racist language used within its pages should be part of the discussion. My posts on “The Change-Up” promote the same type of discussion, with education in mind. The racist language in Huck Finn has largely disappeared from the common vernacular; I hope that one day soon disability slurs will meet the same fate.
Okay… yes I realize that comedy is considered lower on the artistic spectrum, but do you get what I’m saying. Everyone can be offended by SOMETHING, but to blur the lines between real life and fiction is a little… well… unfair maybe… overly sensitive?
Not trying to pick a fight. Just offering what I feel is a fair counterpoint.
Finally, the commenter arrives at the sentiment that I hear often – that I and others who oppose the use of disability slurs are too sensitive. Again, the commenter assumes something completely different from my assertion – that the primary issue is that the language is offensive. Two days after the Cowards post, I was speaking with a young woman who used the r-word to refer to a process that was frustrating her. Because I knew she didn’t mean to offend me, I quietly asked her not to use that word, told her that I have a son with Down syndrome, and encouraged her to continue. I wasn’t upset with her, and I don’t think any less of her now than I did before the conversation. Knowing that she didn’t mean to offend, I could have let it go, but I didn’t.
Why? Because language is powerful. It has the power to inspire, and the power to control. Using slurs to refer to a group of people – any group of people – dehumanizes and devalues them. Throughout history, groups who were devalued were also oppressed, mistreated, and even slaughtered. Individuals with Down syndrome have just begun to make gains in access to education and inclusion in our society. If society believes that they don’t deserve education or inclusion, what will happen to them then?
It’s not about censorship or hurt feelings. It’s about respect.