September 16, 2011


Every day, I believe our society is moving towards recognition of the fact that making fun of people with developmental disabilities just isn't funny. I believe that, or perhaps I just want to believe it so much that I convince myself of it. But I also believe that movement is mostly incremental, and not without reverse steps.

The story of Gemma Hayter reminds us that the slowness of our developing humanity has a terrible price.

Gemma Hayter was a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, living independently in Britain, who was brutally tortured before being left to die naked and alone on a railway embankment. The details of her treatment are horrific enough that I won't repeat them here, except for one point that I think is too important not to share: she believed that the people who committed the atrocities against her were her friends.

Following the sentencing of her convicted killers, Hayter's family released a statement, and one line jumped out at me in particular: "Our Gemma was a very loving and vulnerable woman who trusted everyone, and her trusting nature and vulnerability led to her death on 9 August last year."

That could describe Schuyler. It could describe a great many of our loved ones, children and adults alike.

Gemma Hayter's case is a stark reminder that the seeds of societal disregard for persons with developmental disabilities ultimately manifest in abuse, in violence and in death and heartbreak and deep sorrow. If you choose to look, to really see, you can follow the line from jokes about "retards" in film and television and the stages of comedy clubs to the young people repeating them on the schoolyards, and you can watch those kids grow into young adults and observe them as they live their lives without empathy or compassion for those who have never had value or humanity in their eyes. Small steps, leading inexorably to a moment where killing a living, thinking, feeling human being might be difficult enough to give them pause, but doing harm to a worthless retard, just for laughs? What's wrong with that? How is the world diminished by a loss like that?

It's not a butterfly-flapping-its-wings-in-China kind of mysterious connection. It's real, and there is measurable responsibility to be faced for the harm that springs from such small seeds.

As I said, I do feel like there are incremental steps being taken towards a larger good. Sometimes you have to look hard to see them. Sometimes I think I see them when they're not there. Overbelieving, perhaps, or overwanting.

I occasionally listen to a podcast called WTF, hosted by comedian Marc Maron. Maron can be a really sharp and funny comic, and he's done some fantastic interviews with others in his industry. I think I was vaguely aware that he'd been something of an apologist for comedians who had gotten in hot water for using words like "retarded" in their work, but I'd never heard him actually do so himself. That is very much a distinction of questionable significance, I admit.

Recently, Maron interviewed a comic named Anthony Jeselnik. Jeselnik's comedy works for a very specific crowd, I suspect. He's a joke-teller. He delivers short, one or two line jokes, and they are generally both absurd and edgy, crossing as many lines as he can find to cross. Imagine the love child of Stephen Wright and, I don't know, Satan. Jeselnik's humor isn't for everyone; I can't imagine very many people sitting through an entire set of his without a thinking "Oh, wow, I don't know about that" at least once or twice. To be honest, while I recognize how excellent Jeselnik is at his craft, I don't care for some of his material myself, partly because I think he's planting the kinds of seeds that I spoke of earlier. I will say, however, that unlike someone like Tracy Morgan, Anthony Jeselnik isn't trying to have it both ways. He's not trying to offend without consequence while at the same time depending on work in bland network tv comedy or family-friendly film. If you make the effort to go see Anthony Jeselnik in a club or listen to his material on tv, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're going to get. Being offended at one of his shows is a little like going to a Ku Klux Klan rally and saying, "Wow, these guys are kind of racist."

In Maron's interview with Jeselnik, there was a lot of discussion of "How far is too far?". Perhaps inevitably, the topic turned to jokes about people with developmental disabilities, and again, Jeselnik declares the topic fair game. But here it's Maron who discusses his own material on the subject, material that I hadn't heard before. It's hard to listen to, even as he is firmly convinced that his humor is inoffensive.

Marc Maron:
"I used to tell this story, and I just stopped telling it because there's nothing right about it... I genuinely said to the audience that when you see a mentally disabled person, it's hard not to be filled with joy because they're so childlike and they experience joy so immediately that when they're having a good time, you literally feel elated because of their sort of unfiltered ability to experience joy. So I don't think we should be arguing about the word 'retarded' or about 'mentally challenged' or 'developmentally disabled'. I think they should be called 'God's clowns'... And I meant 'God's clowns' in a nice way. I didn't mean like God was making a fool out of them. They're there spreading joy in this way. It was really well-intended."

So yeah. As much as Maron insists that he's not being offensive, he is in fact being WILDLY offensive. The fact that he's being cute about it doesn't change the fact that he is completely dehumanizing people with developmental disabilities, reducing them to a superficial and amusing construct. As soon as I heard the words "God's clowns", I made a mental note to remove Maron's podcast from my iTunes subscription list.

But then he continued, and maybe won me back a little. Maron said that later that night, he attended a concert, and standing behind him was a man with a developmental disability, shouting joyfully for the band. And at first, Maron felt validated by this young man and his exuberant happiness. But then...

Marc Maron:
"When I heard him, I again felt that excitement like, you know, he's so excited, it's so raw. And then I look over and he's with someone who must have been his dad, and this dude just looked like every bit of everything had been drained out of his being. And it was in that moment that I realized that I guess it's only fun for a little while. And that's when I stopped doing that bit."

There is so much that's wrong with this. The fact that he can't identify at all with the young man himself, but only feels the beginning of compassion for the young man's father, is troubling. More than troubling, really. It is an incomplete epiphany. But when I listen to it again, I can at least hear the beginnings of something, a spark of understanding. Maron sees how the lives of persons with disabilities might be more challenging than he's considered in the past, although he's unable to see any further than the challenges facing a disabled person's family. It's woefully inadequate, but it might just be a different kind of seed, one from which good things might sprout.

Later in the interview, Jeselnik also has his own "almost" moment. He's unflinching in his commitment to making jokes about those with developmental disabilities, but he goes on to explain why he won't make jokes using the "N-Word":

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I had a joke where I used the word 'nigger' but I just couldn't. I said it twice in the joke, and I said 'I just can't, I can't do this.' I didn't feel right saying it."

Marc Maron:
"Well, you probably shouldn't, right? Does that frustrate you, that you can't say that word?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"It kind of bugs me because I feel like I can't say it. There's no other word that I feel that way about."

Marc Maron:
"And why do you feel like you can't say it?"

Anthony Jeselnik:
"You know, I feel like I have friends who I can picture their faces, you know, black friends, when I say things..."

Marc Maron:
"But you don't want to be one of those guys who are accused by your black friends of just using it gratuitously because you want to try to take some ownership of that word."

Anthony Jeselnik:
"I don't even care about being accused of it, I just feel like that word has so much power over a certain group of people, more than any other. I would never want to hurt someone's feelings... That word gets so specific that I don't think I could look my black friends in the face if I came off stage after telling that joke."

Marc Maron:
"You know why that is? Because there's no reason for white people to use that word. I've had discussions with guys before who are like, 'Hey, it's just a word.' Yeah, okay, but it's a word that has a very deep meaning to a lot of people..."

It makes me think of this again:

Here are two guys who are, in my opinion (and I suspect in yours, too), squarely on the wrong side of history regarding humor based on laughing at people with developmental disabilities. And yet, I can't help but think that there might be seeds there, tiny little dormant seeds that may never break open, may never send shoots up into the sun.

But they might. They very well might. That's the kind of thing I hope for.


Unknown said...

I was talking with a friend who wondered if we put another word in there for the words that are offensive, but folks think we should lighten up about, would they get it? If I said, "gee, you're acting so club footed," would they realize it's hurtful?

No, probably not. But I'd like to try for a while.

watchwhathappens said...

As much as I like and respect Maron, he is inherently a self-obsessed misogynist, taking full advantage of all the perks that being a single male performer (when he is one) affords. I've called him on some of his shit in some personal interactions (just online - we haven't been involved or anything) and he responded by...making nasty misogynistic comments. Of course. It's maddening, because he simultaneously disappoints and impresses in such monumental ways (which you've demonstrated here). I often feel the same way about Adam Carolla, though I don't think Carolla is nearly as smart.

Robert Hudson said...

I agree. My greatest frustration with Maron is that he seems too smart and too invested in developing his own self-awareness to engage in some of the really lazy comedy that he does.

I thought about sending a link to this blog post to him, out of fairness. I might still, although I'm not convinced that anything good would come from doing so.

Michael Berry said...

I, too, was disappointed in Maron when I heard that podcast. I'm not sure that sending him a link would be a waste of time. He seems willing to be called on his bullshit, so maybe he'll learn something.

Olive said...

Rob--Just two days ago I had a long talk in my high school classes (I'm a teacher) about labels/identity/ and words that hurt. Words that are loaded. I had the kids tell me EVERY word they could think of that somone would find offensive and I wrote them on the board. Then we talked abou them. IN depth. About why they are hurtful etc. I can tell you that MANY of my students shock me in their maturity and poise when describing how these words hurt. And then there is one....that just doesn't get it. Always there is one. My hope is that discussing them openly...discussing them in safe places...and hearing from their peers helps. And I think in some instances it definitly changes their use of the word. There is always still one. But, ten years ago...there was always more than one. So I can tell you that the generation coming up now....they are better. But, I think we will always live in fear that our loved ones will think that one their friend. When they are not. Hopefully, the others will "man" up (and I always tell them they are just like the "one" if they don't) and stand up and say it is wrong. Just wanted to say....

Elizabeth said...

Yes. Please send him a link. You are, as always, the perfect person to advance this "cause," however much those of us who hate the idea of advancement and imagery like it.

I find your posts on this subject so powerful that I pass them around to my friends -- those friends who would insist that a word is just a word.

Robert Hudson said...

A short time ago, I sent the link to both Marc Maron and Anthony Jeselnik via Twitter. Not long after, I received a very respectful private response from Jeselnik. All I ask is for people to listen, and he absolutely did. Much appreciated.

Me said...

Perhaps when you consider that even though females make up about half the population there are still a large per cent of males who don't even understand that women are people and who don't understand why certain things offend us, you can see that the insensitivity you are fighting isn't likely to go away quickly. I'll concede that the r-word is worse than the b-word or c-word but I'd like to get rid of the latter two as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, the second quote seems worse than the first one to me. Obviously the idea that people with developmental disabilities are really childishly joyful all the time can lead to patronizing stereotypes and not a lot of room for people with DD to be in a bad mood, be interested in sex, or do anything else that doesn't fit the stereotype. But he does seem to see people with DD as people who have something to offer, even if his understanding of that concept is really naive. And his "almost" moment is that now he feels bad for the family members of people with DD because he realizes we might not be fun to be around all the time? I'd much rather have someone be saying something positive about disabled people in an insensitive way than something negative in a "respectful" way.

Robert Hudson said...

Well, like I said, it is a woefully incomplete epiphany. I guess I read it as his realization that things are harder and more complex than he originally thought. But yeah, he's got a long long way to go. As do we all, I suppose.

Catherine said...

It's 2011 and we've been lambasting all who use the "R" world, boycotting movies and trying to get it out the mainstream.

So in "My Idiot Brother" with Paul Rudd, what do I hear? The word used a few times in describing someone who is acting clueless. We've gotten that far?

knittingwoman said...

Very thoughtful post as usual. I am worried though about how the term "learning disability" is being used as global catch all kind of term for any level or degree of disability. That young woman who died didn't just have a learning disability anymore than Schyler (or my daughter who is functionally illiterate at 14 1/2 years of age) merely has a learning disability. We need to get rid of the term retard and the idea that people with any kind of intellectual or even physical disability/impairment etc. are equally worthy human beings but that shouldn't be mean glibly using the term learning disability instead.

Robert Hudson said...

Agreed. I took care not to use that term for exactly that reason. When you read about the level of her impairment, it's clear that it was more significant than some of the reporting suggests.

Catherine said...

"Idiot, moron, imbecile" are all words originally intended as aptitude terms on the IQ scale. All of them turned into general insults. The word "special", the term "short bus" have all been turned into hurtful words. The problem is that the reality of having some disability is considered a thing to the subject of demeaning remarks.

I don't know what the solution is. I'd like to hear suggestions.

tiffany ard said...

Keep saying it.

Nine or ten years ago I was firmly in the "Oh whatever, it's just a word; it's not hurting anyone." camp. I didn't go around saying the R word, but I did defend those who did because hey get over it! It's just a word! But parents like you chipped away at my stubbornness and at some point a few years ago it clicked. It dawned on me that it IS just a word... it's just one little word out of thousands I can use to express an idea. So why be so adamant about saying it? What is the point?

It's like those ugly parents who protested the no peanut policy in a classroom where a little girl had an allergy. Really? Out of zillions of things in the world you can pack in your kids' lunches, you really are so uncreative that you'd rather humiliate and possibly endanger one of their classmates?

Having to think of a different word in a conversation is such a ridiculously minor inconvenience compared to the hurt certain words can cause. So keep at it, Rob. After defending and defending it, even stubborn assholes like me eventually see that it's not defensible.

Astrin Ymris said...

@ Catherine:

I posted this just a few days ago on the always-contentious world of the Amazon Religion forum--

Your post, in reply to an earlier post on Sep 19, 2011 9:12:42 AM PDT
Astrin Ymris says:
J. Westwind,

I know you were just quoting a definition! ;-D I've just made a vow to challenge that usage whenever I see it, as my contribution to the "Spread the word to end the word" campaign.

Mind you, I think they're mistaken to target legitimate uses of the word "retarded", rather than the entire concept of insulting people by comparing them to the mentally disabled. Attacking the current synonym just means the insulters will move on to the new word as soon as it becomes known.

I think the LGBT community's campaign against "That's so gay" would be a better model to follow. However, parents who've just been told their baby has microcephaly don't take as cerebral a point of view about the issue as I do. So be it.

That strikes me as one of the root problems right there; we feel entitled to attack people who disagree with us or anger us by insulting their intelligence. It's an old, entrenched behavior problem, and as long as it exists, it doesn't matter what term we use to describe the cognitively impaired; it will be used as an insult soon enough.

The other problem is that we're highly invested in our meritocratic mythos. We believe that the wealthy deserve their affluence, and that the poor are reaping the rightful reward for their "lack of talent".

The developmentally disabled aren't contestants in this game, so they aren't seen as being worthy of the same respect as potential winners.

Just my $0.02 worth. :-)

Anonymous said...

actually, learning disability means intellectual disability in the UK so it's not a euphemism or an inaccurate label. it is kind of a confusing usage difference because LD means something so different in the US but it is the accurate term to use over there.

Sara said...

I work as a staff person at a college. In my role, I only teach one class a semester. It is comparatively a small impact, but those 30 students leave my class knowing that "retarded" and "gay" are not slang and should never be used as a joke.