Monday, September 28, 2009

Hail the emperor

The second semester of my junior year in college, I edited the school newspaper, called The Round Table. The paper sarcastically followed a philosophy that played on the tag line of The New York Times. Rather then "All the news that's fit to print," The Round Table proudly followed the creed, "All the news that fits, we print," or something like that.

As an editor, I was determined to take the paper in a new direction. (I am guessing all editors of school papers have similar thoughts) I wanted the campus paper to include more objective news. Prior to my tenure with the paper, too many opinions covered the pages. It was filled nearly cover to cover with aspiring Eric Zorn's (Chicago Tribune), Mary Mitchell's (Chicago Sun-Times) and a fair share of Michael Sneed's (Sun-Times again), who waxed philosophic about current events and trains of thought. I wanted the kind of paper that Paris, the young Yale editor from "The Gilmore Girls," aspired to.

I was so determined to put an "objective stamp" on the paper, when, in the middle of a story about the Beloit College Swim Team, a volunteer reporter included a two paragraph interlude speculating that our incoming College president was an "aquaphobe," I deleted the subjective assertion before the paper went to print. What's more, I made the edits without telling the reporter. The writer was furious. The day of publication, as I lay in bed in my apartment, I heard him screaming about the article on the street outside my window. He was not screaming at me. He was sharing his frustration with his friend, who lived in the building next to mine. Nevertheless, I was scared. The reporter was bigger than me, more popular than me, and older than me. More important, I knew I was wrong to cut the story without telling him. The Swim Team article wasn't the only one I cut in an undemocratic manner. Sometimes entire articles would be eliminated. But, because of the student screaming outside my window, it's the one I remember most clearly.

Later in the semester, I heard second hand that at least one student thought my actions as editor were an expression of my Napoleon Complex. As a far as I know, this is the only time the term Napoleon Complex, or "Short Guy Syndrome," -- overcompensating for small stature in an overly domineering or aggressive way -- has been attributed to me. For all I know, the second hand college report may not have even been true. For all I know, other people have said it behind my back. What I do know is that as a young man I've was definetely influenced by the idea of the Napoleon Complex. I've always been somewhat introverted, hesitant and restrained. Many different factors have shaped where I am today and who I am today but one piece, perhaps small, has been the fear of the Napoleon Complex. In various situations, as a younger adult, I've held myself back, for fear of the Napoleon Tag.

Today, as a not-so-young adult, in terms of asserting my beliefs, principles and ideas, I think I do okay. With that in mind, years have passed since I thought about the idea of the Napoleon Complex. Then I came across an article from New Zealand titled
"I'm taking a stand for the little guy.", a story about a little person farmer who made headlines after shooting one of his dogs to make a point. Evidently, in order to officially register his three dogs, the local government needed to know his age. Arguing against what he believed to be bureaucratic red tape, the little person wouldn't reveal the information. When the local authorities refused to register his animals, the farmer shot one of the dogs and delivered it to the authorities in a "biscuit bag." Following reports of the story, angry letters to the editor said things like "All you have succeeded in doing is taking 'small man syndrome' to new heights." At first, I had little sympathy for the farmer. In fact, far from 'little man' syndrome, I thought he was insane.

Then I thought more about the piece, and read the article again. I won't justify the little person's actions. Killing a dog is outrageous, especially just to make a point.

But the article was much more than a piece about a man who shot his dog. It was an article about a man who spent a good part of his life fighting against what he believes is unjust treatment and unjust systems, who then had all that work trivialized by the phrase, "little man syndrome."

Interesting to me, the article added an addendum to the definition of Napoleon Complex with which I was not familiar. According to the article, the definition should include, "a demeaning phrase to explain the everyday behaviour or reactions of a shorter man ... a device to excuse discrimination by blaming the recipient of that discrimination." The man in the article was not on a crusade to make up for any height differentials, he crusaded for his beliefs. Yet, because of his height, acts that might have been defined as an expression of strong character if performed by someone of average height, were defined as a compensation for a lack of height.

Today, as I think more about Napoleon Complex, I am reminded of other terms. Terms like politically correct, used often in the past several months to describe Little People of America's efforts to discourage use of the word midget. Just like little man syndrome, the term politically correct is used to demean the efforts of a group speaking out against what it believes to be an injustice. In a way, the second half of the definition above applies also to politically correct. In my experience, politically correct is used to justify the continued discrimination against an individual or a group. In the case of LPA, it justifies further use of the word midget.

Clearly, there were problems with my efforts as editor of The Round Table, and with the actions of the person with dwarfism from New Zealand who shot his dog. But neither my height nor the height of any dwarf should be a factor when determining if our action are just, unjust, or foolhardy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

everything that's fit to print (on)

On a technology blog called "The Gadget blog from CNET," a blogger posted about a new, very small printer called "The Eensy PrintBrush." The printer is a hand held device that allows the user to print on to small surfaces. Writing about the printer, the blogger wrote, "you can print on notebooks, greetings cards, boxes, sleeping midgets . . . "

As a person of short stature, once the word midget appears in this context, or almost in any context, it takes my attention and interest away from what may be the point of the article. I imagine the writer didn't intend harm. The word was used as a joke. These days, the word midget most often appears in reports about Pop Warner Youth Leagues or, as in the case of the blog about the small printer, as a joke that is supposed to express how big or small something. I imagine the jokes are often supposed to carry some sort of shock value also. In this instance, the joke didn't express any original thought, and wasn't particularly surprising considering that when the word midget is used, it's often used in this context.

What is pleasantly surprising about the Eensy Printbrush blog post is the comment section, dominated not by endorsements or criticisms of the printer, but by debate around the word midget. Soon after the piece went live, someone wrote in, explaining that the word midget is offensive to most people of short stature. That comment inspired many others to write in, some in support of being sensitive to language impacting, and potentially offending, a particular social group; and some expressing outrage against what they believe to be out of control political correctness.

I doubt the comment section on that blog will change the world. I never would have read the blog if I didn't know ahead of time the post included use of the word midget. But of the people who read the blog, and participated in the comment section, perhaps a few, in the future, will stop to think about the language they use. If so, then the Eensy Printbrush blog was a conversation worth having.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Middle Earth or bust

I am a member of a list serve for people with dwarfism. It's a yahoo group with a couple of thousand subscribers around the world, probably two or three hundred active members and a couple dozen regular contributors. One particular regular contributor posts to the list serve all media coverage of the dwarfism community. This voluntary service is a true benefit. I for one like to know the quantity and quality of media coverage of the dwarfism community. Recently, he posted a story about what is called the "Hobbit House," a bar in the Philippines named after the mythical people created by JRR Tolkien.

An entrepreneur, who actually is a former Peace Corp volunteer, opened the bar. After finishing his tour with the Peace Corps, he stayed in the Philippines. He pursued the Hobbit Theme because he was concerned about the treatment of little people and knew that many needed work. "We took many from the worst slums in Manila, where they were mocked and ridiculed," said Jim Turner, who opened the bar. "Now they're no longer carnival freaks. They're respected entertainers and businesspeople."

The LA Times story about the Hobbit House painted a desolate picture for little people in the Philippines. Not only were little people shut out from the job market, they were cut off from most other aspects of daily living. From the story, it sounded as if little people weren't much better off than stray dogs.

Soon after the bar opened, little people from around the country flocked to Turner. He hired many, hoping he could offer better lives to as many people of short stature as possible.

When the yahoo group member posted the story, he hinted that he hopes some enterprising business person in the United States opens a similar establishment. Though I am happy that The Hobbit House offers a number of people in the Philippines the chance for a better life, I disagree with the list serve member who posted the article. Be it a Hobbit House, a Munchkin House, or a Loompa House, a business built around traditional fantasy stories that include little people would not benefit people of short stature in the United States. While a few people may find employment, such themes would support stereotypes that attach an "other worldliness" to little people. These stereotypes act as a barricade between little people and mainstream inclusion.

Of course, in the United States and elsewhere, people of short stature receive a great deal of exposure these days. Much of it is positive, or at least objective, exposure. With all the information about people of short stature available, most members of the general population are equipped with enough information to overcome whatever traditional stereotypes still exist. Even so, as little people continue to knock down barriers to full participation, I'd rather see a variety of businesses hiring little people because of acquired skills rather than one business hiring little people simply because they fit a physical profile.

I am in no position to judge business ventures here in the United States, and I have no right to judge decisions people make in another country. But going forward, in this country and in others, if the human rights of people of short stature are violated, I hope we rally around something like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities rather than a bar.