Sunday, January 17, 2010

Wall Street Journal and the m-word

Last year, people of short stature around the country rallied in response to an article from the New York Times that used the word midget. The word wasn't used maliciously. It was used to describe an incident back during the Depression Era when a person of short stature was photographed on the lap of financier JP Morgan. The picture was taken during some Federal investigations into the depression era banking industry. Some 76 years later, in 2009, while the United States suffered another economic crisis, the banking industry was again the scorn of the country and the subject of congressional investigations. Last year, when the New York Times used the word "midget," the paper was referring to the photograph with JP Morgan when reporting on upcoming congressional banking panels. Though the word was not intended as an insult, many people wrote to the New York Times, asking they not use the word, whatever the situation. As a result, the New York Times created a policy in which it now uses the word dwarf when referring to a person of short stature.

Just last week, on the eve of yet another congressional panel preparing to ask financiers what happened to the economy in 2007 and 2008, the Wall Street Journal Blog used the word "midget." Just like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal blog was reflecting back on the Depression Era incident with JP Morgan. When I read the blog post, I was disappointed with the language, but I was also hopeful for an opportunity to impact the policy of a second national newspaper. I wrote to the online editors and expressed my concerns about language. The next day I shared the blog post with a number of networks of people of short stature, and encouraged others who were concerned with the Wall Street Journal post to write to the editors.

I've never fancied myself a terrific organizer. While some hard-core advocates with whom I work at Access Living tenaciously and sometimes ferociously rally support around a cause, I've always followed a system of making information available, then letting people make their own decisions about what to do. But because of what happened with the New York Times article last year, I was expecting a more significant response to the Wall Street Journal. Though a few have responded favorably, I've also seen some ambivalent feedback -- someone suggesting it was benign use of the word-- and some negative feedback -- 'stop whining about language. Be proud you are a midget and reclaim the word.'

There are scores of reasons why response to the Wall Street Journal isn't what I thought it would be: like I said earlier, rallying the troops is not my forte; perhaps the struggle to change language usage is like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill over and over again; perhaps more people are following the creed "names will never hurt me."

Whatever the reason, I still think language is important. And Little People of America is committed to changing language. Anytime I doubt the importance of language, I think of other marginalized groups and how they respond to derogatory language. And though the Wall Street Journal, like the New York Times, probably isn't aware of the impact of the word "midget," I still think we have a great opportunity to impact a policy at a major paper with a huge circulation. I realize that even if we are successful with the Wall Street Journal, we are not going to stop permanently use of the word "midget," but unlike Sisyphus, the next hill might not be as large.

Wall Street Journal

No comments:

Post a Comment