Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The jokes are on me

A few days ago, Dan Kennedy posted a piece called You just can't keep a good word down on his Media Nation Blog. Kennedy, who has a daughter with dwarfism, is the author of a well-known and well-read book within the dwarfism community called Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes. Kennedy's blog piece is in response to a comment Bernard Goldberg made on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." Referring to the ratings of Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, Goldberg compared Olbermann to "the tallest midget in the room." Kennedy makes the point in his blog that although reality television and advancements in the information and technology world have spread constructive awareness about dwarfism, and although media outlets such as The New York Times and the Associated Press have made deliberate attempts to eliminate use of the word midget, certain sectors of the media still use the word midget and present embarrassing portrayals of little people.

As I probably have noted several times on this blog, I am no expert, but I am pretty interested in, as Kennedy writes, "two things: how people with dwarfism are depicted in popular culture and the continued debate over the word 'midget.'" (The ironic piece is that Kennedy suggests people outside the dwarfism community are obsessed with the two things. I for one am in the community and am pretty engaged, if not obsessed). With that engagement, or obsession, in mind, I think there has been an evolution in the use of the word midget within outlets that still use it. Minus use of the word to identify a sports division for younger kids, in the more mainstream media, the word is used much more as a slur, or a derogatory statement. The exact joke made by Goldberg on Fox has been made at least two other times in recent memory, once by Mark Cuban to slam Starbucks Via Coffee and once by Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated to exemplify mediocrity within college basketball. It appears that benign, innocent, ignorant use of the word is tailing off. This is most likely because awareness of the word has indeed improved. Use of the word these days is not the result of ignorance. People who use the word are aware of the connotations. Again, referring back to the Media Nation piece, Kennedy proved it when he quoted an earlier statement from Goldberg, in which Goldberg acknowledged that little people would be upset if he were to use the word midget. Cuban, who made the comment about Starbucks over twitter, in a subsequent post, immediately acknowledged that his comment would upset people. (Geraldo Rivera also once used the word to describe Olbermann. He didn't use the same joke as Goldberg, but once, really upset with Olbermann and unable to come up with anything eloquent to say, Rivera said, "He is a midget.")

What once was common knowledge only within the dwarfism community- that midget is a derogatory, damaging word - is now becoming common knowledge outside of the community. That common knowledge has helped weed out innocent use of the word. People can no longer so easily use the excuse that they didn't know any better.

But the word is still and will still be used. It's an inside joke within the dwarfism community that a comedian, when he or she is losing a crowd, will fall back on a midget joke. Similarly, columnists, commentators and prognosticators of media, when they are unable to find the words to say what they really mean, will also fall back on the word midget. I don't like use of the word, but I think it is a good thing that at least they know the power behind the word.

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