Sunday, October 28, 2012

Language impacts everyone

Sometimes, when talking about language, people of short stature connect use of the word midget to use of the n-word.  I've done this also, yet I qualify the comparison by explaining that use of the m-word stimulates the same visceral reaction among people of short stature that use of the n-word produces among the African-American community.  The problem with making this comparison is that it is easy for an audience of listeners to believe that the experience of people of short stature and the experience of African-Americans are being compared. This can create problems and can quickly turn an audience off from the point which is person is trying to make.  In my last post, I wrote about Bob Levine.  He wrote a letter in response to the Saturday Night Live's use of the m-word.  In his letter, he made the comparison.  He wrote, "The “M-word” should be considered as unacceptable as the “N-word.” Would you use the N word to describe black people, the S word for Hispanic people, the C or J words for Chinease or Japanese people, no."  Though he wasn't equating the experience of a person of short stature with the experience of an African-American, or a Latino, or an Asian.  Yet, he was attacked in the comment section of the website as if he were. 

The comparison between people of short stature and other marginalized groups can draw antagonistic response even within the dwarf community. Prior to Facebook and similar social media, there was an active dwarfism listserve on Yahoo.   Once, a discussion on the listserve that compared use of the m-word with use of the n-word drew the ire of an African American dwarf who was part of the discussion.  I can't quote what he said but the bottom line was that the African American thought it was inappropriate and insensitive to make the comparison.

Comparisons between dwarfs and other marginalized groups have their place. At least I think they do.  If I am speaking with someone unfamiliar with dwarfism, a comparison to something with which he or she is familiar is a way to draw empathy.  Yet, too many times the comparisons don't work.  For one reason or another, they draw attention away from the point that is trying to be made. 

The good news for people of short stature is that we don't need to use comparisons to other marginalized groups as strongly as we needed to in the past.  We still have far to go in terms of equality and equal treatment, but on the whole, society is more familiar with dwarfism than it was in the past.  With this in mind, the dwarf experience can stand alone.  We can speak about our on experience and use it alone as a justification for asking people not to use the m-word and for demanding a level playing field.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Don't tell me what to say

Kudos to Little People of America Lifetime Member Bob Levine. He recently approached Little People of America about a Saturday Night Live Skit he found offensive.  I don't know much about Saturday Night Live these days, but evidently the skit included a recurring character of cast member Bill Hader.  The character used the word "midget." This wasn't the first time the character had used the word.  In the past, I've heard from at least one other member about the character's use of the word.  In this case, Levine wondered if LPA would reach out to Saturday Night Live and ask the show to stop using the word.  For a number of reason's, LPA typically does not respond when the m-word is used in popular culture.  This is because the organization feels effort is better spent proactively raising positive awareness rather than reacting to negative language.  The hope is that positive awareness about dwarfism will eventually convince people to decide for themselves not to use the word.  Exceptions are made sometimes.  Last month, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush used the m-word on MSNBC.  Because Bush was a former elected official speaking on a news program, LPA sent him a letter.

In the case of Saturday Night Live, LPA decided not to respond.  Instead, we encouraged Levine to share his concerns directly with the show.  To Levine's credit, he wrote a letter and it was published on the RivertownsPatch website.  The letter was from the heart.  In the letter, Levine reflected about how SNL helped him through difficult times, as a young boy, and in high school.  Now, because of the show's use of the word, he is reconsidering whether or not to watch it again.  As is the case with most online news publications, Levine's piece was open for public comment.  And, as is the case with many online comment sections, the comments were primarily unsympathetic at best, and brutal at worst.  So much so, RivertownsPatch eventually shut down the comments.

Unfortunately, the comments that Levine's piece garnered are typical of any piece that calls for the end of a particular word.  No one wants to be told what he or she can or can't say.  That's another reason why LPA traditionally doesn't respond to negative use of language.  If we call on people to stop using language, then the issue quickly gravitates, fairly or not, toward political correctness and the 1st Amendment.  These are issues of which LPA doesn't want to be a part.  That's why we focus on raising awareness.  Rather than tell people what they can and can't say, we should give people the tools to make the decision for themselves. 

Nevertheless, I admire Levine's decision to write the letter.  I am glad he spoke his mind.  No matter the response from anonymous people who comment on internet websites, I hope others speak their minds in the future.