Sunday, March 31, 2013

Trolling for trouble

A few years ago, in 2009, Little People of America officially identified the word midget as a negative term.  LPA created a policy in which the organization would attempt to raise awareness about the word in an effort to get people to stop using the word.  Since then, LPA has used Dwarfism Awareness Month and other vehicles as a tool to educate the public about language and dwarfism. 

The community of people with intellectual disabilities has a similar campaign.  That community is trying to end use of the word "retard," which is referred to as the R-Word.  Here is more information about the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign.  As part of the R-Word Campaign, volunteers hang out on Twitter, searching for use of the r-word.  When volunteers find a tweet with the word, they respond to the Tweeter, explaining why the word is hurtful in hopes that the Tweeter will discontinue using the word.  A few years ago, a paper out of Springfield, Illinois wrote a story about the work of these volunteers. The story featured a peer of mine named Tyler McHaley.  Talking about Tyler and his work on Twitter, the reporter writes "The longest Tyler has ever done this is about 45 minutes. He can't take it it any longer than that, because anger and sadness get the best of him."  I get it. With the m-word, it is difficult enough to read the tweets and Facebook posts, let alone approach the authors.  For years, I have had a standing google alert for the word dwarf and midget.  For a while though, I turned off the alert for the word midget because every use of the word, if it didn't involve a soccer league or football league, was too degrading or embarrassing.

Eventually, I reinstated the Google alert and recently I've been trolling Twitter for use of the m-word. I started to do so last week after getting on my bike for one of the first times since the weather has slowly started to break in the Midwest.  I biked to work last Monday morning. When I was within a few blocks of the office, a young woman driving a gray SUV pulled up alongside of me.  I noticed the car shadowing me just behind my shoulder.  When I turned to look I could tell the woman had just taken my photo with her phone.  From experience, I know that it's best just to let it go.  If I had done so, I probably wouldn't be thinking about it right now.  Yet, it's difficult to let it go sometimes.   I tried to track down the vehicle but it wasn't long before the vehicle was well ahead of me and out of sight. 

Curious about what the woman might do with the photo, that night, and a few times since, I've searched Twitter with an m-word Hashtag.  Luckily, I didn't find that any photos of myself.  I did find a few random photos of little people taken by people who I assume don't know the little person and didn't ask the little person for permission.  But much more than photos of little people, I found self-deprecating tweets from people who appear to be insecure about their height.  Here are a few:

*Size 3 shoes and they still feel big what the hell us this???!!
 * Why am I so short
 *Yesterday i realized im kinda short. No really short. I better grow soon.

Curious, I searched Twitter for the R-Word also.  There seemed to be about the same number, and often times those also were self-deprecating.

To use the word in that way doesn't make it acceptable, but I find it interesting because I am guessing that the authors of the tweets have some knowledge of the fact that the word, or words, is derogatory.  Again, it doesn't make it acceptable, but if indeed the users have an awareness of the word, they are probably closer to not using the word than if they didn't know what affect, in particular what negative affect, the word has.  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Heightism -- contemporary update

A recent issue of The New Yorker reminded me of the independent study project I pursued as a junior  at Beloit College.  I've subscribed to The New Yorker for many years.  The magazine became some of my favorite reading material years ago in college when an English Professor of mine required us to read the magazine as part of the syllabus.  I have never read the entire magazine.  I go through phases in terms of what sections I will be sure to read every week.  Currently, that section is the "Briefly Noted" section that follows a longer book review.  The "Briefly Noted" section includes about four or five brief review capsules of newly published books.  That section inspired me to buy about three or four of the books I've read most recently. 

Not long ago, I was reading the "Briefly Noted" section in the March 25th issue of the magazine. The third entry was a brief review of a book called The Force of Things. The second sentence of the review reminded me of the Heightism project from my junior year in college.  The sentence read, "In almost every way, they are an odd couple: she is beautiful, tidy, calm; he is short, sloppy, irascible."  Though the sentence uses the word "odd," not opposite, it is clear that in the context of this description, the man has qualities that do not reflect the woman's qualities.  When identifying something about the male character that is "odd," when juxtaposed with the woman's beauty, the author of the review, rather than use a word such as ugly or unappealing or even plain, chooses to use the word short.  Actually, the author didn't necessarily choose to use the word short.  Most likely, the male character in the story is characterized as short.  What's interesting though is that the author of the review chose to link the woman's beauty and the man's shortness as a way to contrast the characters.  Clearly, in this context, the word short is intended to be negative.

I would argue that there is no reason why short should be connected with a negative or a positive.  People are short or tall just like people are light or dark.  Just like light or dark are not directly connected to good or bad, or handsome or unattractive, tall and short are not directly connected.  The connection happens when cultural values are included.  Within popular culture today, big is valued more than small.  Because of this, the author of the review can successfully use the word short and have it carry a negative meaning. 

The problem with this is that the values of the published work are then subjected onto the society that the publication represents.  On its own, there is nothing wrong with shortness.  But the publication indicates that shortness is indeed a negative.  Who knows what difference one word in one review will make.  But the more often the word, or similar words, or used in such a way, the more likely it is that society will embrace that value, which in turn will make it more difficult for individuals who happen to be small.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Heightism in literature and popular culture

When I was a junior in college, I worked on an independent study project.  For my research, I studied the way short people and short things were portrayed in literature and popular culture, and I analyzed the use of adjectives that indicate shortness and smallness.  In terms of the adjectives, I tried to answer the question, "Are the adjectives generally used to describe something that is negative or something that is positive?"  I titled the paper, "Height in literature and popular culture." 

The project was a very good experience.  I was able to develop my own curriculum, which meant I could study a lot of books which otherwise I would never have the chance to read.  Perhaps more important, the project paved the way for my coming out as a person with dwarfism.  Obviously, I knew I was a person of short stature and others knew I was a person of short stature. And it wasn't that I never spoke openly to others about how dwarfism impacted my life in positive and negative way.  Yet, even as a junior in college, I hadn't fully embraced short stature as a positive component that played a part in determining my character, personality and behavior.  Looking back on the experience, I think the independent study opened the door that allowed my to start identifying with that part of myself. 

The semester of independent study culminated in a Student Symposium Day.  On that day, all of the students on campus who pursued independent study projects delivered a public presentation that was open to the entire student body.  The symposiums started in the morning and went all day.  Three different venues on campus hosted presentations simultaneously throughout the day.  My presentation was scheduled for the afternoon in the science lecture hall.  I vividly remember standing in one of the hallways in the science building about half an hour before I was scheduled to present.  The two students who were scheduled to present in the two different locations at the same time as me were in the hallway with me.  I don't know how it happened, but we all would up in the hallway together.  We stood there waiting, growing more nervous as every minute passed, telling each other that, if it weren't for our own presentations, we'd want to hear what the other had to say. 

When I finally took the stage and presented for twenty minutes about my research, the door that I mention above opened up a little bit.  Although I never said it directly during the presentation, I knew, and most of the people in the audience probably knew, that I was talking about myself.  The language that impacted the characters in the literature and impacted how others thought of the characters, also impacted me and how others thought of me. 

Though the Student Symposium Day was a success for me, one of the other significant memories of that day was my failure to respond well to a comment made by someone in the audience.  At some point during the question and answer session, an English Professor asked a question about one of the points I tried to make in my presentation.  I think he asked the question because he didn't completely buy into my point.  He wanted to, but he needed more information.  That's why he asked the question.  I answered his question and elaborated on my point.  He asked a follow up question.  Again, I answered and elaborated.  I don't know how long the exchange went on, but at some point, a student interrupted.  He said something to the affect of, "I am not uncomfortable with this line of questioning.  I think Gary did a great job and we should give him a big hand."  At that point, there was applause and my presentation was finished. 

The student had good intentions, but his comment was infantalizing.  The point of the presentation was to present information, and to be prepared to back up the research with more information.  I was at an academic institution.  The point of academics is to drill down beneath the surface of information to find out what supports the information. The English Professor was engaging my work in an intellectual way. And that was the point.  My research found that characters and individuals who are shorter are not treated the same way as others and by and large this manifests itself in a negative way.  Yet, characters and individuals who are shorter deserve to be treated as others.  Standing up there delivering my research, I wanted to be treated like everyone else. The English Professor asked me questions just as he would ask anyone else challenging questions.  The student however, treated my work with kid gloves, as if I was a child who couldn't be subjected to scrutiny.  Perhaps he treated everyone this way, but considering the subject of my research, it was unappreciated by me. Nevertheless, I didn't respond to the student. I nodded, thanked everyone, and left the stage.  There are many things that happen over the course of a lifetime that we wish we could redo.  For me, responding to that student in a different way is just one.