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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SNL: Bad Taste or Bigotry?

I am not blind. I do not know a great deal about visual disabilities. I have read multiple memoirs written by people with visual deficits and find the discrimination they encounter strikingly similar to what I experience as a person that is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. When the average person encounters a person with a disability like blindness or paralysis preconceived notions abound. Blind people cannot navigate the world. They have hyper sensitive hearing and mystical abilities. Paralyzed people cannot have sex or bear children. Paralyzed people are bitter or have a chip on their shoulder. These stereotypes exist for a reason and are difficult to subvert. I know this as does Governor Paterson who has been skewered by SNL. While I enjoy the life of an average and anonymous person Paterson is public figure who has asserted that SNL skits are not the least bit funny. I agree and detest the puns and world play used by the mainstream media when the subject comes up. For instance, an Opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times concluded that the humor Paterson objected to amounted to bad taste not bigotry and that "those that equate the two may have eyes but they do not see".

Let me be clear on the SNL skits: go ahead make fun of Paterson. His rise to power was unexpected, he used drugs, butchered the handling of Caroline Kennedy for Senate, his marriage was a mess, and some of his decisions in office are questionable. This is archetypical SNL political fodder. Paterson knows this and has not objected to this aspect of the SNL spoofs. What Paterson has vehemently objected to is the bigoted humor that mocks the fact he is blind. Holding charts upside down, wandering aimlessly, using binoculars as a prop is not funny. This simply reinforces decades old and antiquated notions about blindness that one would think would be long forgotten. It also makes me realize how great the social divide is between disabled people and people without a disability. The skits on SNL that spoofed Paterson are akin to the basest forms of humor that would be offensive if one replaced blindness with race, religion, gender, or national origin. Paterson has reiterated this point and it has been ignored.

Paterson has not impressed me since he became governor with one exception: his response to the SNL skit has been consistent and on point. He has maintained that the biggest problem with the SNL skit is that it reinforces existing problems all disabled people encounter: attitudinal barriers that account for the high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities. The SNL skits have no basis in fact. Governor Paterson is not an inept blind man. I for one have never observed a blind person doing any of the the things portrayed in the SNL skits. Given this, I cannot help but conclude Mr. Paterson is correct when he stated that SNL mocked his disability and that this "humor" was particularly damaging because it assumes any person that is blind, deaf, or paralyzed is incompetent. I was subjected to this sort of ridicule in college and I did not find it funny when I was 18 and I don't think it is funny when I am 48.

Those that are unfamiliar with disability may consider Paterson and myself to be kill joys. This is not true. Much humor can be found in disability but it requires a depth of knowledge that SNL ignored in favor of third grade chuckles. And I assure you that such humor is indeed damaging to all people with a disability. I know this is true because I am routinely subjected to baseless prejudice that is dependent upon antiquated beliefs. For instance, once in a while when I go out to eat the waiter or waitress will ask if I can read. The assumption is that paralysis and cognitive deficits are in n the same. I am also asked on a regular basis if I am the "biological father" of my son. The assumption made is that no paralyzed person could be a father. This sort of baseless bigotry is exactly what Paterson is objecting to. This is why I find no humor in SNL skits that mock Paterson's blindness and wish instead of clever word play editors of major newspapers would read some of the many wonderful memoirs published by blind people. Steve Kuusisto's Planet of the Blind would be a wonderful place to start. Perhaps I should ask Steve to send the SNL producers a copy of his book. Of course this would mean they would need to read it and use their considerable skills to create humor that is based on fact not bigotry.

9 comments:

FridaWrites said...

You're right that a lot of humor can sometimes be found in living with a disability--the charge that people want to levy on those who complain about prejudiced depictions is that they're humorless, and that's just not true (I often joke about experiences related to disability).

I have noticed that some strangers are likely to treat me as having lower IQ, though I also noticed this when I started toting around small children. We have found restaurants we like to go to regularly--at one, I was surprised that the teenaged staff did so well, looking to me/asking me for approval on the kids' orders and refills rather than turning to my in-laws or friends.

At my daughter's skating party, one friend asked me why the staff kept talking to her instead of me--I pointed out it's because of the scooter. She's learned a lot in a short time by being around me and has mentioned some of these issues to others.

william Peace said...

The idiotic assumptions people make never cease to amaze me. This weekend a person asked me if my son and I were brothers. The person asking the question stated this as though I was not present. He also consistently dismissed everything I said and directed all comments to my son. I felt like screaming "I am a human being!"

FridaWrites said...

I was going to say that people couldn't mistake the very exact replica of myself as anyone other than my biological child, but I guess I'm mistaken. I have been asked if I had my disability when I had my children, and I think it's only now occurring to me that they are seeming to think that both at the same time seem unlikely.

yanub said...

I think that people with disabilities are put in the same category as the Amish--people who aren't supposed to even know we are being made fun of, and so it is OK. When it is pointed out that the butt of the joke is indeed human and aware, the reaction of the bigots isn't shame but anger and denial over being called to account.

william Peace said...

Yanub, You make an excellent point. People with a disability are assumed to be dependent upon the largesse of society and as such have no right to complain. When we assert our rights or object to a bigoted joke we are violating a social norm. The reaction to this violation as you point out is anger. This anger says a lot about society and the oppressive nature of of our culture.

FridaWrites said...

How to overcome this reaction, though? That's frustrating. On occasion I've pointed out to people why they're mad at my request, that anger just wasn't a justified or logical reaction, which seems to confuse and silence them. Most easily accomplished if I can remain emotionally detached.

I wish more health/med students had to take a course in disability studies since it would help their framework--it would get information out to a lot of people, just as women's studies classes have had a trickle down effect even to people who've never take a class. And that freshman classes contained information about disablism (they already discuss gender neutral, other unbiased language).

william Peace said...

Frida, Classes about disability on college campuses are quite rare. Disability studies programs exist but the vast majority of colleges do not address disability issues at all. Disability studies is a new field and its place in academia is far from secure. There is much more progress that needs to be made and I think education is the key.

James L said...

Let me disagree by bringing up a point. Would you hire someone that you were uncomfortable making fun of? If you can't make a joke about me and my disability, will you ever give me a job? Are we off limits to being made fun of or does this mean that we are becoming part of the mainstream, where everyone is made fun of?

william Peace said...

James, I am not opposed to humor and disability. In fact, disability is great fodder for comedy. For instance, I was skiing this weekend and spent a lot of time going through and around moguls. I teased the people I was with that my knees were not sore at all. The point is that the SNL skits relied on antiquated stereotypes about blindness that have no foundation in fact. Go ahead and joke about disability but do it in a contemporary up to date way. I do this quite often as does Paterson.