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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ableism: SNL, Paterson and Bad Humor

The first time SNL lampooned David Paterson I was not amused. Well, actually I was more than a little mad. Go ahead and make fun of Paterson and every other elected official. I love this sort comedy and always have. SNL is the master of this sort of political humor and has experienced a resurgence of sorts thanks in larger part to Tina Fay's hysterical impersonation of Sarah Palin. If I can find the humor in Fay as Palin why am I mad at when Fred Armisen lampoons Paterson? SNL skewered Palin for what she said and her political views. SNL can go right ahead and do the same to Paterson and they sure do have plenty of material for comedic fodder. But SNL does not want to stop at making fun of Paterson's political gaffs. No, they have relied on cheap, antiquated, and bigoted humor that makes fun of the fact Paterson is blind. These gags are offensive and many have stated that SNL crossed the line. I agree. Groups such as the National Federation for the Blind and the National Coalition for Disability Rights have been particularly critical.

Last night when I was out watching my son perform in a play SNL came up during the intermission and I was asked what I thought of the Paterson skits. My response was emphatic: the skits were not funny. They were an insult to all people with disabilities. My friends thought I was humorless, a prototypical academic unable to connect with the world in which they interact. Worse yet, I could not take a joke. In reply I asked would they laugh at jokes from the 1930s that portrayed black people as less than human? What about anti-Semetic jokes about concentration camps. Would they find this humorous? I think not. My comments ended the discussion quickly. No one knew how to reply.

So, here we are almost 20 years after the ADA was passed and the average American does not have a clue as to the bigotry and ignorance people with disabilities encounter. This lack of knowledge surrounds us and is especially evident in newspapers. Even in articles that are intended to be supportive of Paterson and critical of SNL miss the mark. For instance, in the New York Times yesterday there was an article by Clyde Haberman entitled "A Governor's Sense of Humor put to the Test". Haberman considers the SNL skit "creepy". He quotes disability activists who make good points and clearly finds much fault in the SNL skits. While this is great, some of Haberman's opening comments are as antiquated as the SNL skit. For instance, Haberman writes that "across the years he [Paterson] triumphed over affliction" and that his "ascension in Albany last year was a fluke" that "gave the sightless new reason to take heart". These sort of comments are as bad if not worse than the SNL skit. Paterson has repeatedly stated that the color of his skin created fewer social barriers than did the fact he was blind. Paterson consistently mentions the fact that the unemployment rate for people who are blind is 70% Moreover, Paterson's rise to power was no fluke. He is a competent, a gifted speaker, and been active in politics for decades. He intends to run for governor and in spite of a few rough patches (like the Senate seat/Caroline Kennedy debacle) has handled himself with great dignity.

In the weeks and months to come I hope to witness a more nuanced view of the politics of disability. This has already started via commercials that attack Paterson that were paid for by state health workers' union and the association of hospitals. The commercial features a blind man sitting in a wheelchair wearing sun glasses that asks "Why are you doing this to me?" Paterson sees nothing wrong with these ads nor has he ever complained about the content of SNL skits that poked fun of his views as governor or his well chronicled personal indiscretions. All this goes with being governor of New York. Paterson knows this as does every other governor in the country. Thus I am not worried about Paterson as he can fend for himself. But I do worry about the impact bigoted humor has on the general public and that is where SNL crossed the line. I get this as does Paterson and disability rights activists. I wish everyone understood and until they do bigoted humor will still appear to be, well, funny, when it is anything but.


Jason Nolan said...

"My friends thought I was humorless, a prototypical academic unable to connect with the world in which they interact."

Ya. I tell people that any humour that is designed at the expense of who someone is (race, gender, ability...), versus what they say or do is not worth having. If that's humourlessness, I'm down with that.

FridaWrites said...

I suspect that the silence came from the recognition that what you said was correct; however one has self justified such humor, when comparing to racism and anti-Semitism, your argument is pretty irrefutable. Too bad we have to make comparisons for people to recognize the point. Sometimes people will change their minds and sometimes they will forget.

In this regard, I can be humorless too. Disability is just not fair game. I'm reminded that feminists have often been accused of being humorless as well. Yeah, we're supposed to be oppressed and like it.

Humor like SNL's serves the social function of reminding of us of our position in society. And thereby "proves" to people that we're targets, making us more likely to be potential victims of crime, harassment, or abuse.

I'm okay with crip humor (and even words like crip and gimp) when they're used from an inside perspective, to undermine the disablism and to share experience. That sort of humor is healthy.

yanub said...

I've noticed that, when people are called on their use of ableist slurs, they generally have two defenses. The first, which I often hear also in defense of sexism or racism, is "it's just a joke." The second is an accusation that whoever doesn't like what they just said or did must be a member of some despised out-group enforcing their own brand of "political correctness." Conservatives always accuse liberals, liberals accuse conservatives, religious people accuse secularists, and secularists accuse the religious. No one wants to take responsibility for the possibility that they are bigots whose words reflect vicious attitudes.

Jason Nolan said...

"I'm okay with crip humor (and even words like crip and gimp) when they're used from an inside perspective, to undermine the disablism and to share experience. That sort of humor is healthy."

That really sets things in sharp relief for me. My friends use crip, gimp and blinky, and I'll use the terms with them, but I wouldn't use them independently. And I think that this is for 2 reasons: not being diagnosed until mid-40s and the physical aspects not being noticeable to the casual observer. There's no way I could explain that I had insider 'rights' to use these terms every time someone wanted to call me on it. I'm fine with that. Lots of other word to use, but I really do think that you're right, humour within a group as a way of exploring the group's thoughts and boundaries IS the type of humour that is healthy, and if others want to laugh along with us, so much the better.