Sunday, August 17, 2008

Taking Umbrage Is Retarded

Get Over It - OK Go (mp3)
If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough - Roger Alan Wade (mp3)

Two different people forwarded me this email last week:
You may or may not have heard about the movie coming out in theatres around the country on Wednesday that is being protested by a number of national disability groups.

Special Olympics has joined the group. The protest centers on the movies use of the word 'retard' and one of its characters. I'll not try and launch into an explanation which I'm sure will be inadequate. Honestly, I'm not up to date on this issue. Instead, I have copied the link to a news release that came out of Special Olympics in DC today, and was published in a number of national media...including Associated Press. This should fairly give you enough information ... and you can seek out additional information.
USA Today has an even better version of the story.

So I just need to get this straight. Tropic Thunder, a film in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a white guy who surgically alters himself so he can portray a black guy, is being protested by the mentally handicapable...? We're to believe that repeated use of the word "retarded" is picket-worthy but blackface is OK in the right context?

Naw, screw the whole blackface part. That distracts from the stupidity of this particular protest. We're to believe that repeated use of the word "retarded" is picket-worthy on any film?? That's just... just... well... challenged.

Most hypersensitive, hyperdefensive people might dismiss my insensitivity to their plights as a sign I'm a good ol' Southern WASP who's rarely if ever been mocked for my identity or suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous humiliation for the amusement of the masses.

To dismiss me for this reason is both accurate and ridiculous. True because I am indeed a Southern WASP. Ridiculous because (a) I own a scooter and look awkward riding it; (b) I wore JAMS a lot. In 1992; (c) I collected comic books in high school; (d) I own 10 Rick Springfield and Hanson CDs; (e) Do I really really need to go on?

I get mocked. I got mocked a lot as a little kid. I got mocked plenty in high school. I passed out at a fraternity house in college and woke up with permanent marker on my nose, cheeks, ears, and both kneecaps, and I had "TOOL" written in beautiful capital letters on the back of my neck and on my stomach (with an arrow pointing up, not down).

I've always identified with Cinderella, as we were both raised in a house with wicked step-siblings who enjoyed verbally and physically terrorizing us. (Go ahead and insert your snickering gay commentary and get it outta your system.) While Cinderella fraternized with mice, my step-brothers preferred placing me in locked rooms with several possums. In real life, they don't talk, and they're not cute. Not when you're seven, anyway. This was one of any number of acts from my growin' up that formed my notion of what is offensive and what is worth just getting over.

However, it's different to be mocked as an individual as opposed to being mocked for your involuntary membership in a group. There's no Dorks United Movement or anything that stands up for my kind as a collective, so I can't claim to suffer the same level of indignities as women, homosexuals, minorities, the mentally challenged, the physically challenged, the overweight, the underweight, models, or cat lovers.

In college, I was the poorly-timed butt of several jokes. A friend infamously skilled at putting his foot in his mouth at the wrong times managed to tip past the scale of the culturally acceptable, and all I could do was shrug, acknowledging with him that he deserved his shame. And then laugh at him. Let's call him Julius.

The first time I was hobbling out of a building with my newly-broken ankle, incompetently using my crutches to navigate some stairs, when Julius shouted at me from across the quad. "Hey! Cripple! Gimp! Yeah you! You look pathetic!!" he shouted. He didn't notice that, about 3/4 of the way from him to me was a young lad in a wheelchair. Because, well, Julius wasn't talking to that cripple. Vitriolic arrows of hate were fired from many bystanders' eyes at my pal that day.

Another time, a large group of acquaintances -- most of us were still getting to know one another -- were headed to the dining hall when Julius punctuated a conversation with, "Yeah, Billy's a real bastard." And everyone kinda nodded, not knowing the depth of Julius' attempted humor. So he explained. "No, really. Billy's, like, 24 hours away from being a bastard. Like, in real life!" He was trying to explain the joke, you see. So he kept explaining.

My biological father was killed in a car wreck the day after I was born. Ha!

To me, his joke wasn't remotely offensive. I'd known Julius for years and was used to his wit, which often had the acidity of high molarity hydrochloric acid. But I knew him, and I knew his intent, and he knew I had relatively thick skin in these matters. Nothing to take offense at, honestly. But I also knew he'd overstepped his bounds with everyone else in our company. The conversation died like Thelma and Louise driving over the cliff. Three different girls in the group pulled me aside at one point or another to make sure I was OK. The guys just kept saying things like, "That's cold, dude."

But "retarded"? Are they really trying to make that the next N-word? Do we really need another N-word? Isn't one word that is known merely by its first letter enough? As Dumbledore so astutely observes in the very first Harry Potter, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself," so how many Voldemorts do we want in our lexicon?

Is "retard" really worth that fight? Is Tropic Thunder the right place to dig in the heels and fire away?

My smell test in matters of offensiveness is admittedly egocentric: If I don't see the big deal, then our culture ain't ready to think it's a big deal. And if our culture ain't ready, then taking the wrong tack to bring it to our attention only annoys and alienates, distancing the very people needed to change the culture.

So to those of you hypersensitive to the plight of folks rarely referred directly as retarded? You'll need to come back in a decade or two. For now your complaints are only annoying and reek of seeking attention for a problem that's not nearly as dire as others in our midst. (If you want proof, check and see how many times people refer to Obama as "retarded" to scare your votes away and compare them "black" and "Muslim.")

"Get Over It," admittedly closer to an bona fide "hit" than we're generally aiming for on this blog, is from OK Go's debut eponymous album. "If You're Gonna Be Dumb..." is from Roger Alan Wade's first album -- yes, he now has two -- All Likkered Up. I'm actually pretty sure both are available on iTunes and's mp3 site but was to ashamed to look the latter up.


Anonymous said...

As long as a society is willing to use cultural labels of specific groups of people as part of our humor, comedy, we are not progressive in our evolution. It's not hypersensitive. It's standing up and saying "knock it off"! Name calling by any other name is still name calling. Negative. Yeah, we grow up and get over it with thicker skins. That doesn't change the fact that the people who would mock you for your Hanson and Rick Springfield CD's are the ones that are, er, challenged! We limit others and ourselves with labels. What the
foo is a Southern WASP supposed to really mean??? LOL ! If you like that label, well then, ok for you.
I don't like to be pigeon holed myself. With that, I'm LMAO at your commentary because our species as a whole is such a living evolutionary comedy! - Marleah7

Billy said...

While your point is understood, I believe we limit ourselves when we allow labels to define us and allow others to define us, which is what we suggest when we get ourselves all worked up over people and the labels they provide.

Undeniably, there comes a tipping point in our culture where these labels are truly incendiary, divisive and hateful. While I'm sure there's folks who use "retard" in such ways, I wouldn't throw that word out as an automatic one like the N-word.

The point of using said labels in Tropic Thunder is, from my understanding, to mock the goobers who abuse them rather than those who are labeled. So throwing the labeled's offendedness into the mix when they're not even the real butts of the joke is just annoying.

By the way, I'm offended that they call it the "butt" of the joke. I happen to like big butts, and I cannot lie.

jbradburn said...

I went to Diversity training for my employere the other day. It's a shame that it's necessary - but for some folks it probably is. I actually thought that they did a decent job on a delicate subject.

The message "try not offend others" and "think of what you are saying" came out loud and clear". There was also the message of "Treat others as you'd like to be treated."

Here's the main rub I had w/ this and have w/ various "diversity" programs:

If the core message is "treat others as you'd think they'd like to be treated" - doesn't that message apply when we hear something that could be interpretted as offensive, but probably isn't meant as such? Don't we owe our fellow human beings some tough skin? Or are we now as a collective society given the green light to behave like a 9 year old who was just called "stupid."