Monday, January 31, 2011

If There be 7 Degrees of Separation, Could the Other 6 Pass This Along?

An Open Letter to Jeremy Boxen and Allan Hawco

Regarding: The Republic of Doyle, Episode entitled 'The Woman Who Knew Too Little'

First let me congratulate you on creating the character of 'Doyle' and developing a Canadian television series with both wit and charm. We'd seen the ads on television but had never managed to see a single episode. We waited, with anticipation, for the release of the DVD set. We planned a weekend where we could simply dive into the show and enjoy being entertained. And, we were. Because of the nature of the character we were a little worried that, in proof of his 'coolness', he would let slip with the 'r' word. But, no, episode after episode passed and we thought we could relax.

Then in an episode written by Mr. Boxen, the character created and played by Mr. Hawco, tosses the word, of course as a pejorative, at another cast member. We actually paused the episode to calm ourselves. It was clear that the word was carefully chosen and purposefully used. Unlike with epithets used against other minorities, which are employed to demonstrate the negative nature of a character, this is a word (which is widely and openly reviled by the disability community) that is actually used to increase the 'coolness' factor of a character. The use of the word, in the manner it was used, shows a knowing willingness to hurt one group of people to curry favour and impress another. This kind of purposeful bigotry ought to be loudly condemned, however, it is this - my complaint that will be attacked. Every legitimate call for the concept of respectful language to include disability concerns are ignored by the powers the be and attacked by supporters of the status quo. Those who wish the freedom to hate mask themselves as fighters for the freedom to speak.

Oddly the opinion of people with disabilities, like myself, or those who parent, work with, or otherwise care about people with disabilities, also like myself, is trashed as 'political correct moaning' as 'oversensitive reaction and whining'. Hatred and hurt of people with disabilities is pretty much openly condoned by those who would never, ever, use similar words of denigration of other minorities, of those who give to causes of public good to end intolerance and discrimination toward most. Most, but certainly not all.

'All' has never meant 'all' when a person with a disability approaches the table of public opinion. Mention diversity and disability disappears from vocabulary. Crimes against people with disabilities are viewed as less serious. Violence against people with disabilities goes unpunished. Social stigmatization makes it such that people with disabilities are pretty much held accountable for being at the blunt end of social opinion. The slaugher of disabled citizens in Nazi Germany is barely, if ever,mentioned in public discourse. Institutionalization, the great social cleansing, is never much discussed certainly not in terms of the damage done to those locked away. But then, who cares about them?

Into a world that has consistently devalued those born different, you use the power you have, not to promote understanding but to perpetrate continued hatred. Lovely.

But what would we have you do, Messrs Boxen and Hawco? Well, we shouldn't have to tell you how to make redress. I fully expect that you will never read this blog and that if you did, you will simply dismiss the contents here within. While you obviously research criminal enterprises for your show, I don't expect that you will spend even a second researching to determine if the facts in this blog post are true. That people with disabilities are frequent targets for crime, for bullying and for social violence. No, don't look, I'm not going to provide links for you. You should want to know. You should want to investigate. You should care about the effect of words.

Other writers have you know.

Do you know how Charles Dickens responded to a letter from Eliza Davis? Probably not. Let me tell you, I think you might find it instructive. During the writing of Oliver Twist, the character of Fagin is referred to in the first 38 chapters, 257 times as 'the Jew'. As the series appeared, first in serialized form, Ms Davis felt that Dickens, in his portrayal of the character and his constant reference to him as 'the Jew' was inciting hatred against Jewish people. When Dickens received the letter, the book form of Twist was being typeset. In fact the first 38 chapters had already been done. He stopped the process and in the remaining book the term is barely used again in the next 179 references to the character.

Dickens did not stop there. In his next book, Our Mutual Friend, he created a Jewish character named Riah, whom he gave words to express the prejudice and the injustices that are perpetrated on his people by the current bigotries and attitudes of the day. It seems that Dickens, didn't leap to defensiveness. Instead, he recognized he had done harm and sought to actively redress the harm he had done. He never began to bemoan restrictions placed on him by oversensitive, politically correct readers hell bent on limiting his rights as an artist. No, he recognized that instead of limiting his vocabulary, the challenge was to increase it. He was challenged to use new words to characterize 'the other' and in doing so elevated the use of language from vilification and victimization to revelation and respect. Eliza Davis gave him a gift, in thanks, inscribed with these words, well worth noting: "To Charles Dickens ... in grateful and admiring recognition of his having exercised the noblest quality men can possess-that of atoning for an injury as soon as conscious of having inflicted it."

I wonder if when you wrote that scene, Mr. Boxen, or when you mouthed the words Mr. Hawco, you had any concern at all for the "injury" you would cause those with intellectual disabilities who might suffer from the sting of what you've done. If you considered for a second the reinforcement that 'bullies' got from seeing and hearing a 'cool' guy use the word to put down another. I think, sadly, that you probably did.

And didn't care.

See, Dickens understood his role as a writer. And that's what made him an artist.

You clearly don't. And that what makes you simply, and in the end, just another couple of bigots.

Dave Hingsburger


Andrea S. said...

I've posted this link on my Facebook page. If we get lucky and my facebook friends pass it along too, then that should be only another five degrees of separation to go!

My Girls R Angels said...

Thank you Dave! Beautifully written, as usual. :)

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I have never seen this show - we don't watch TV. I hope that your letter somehow finds its mark.

It amazes me that people seem to get racism - they can recognize it when they see it and mostly reject it. But hate and discrimination against people with disabilities does not even seem to be on most people's radar. Why is that?

Keep fighting the good fight!

Belinda said...

It was so interesting to read about Charles Dickens' response to Eliza. That is a mark of a good man and a good writer.

I hope this blog post is read by those involved. With search engines it is possible that they will pick it up and have a chance to think again.

Dave Hingsburger said...

FYI: I have done a search and found that the particular quote using the 'r' word has appeared on at least one fan site as a cool and funny quote from the show. Words hurt ...

Andrea S. said...


I'm not old enough to have been around back then, but apparently in the 1950s racism wasn't on anyone's radar screen either. Ditto for sexism. Things were just the way they were. Then in the 1950s black people "suddenly" started complaining about the "n" word and "suddenly" started complaining about this racism thing.

Of course their complaints were not actually any more sudden then than our complaints about disablism are today. These things bothered black people for centuries before they were able to start finding ways to slowly make themselves heard by white people. Who were initially bewildered by the whole thing.

Someone can correct me if I'm mistaken on my history, but the disability rights community did not really start finding each other and organizing to make ourselves heard until about the 1960s and 1970s in Berkley California, probably different (often later) years in other places. As with any other civil/human rights movement, it takes time just to get a movement moving: usually you need smaller successes at the local level before you can use the lessons you learn from those successes to figure out how to achieve more significant things. For the disability community I think it's taking longer perhaps in part because we are more likely to be isolated from each other for various reasons depending on the exact impairment, the exact forms of discrimination one faces, level of poverty, etc. (institutionaliztion, lack of internet access due to poverty, inability to leave the home, etc.) But I think in short, we are only starting to become a tiny blip on people's radar screen just because our movement is newer than other human rights movements.

And then it doesn't help that some of the things we define as human rights, such as access to information for deaf people and for blind people, do require that someone pay a little extra, eg. captions on TV or Braille/audio alternatives to print format. Some people have a hard time grasping the basic concept of "equality does NOT mean 'exactly the same'" ... and that makes it harder for them to recognize how other disability rights issues are similar to other types of human rights issues that have been fought for in the past (or that are still being fought for today).

Anonymous said...

Thank You Dave, enuff said