What have we done?

A developmentally disabled kid and a family with two moms in one t.v. show.  It’s so rare that there is a television program that the whole family can enjoy, but once in awhile one comes along.  This week it was the ABC “gotcha” show What Would You Do? If you’ve never seen it, it’s a hidden-camera type of show where they have actors create moral and ethical dilemmas for bystanders and then watch to see how people react.  A lot of the time, the main question is will people react at all? (find out after the jump….)

Earlier this week, via Spread The Word to End The Word in my Facebook feed, I saw that this week’s program would feature a scenario in which a bagger in a grocery store, played by an actor with Down’s Syndrome, would be harassed and taunted with the word ‘retarded’ by other actors, while the hidden cameras looked in to see how the other customers in the checkout line would react.

I watched the promo and spent the better part of the next two days asking myself the very question the show poses, what would I do?  On the one had, the easy, visceral, response would be to calmly tell the checker to call security, because I’m about to beat the crap out of the offending customer.  But I think in real life I probably wouldn’t do just that.  It’s not that I’m a total pacifist, or that I’m going to sit here and sanctimoniously proclaim that violence is never the answer.  I’m not sure I believe that quite honestly.  But the truth is that I am really a big chicken, a lot of bark, pretty much no bite.  (And yes, I realize that chickens neither bark, nor bite….so, maybe I’m all strut, no peck).  I don’t like confrontation, I really don’t.  Also, I don’t really like the idea of getting my ass kicked.  By the time the show actually aired, I had decided that they really should rename it “Who Wants to Get Punched in the Face?”
Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Who Stops Grocery Clerk Abuse“, posted with vodpod

I have some sympathy for the people who stand there and do nothing…very little sympathy, but still.  I think it is fair to assume that anyone so callous as to call an obviously disabled person ‘retarded’ as the actors in this scene did, is probably a seriously messed-up person capable of all kinds of atrociousness.  If I had my kids with me, would I want to risk a confrontation where I – or my kids — might be retaliated against?  On the other hand, I don’t think I could remain completely silent — especially if my kids were there, what kind of example would that set?  Maybe I’d tell the checker to call a manager, maybe I’d go get one myself, maybe I’d amaze myself and unload on the offender.  I’m rather in awe of the people who did so in the segment, and rather eloquently at that, because all I can imagine mustering is a shrieking barrage of f-bombs.  I guess I should work on that.

A few minutes after I posted the promo clip, one of my Facebook friends mentioned that the same show would also feature a waiter harassing a gay couple at a restaurant with their two children.  My heart sank when I heard that, because I had a pretty good idea how that would work out.  I felt bad about being so cynical.  Now I feel bad about being so right.  I’m not surprised though.  There was a silver lining to the otherwise depressing same-sex parent segment, the gentleman at the end — so be sure you watch the whole thing, if only to restore your faith in humanity for one brief, shining, moment.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

I happen to think that the communities of disabled people and the lgbt community have a lot in common.  The harassment and disparagement of disabled or lgbt people is still socially acceptable.  “That’s so gay” and “That’s retarded” are easily the two most popular put-downs on the playground.  I wish these two communities would work a little closer together because ultimately, they are each comprised of people just trying to live out their lives truthfully and with dignity.  Consider what happened in Mississippi a couple of months back — with Constance McMillen, a gay teen, being sent to a fake prom while the rest of her high school went the a private prom.  But don’t worry, Constance wasn’t totally alone at the fake prom, she was joined by the developmentally disabled students — also punked and ostracized from their prom.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that you can write off the refusal of hundreds of patrons in both the grocery store and restaurant scenarios to intervene as simply motivated by the fear of being punched in the face.  We live in a society that, I believe, places disproportionate value on idiotic opinions.  We are told that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” — but usually that comes in the context of excusing an opinion that is fundamentally wrong, and may not be an opinion at all, but willful ignorance of fact, or simply the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudice by stubborn, ignorant, bigots.  Every time I’ve been reminded that someone is entitled to their opinion, it has been to keep me from challenging that opinion or that person – and I bite every time, because let’s face it, it’s easier and I’d rather avoid the awkwardness of a confrontation.  We’re forced to listen to “all sides” of an issue, even though some issues have only two sides: right/wrong or fact/fiction — but we have to listen to both in the name of being “fair and balanced” — when in reality all we’ve done is lend credibility to positions and opinions that deserve their place on the fringe of discourse.

But every time we bite our tongue, put our head down, or shake our head but ultimately look the other way in the name of “entitling everyone to their opinion” we help to create a culture where standing up for each other in the face of injustice becomes the exception rather than the rule.  The producers of What Would You Do? knew it would be that way, otherwise they never would have pitched the idea for it in the first place.  They knew that it only a tiny percentage of those who were exposed to these situations would actually respond.  If, out of 100 patrons, only six had remained silent at the sight of the same-sex couple’s situation – there would be no show.  If the tables were turned, and you had to worry about getting punched in the face every time you uttered the word ‘retarded’ — again, there would be no show.  Every time we allow somebody to spew hatred and ignorance in the name of “minding our own business” instead of telling them to shut up and move on, we create an environment where such idiocy is so prevalent that we become almost immune to it — we suck it in like smog and have to wait for one guy, a total stranger on a television program, to remind us what it was like to breathe fresh air.

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2 Responses to What have we done?

  1. Matt Algren says:

    Nice post.

    You’re exactly right on the “That’s my opinion” business. Now that you mention it, I realize that I only ever hear that from people who have said something dreadfully wrong.

    As far as standing up to the bullies goes (because that’s what this is about: bullies), I’ve found that most of the time, bark is all you need. As long as it’s convincing bark, they won’t risk the bite.

    And I agree with that WONDERFUL woman in the purple coat about getting in a fight. She said, “When it has to do with injustice, I really don’t care. If I get punched out, I get punched out. It just doesn’t matter.”

    That obviously changes dramatically when you’re elderly or towing a couple kids along, but I’m in a position in which I’m a) male and b) bigger than a lot of these bullies (it’s all fat, but still…). I can risk the odd knife fight or whatever.

  2. Jen says:

    I’m with you on the lady in purple. Right up until she spoke I was still trying to rationalize not saying anything, but she’s absolutely right.

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