Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Mayor Of Swindon

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Frances Ryan, The Guardian - April 15, 2014

"Are we still letting mongols have sex with each other?"

Apparently, Nick Martin, the now ex-Mayor of Swindon in the United Kingdom, said this during a council discussion of the "challenges of disabled adults in modern society". He was officially required to apologize for the words he used, tried several times to do so but with obvious insincerity, and has now resigned.

I have no problem with certain kinds of statements by officials being deemed off-limits and requiring apologies. But the words themselves might be only part of the story. I would very much like to know more about that discussion. Was the Mayor's offensive statement accompanied by regressive policy ideas? What did the other people in the discussion think? Were they all appalled, or did some of them chuckle or nod? Was it a casual chat, or were actual policies being debated that could affect real people? What policies were being discussed that could produce this specific statement about disabled people, sexuality, and fertility? That would seem to be important, but so far I haven't seen anyone mention the context.

Absent any other information, I am glad the man resigned. In all likelihood, this wasn't an isolated incident. Martin probably has regressive views on all sorts of people and ideas he disapproves of. However, it does seem like focusing on the words themselves rather than the meaning behind them serves both sides in a rather unfortunate way. The higher officials get to feel good that they have punished the Mayor for a tasteless, embarrassing indiscretion, without reference or apparent impact on any substantive policy issues. Meanwhile, as this Guardian column points out, the ex-Mayor gets to feel like a martyr to "political correctness" and a defender of free speech and old-fashioned plan-spokenness. And he still hasn't been asked to explain why he apparently thinks "mongols" shouldn't have sex. What is he suggesting? Does he think that government entities that were under his Mayoral control should have the legal power to regulate disabled peoples' most intimate choices?

I suspect that there are many more government officials who feel the same way about the rights of intellectually disabled people, who would never expose their beliefs with such offensive words. That is not a comfort.

Would Martin still be Mayor of Swindon if he had used more polite words to advocate state control of an entire population's fertility and sex lives? Words can be hurtful in and of themselves, but they also reflect ideas, and ideas can be translated into action. It's the actions I worry about more.