Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The George Takei "Controversy": My Two Cents

Woman in wheelchair viewed from behind, standing up to get a bottle of alcohol off a store shelf. Caption says there has been a miracle in the alcohol isle.
Mommy Misadventures - August 4, 2014

This is NOT funny
Living With Bob (Dysautonomia) - March 12, 2014

That Crazy Crippled Chick - December 23, 2013

George Takei posted this on his Facebook page and on Twitter. He didn’t create it … it’s been floating around since at least last Fall. He thought it was pretty funny I guess, and added a little quip of his own that kind of doubled down on the joke.

Lots of people criticized the joke, because it depends on factual misconceptions about disabled people. Just to pick one … lots of people who use wheelchairs to get around can, actually, stand or walk a bit when they need to. Okay, one more … disabled people can enjoy an adult beverage, too, and there’s nothing surprising or disreputable about it.

Instead of just apologizing or maybe saying something like, “Hey, wow. I didn’t think of it that way. Sorry about that. And thanks for letting me know!”, Mr, Takei, who is at this point almost as famous as an advocate for progressive causes and battling homophobia as he is for having played Sulu on Star Trek, resisted calls to take it down, saying that critics should take their comments “down a notch”. He also claimed that since the joke does have multiple sides and interpretations, it would spark valuable discussion.

Well, maybe. But when he posted it, Takei wasn't spurring discussion, he was making a cute joke.

It's far from the worst example of ableism, so I don’t have much to add.

Ah, who am I kidding …?

I am more bummed out by Takei’s response to the criticism than I am by the joke picture itself. Don’t get me wrong, the joke is entirely dependent on serious and common misconceptions about disability … misconceptions that make life a little more painful for those of us with physical disabilities. Non-disabled people may find it hard to imagine why this simple stereotype would actually be painful. I’ll explain it, from personal experience.

When I was in college I used an electric scooter to get around campus. It was too small a place for driving, but too big for me to walk. So the scooter was the key to my ability to attend college and do all the college things. Yet, more times than I can count, I would worry a bit in the back of my mind whenever I stepped off the scooter, because it felt like people would see that and, if they didn’t know me, judge me as lazy or faking it or something.

Also, I went for years without using “handicapped” parking spaces because I was afraid of what people would think when I got out of my car and walked into a store. I use a permit now, but I still feel weird and embarrassed when I catch someone looking at me for an extra few moments as I leave my car on foot. I feel like I have to explain myself, which would just be weird, so I don’t. Instead I just have a moment of anxiety. Which isn't horrible or anything, but it's something I don’t need. I don’t think anyone needs more shame, embarrassment, or anxiety in their lives.

Add to this the fairly common (though never discussed in polite company) sub-stereotype that certain disabled people are also personally messed up and dysfunctional, with screwed up priorities that lead them to waste money on booze, when they should be trying harder to be healthy.

So, the joke isn’t grossly offensive, but it isn’t okay and it deserves criticism. My take can be summed up as: “Dude, not cool."

Takei’s response is more upsetting because it is something of a pattern … not with Mr. Takei particularly, but with lots of people who are generally progressive and care about oppressed and marginalized people. It seems that people Takei have well-tuned radar for every form of prejudice there is, except ableism. They probably know what ableism is, but they don’t recognize it when it bites them in the proverbial ass … or comes out of their literal mouths. And, when they are called out for it, their first reaction is the kind of defensiveness they would normally criticize in others for different prejudices.

I think it’s because they can’t conceive of the possibility that they, themselves, might harbor unexamined prejudice. Prejudice is for ignorant people and right-wingers, after all. Right? So, against their better judgment and contrary to their usual beliefs about giving offense and apologizing, they defend themselves with the same kind of self-justifying, bogus free speech, creativity, nonconformity crap that others use to defend rape jokes and stale ethnic humor.

I am finally coming to realize that one of the many features of with living with a disability and being awake to ableism is being disappointed by people we greatly admire for their other, more progressive views, but who seem to view ableism as no big deal.