Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wyatt Cenac and This American Life - Mocking Down Syndrome

I have a piece up on CNN today about comedy and disability, focusing on an episode of This American Life. I'm interested in the use of disclaimers, something I've talked about before, as a way to try to escape the consequences of one's words. I know some will disagree. They'll say it's just comedy. Or he didn't mean to be offensive. I'll have more to say about that tomorrow.

Here are some resources, such as the transcript and Ira Glass' response to a parent who wrote him. That parent is named Julie Ross, and I am giving the rest of my blog space to her, so that she can fully articulate her position. Comments are welcome, but people who get nasty to Julie will find themselves deleted promptly. No warning.


Open Letter to Ira Glass, Senior Producer of This American Life

RE: “I Was So High” Episode #524

My husband and I always enjoy listening to This American Life (TAL). A few weeks ago, our family was listening to the broadcast, including my younger daughter who has Down syndrome. Episode #524 was like most: entertaining, thought provoking, and amusing. We were laughing up until we heard comedian Wyatt Cenac say “Down syndrome” –we feared how it would be discussed in the context of drug abuse. In his segment of the show, Cenac describes an incident where he ate a marijuana-laden brownie. He becomes so intoxicated that he cannot speak coherently, compulsively uses the bathroom and his thinking becomes disorganized and paranoid.

I anticipated hearing the R-word, Retard (a slur and term of derision). But Cenac was choosing his words carefully; he stopped short of using the R-word. He describes being so inebriated he fears he’s “grown an extra chromosome” and has acquired “adult-onset Down syndrome”.

Transcript (excerpt):
And I did it in that voice. And I have never done that voice before in my life. I don't know where that voice came from. But I heard myself use that voice. And in my mind, I went, oh [BLEEP]. I just gave myself Down Syndrome.


The butt of the joke is not the drug abuser or drug abuse in general, but instead people with intellectual disability (ID). The punch line of his monologue is having Down syndrome.

Cenac didn’t have to drag people with ID into his bit. He could’ve claimed he feared brain damage or memory loss as a result of drug abuse. Instead Cenac chose to mention Down syndrome (Ds): a genetic condition coupled with distinct physical traits, cognitive & developmental implications, and co-occurring health conditions that set people with Ds apart as a specific entity. And even though Cenac avoids using the R-word, he tries to hide behind the medical label “Ds” – believing it’s a safe, politically correct way to deliver an insult. As historian and author James W. Trent, Jr. writes (from Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the U.S.):

These words – idiot and imbecile, feebleminded, moron, defective and the like – are today offensive to us, and yet they reveal in their honesty the sensibilities of the people who used them and the meanings they attached to mental retardation…More recently, the mentally retarded have become mentally retarded persons and…persons with developmental disabilities
Behind these awkward new phrases, however, the gaze we turn on those we label mentally retarded continues to be informed by the long history of condescension, suspicion, and exclusion. While our contemporary phrases appear more benign, too often we use them to hide from the offense in ways that the old terms did not permit [emphasis mine].

Furthermore, Cenac must have known he was approaching a controversial subject because he makes an awkward attempt at a disclaimer, offering his synopsis of Down syndrome:

             Transcript (excerpt):

(NORMAL VOICE) Now let me just say, I know what Down Syndrome is. I know that Down Syndrome is something that you're born with when you are born with an extra chromosome. I know all that information. I knew that information then. But something about eating this [pot] brownie made me think that somehow I had grown an extra chromosome and I now had adult-onset Down Syndrome.


For Cenac and his audience (people without Ds) the thought of having an intellectual disability is “terrible” however oblivious to the sufferers themselves. It’s clear that the brunt of his joke is people with Down syndrome: the mentally retarded. The reason his audience and Wyatt himself find this story amusing is because in the end, thankfully he isn’t one of THEM. He is one of US: the mentally accelerated.

            Transcript (excerpt):

And for people who have Down Syndrome, it's something they grow up with. And they grow up and they have healthy and happy lives. I just got it.

Nevertheless it is Cenac’s own freak-out that delivers the value judgment. It’s clear that having Ds is something dreadful, something to weep over and worthy of total panic.

Transcript (excerpt):


And I start freaking out. I'm just like, I'm going to have to explain this to people. And I start panicking. And I just start freaking out, freaking out to the point where I start weeping in the middle of Dodger Stadium.

This negative view of ID stands in spite of any claims he makes about overall positive outcomes or attributes of Down syndrome. Is the audience supposed to ignore Cenac’s dramatic reaction and horror at the thought of living with ID, and instead accept his blanket assertion that intellectual disability is otherwise okay for those “born with it” –and presumably living happily? His description of Down syndrome is notable only because it is a disclaimer used to shield himself from criticism for mocking persons with ID. I’m also not impressed with Cenac’s general opinion (informed by what, if any, anecdote or evidence Cenac fails to mention) of the collective health and quality of life for a large, diverse group of persons. And while his statement about Ds isn’t unfavorable as an assertion, it is of little consolation in light of his personal disdain for ID.

This stuff is no joke: it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to call it hate speech when persons of privileged status denigrate and malign a group of people of lesser social status/power. Clearly there is pronounced power inequality between Cenac (presumably non-disabled) and people with Ds (having an intellectual disability). People with ID do not possess an equal measure of access, power, respect, and privilege that Cenac enjoys. People with ID are often denied civil rights including quality education, the vote, marriage, employment, reproductive rights, and the opportunity to live independently in their own communities. We envision full civil rights, access, and power for people with ID, but this is not yet a reality. Therefore, when Cenac impersonates and mocks ID– it’s not humor or entertainment; it’s derisive and discriminatory speech.

I’d expect to see Cenac’s monologue on Bill Maher’s show (he’s no stranger to alienating audiences and perpetuating certain stereotypes) -but not on public radio. I’m not asking Wyatt Cenac to edit himself or curb his free speech– his own prejudices and perspectives seem clear and I doubt my words would convince him. I am however reaching out to TAL and Chicago Public Media because I’m aware of its mission, my local NPR station included, and its aim to serve a greater good. I can’t seem to reconcile the desire to foster community with contemplative commentary and conversation while broadcasting Cenac’s disparaging monologue. I hope you agree that jokes about having Ds and impersonations of people with ID are objectionable; TAL should immediately remove this segment from the episode.

If, however, you decide to continue to air this segment, perhaps you can help answer a question I’ve been wrestling with. As I mentioned, my family listened to Cenac’s monologue live on air that day. My question is: How would you, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, explain to your kids why having Ds is “horrible” or funny?

I believe it is neither.

Best regards,
Julie Ross