Tuesday 22 November 2011

On Being an Uppity Crip

"Mong-gate" rumbles on, with people now taking positions for and against Ricky Gervais' latest TV series 'Life's Too Short', which revolves around a talent agency for actors with restricted growth run by Warwick Davis, himself a dwarf. Friday's Guardian featured an article in the Comment is Free section interviewing Kristina Gray, mother of a child with one of the several forms of dwarfism, about her opinion of the programme. It's probably fair to say she's seriously less than impressed.

Now I haven't watched 'Life's Too Short', I'm not a fan of Gervais' style of humour, and my personal opinion is that whether he does a good job of it or not, the attitudes of the audience will overwhelmingly interpret it as just another message that people with dwarfism, and other disabled people by extension, are perfectly legitimate targets for attack. So essentially I think the idea is fatally flawed, even if he has done all the research needed, unfortunately 'mong-gate' makes it clear he hasn't.

The first I knew of the article was a tweet on Friday linking to it, with a comment that the trolls were out in force. So I went over to read the article and picked my way through the comments replying to some of the more egregious ones, particularly those which didn't seem to have any understanding of the level of disability discrimination out there. I was looking at the Guardian website again this morning and noticed I'd gotten a couple of replies after my last visit. Comments on the article are now closed, so I can't reply to them there, but I think one of them is interesting for the attitudes it reveals. Particularly as it got 11 recommendations, more than most comments in the thread.

"In a series of posts you have made a number of vague and tantalising claims about the physical and verbal abuse you claim to have suffered at the hands of the general public and organisations. If your claims are true"

Why the 'if'? Why report something if it isn't true? Is the reality that disabled people are being abused on the street so horrendous that it must be denied? Perhaps a more open interpretation would be 'I don't like your point, so I'm going to imply you're making it up.'

"If we are to have a worthy debate and if you want to be taken remotely seriously start giving detail."

So that would be strip yourself bare or be held a liar?

"Let's hear exactly what the nature of your disability is and a bit of substance on the attacks you claim are so frequent."

Again with the implication I'm a liar, and there's that attitude, so prevalent in modern society, that every detail of our disabilities is public property. It's an example of the way in which society interprets us as less than fully adult; because we're disabled, society believes that we haven't earned the right to privacy, but must instead be treated as small children, whose every thought can be pried into by any passing adult.

"I myself am not disabled but someone very close to me, my girlfiend, is disabled (wheelchair) and as such through her I have a pretty good knowledge of the day to day realities of disabled life in this country. And guess what? While there are often struggles that she faces on a day to day basis they in no way tally with your depiction of a nation where verbal and physical abuse against disabled people is a daily occurence. Not even fucking close."

Well that's me told. Or maybe not, maybe my friendly troll isn't so well informed as he would like to think. I mean it's not as if I was one of the disabled people asked to front a major report on the rise in disability hate crime with our personal experiences - oh, wait a minute, yes I was.

"Could it be that instead of sitting on the internet being a professional victim and whining on message boards she just gets on.and enjoys life and has a sense of humour? Perish the very thought."

So if I campaign then I must be a whinging professional victim. And if my disability means I have to do it online it's clearly because I don't have any real life or sense of humour. Or maybe I just don't like the attitudes I see in society and think that behooves me to do something about it. As for sense of humour, I'm afraid I prefer my biting social commentary to come from Pratchett, not Gervais.

"Oh and while you're at it perhaps you would like to substantiate the thinly veiled insinuation you made that a show like LTS could potentially increase backward attitudes towards the disabled. I can't wait to hear that one."

Thinly veiled? Damn, I thought I was being bitingly obvious. As for substantiating my views, I would have thought that was the last thing I needed to do when our acceptance in society has slid back so desperately far through the constant attacks on us as scroungers and frauds in the tabloid press, and with my critic being so closely connected surely he must have noticed too? Or maybe not.

What makes the post so striking is that in one of the posts he takes issue with I'd already talked about disabled people being attacked for daring to make themselves heard, clearly the inherent irony of his reply went straight over his head. I'm not sure I can say it any better here than I said it there:

Attacking the campaigners is always the first response in a campaign for equality - Afro-Americans were written off as 'uppity n&**^s', Suffragettes as demonstrating ‘the explosive fury of epileptics’, and so on. Dismissing us as failing to understand the humour, as having a chip on our shoulder, as being bitter over our disabilities, we've heard them all. We do understand the humour, we campaign precisely because we have accepted our disabilities don't make us any different, and if there is a chip on our shoulder, then it's there because the actions of non-disabled people have put it there, and isn't that something any decent person should take action over?

And if that makes the trolls on Comment is Free think I'm an uppity crip, then clearly I'm doing something right ;)


  1. I absolutely loathe that "lay yourself bare or be held a liar" tactic, because of course if you do lay yourself bare, you're called a liar anyway, because "this is the internet, you could be anyone". The only thing to do is to tell them that you know that that will be their next move and that you're not playing. I think what they're doing is flaming as much as trolling (though trolling may be the umbrella term, I'm not too well up on these things).

    The Guardian can be ok, but unfortunately the commenters there are extremely tribal about the "offensive comedy" issue, as they believe that anyone raising ethical concerns about jokes is automatically aligning themselves with the Daily Mail, (a bizarre suggestion in the case of disabled people, I have to say). What they seem to have trouble grasping is that with free speech everyone, meaning absolutely everyone, even crips, has a right to reply. If they really believed that there were no ethical problems, why would they resort to abuse to try to silence people such as yourself? Guilty conscience. I don't even know what the answer to this issue is, but the kind of behaviour you recount above suggests that deep down these people believe that they're in the wrong.

    I like your analysis of the parallels with other civil rights movements. I see Michele Obama was referred to as "uppity" this week. Some people really can't cope without someone to hate and despise.

  2. I don't entirely agree with you on the Guardian comments, it's likely true to a degree, but I don't think most of the commenters attacking me and people like Nicky Clark are part of the Guardian's core readership. Some may well be Guardian readers, but there are an awful lot of fairly right-wing comments expressed on Comment is Free that just don't fit with the Guardian's core values - I think a significant number of commenters really do fall closer to the Daily Mail demographic and are there solely because they like to argue with people holding left-wing views (or are just plain trolls). Another, and particularly significant, part of the problem is that before backing down, Ricky Gervais was egging his fanbase on to attack the people who disagreed with him - I saw at least one tweet in which he referred to us as 'haters,' which is deeply ironic on multiple levels. Unfortunately, that's given the more aggressive, less insightful wing of his followers license to hunt down and intimidate people who've dared to disagree with their idol.

    Which of course simply proves the point Nicky Clark first set out to make.

  3. Oh yeah, I think there are plenty of stories and types of story that draw in the nasties from all over the place. I've commented on the Guardian website for years, and it's always been a problem; they're drawn by the reputation of Guardian readers I suppose, thinking they'll be an easy target for a wind-up.

    The debate over humour is one of these "absolute freedom regardless of consequences vs absolute freedom as long as it's ethical" questions, which cause a lot of friction within non-right-wing circles, though I may be more sensitive to that due to having a few ties to the USA, where such debates take up more time. A lot of people (and I am talking about people opposed to right-wing libertariansim) seem to think that aside from physical violence there should be absolute freedom of behaviour (with no repercussions for themselves, ironically) and that anyone who gets hurt as a consequence should just "deal with it"; any attempt to simply point out the pain that someone's words are causing is met by accusations of censorship. There are tons of them on the political left, though as I say, it may be a more obvious division in America than over here.

    You're absolutely right about the Gervais problem as it stands currently. I'm glad he apologised, but a lot of the damage can't be undone now.

  4. "A lot of people (and I am talking about people opposed to right-wing libertariansim) seem to think that aside from physical violence there should be absolute freedom of behaviour"

    I normally counter that with the example of shouting fire in a crowded theatre (not that Oliver Wendell Holmes was exactly on our side). Once you force them to admit that there are situations in which absolute freedom of expression is unreasonable you can move into discussing the concept that their civil rights stop being absolute the moment they compromise yours, mine or anyone elses.