Sticks & Stones

I got a phone call this morning from a reporter from one of the local news stations.  He wanted me to comment on the ongoing saga of Ally Bruener, a local comedian (and a fellow Campbell County High grad…Go Camels!) who has been promoting her comedy shows with some pretty provocative marketing:


The story is now on the Huffington Post and USA Today; and with her partner’s court case being this afternoon, the reporter wanted a quote.

He called and explained the story to me and asked for my opinion on whether or not it is ever OK to use the word “crippled” to talk about someone.

I asked him if he had quotes from Ms. Bruener herself, and he said that he did and he had quotes from her father as well.  I then declined to be quoted, as I told him I felt it better to defer to Ms. Bruener and her family as to how they want to talk about themselves.  He said that since he’s already got their point of view, he was looking for a quote to “balance” the story.

I pointed him to ADAPT as advocates that would probably be very supportive of Ms. Bruener’s “taking back the word,” whereas other advocates might not.

He then asked me if I would ever use the word “crippled” myself and I told him that I wouldn’t, just as I would also not use the word “retarded.”

I told him that my reasoning for that is this:

How we speak about people reflects on what we believe about them.  And what we believeabout them reflects on how we treat them.

In other words, our language drives our actions, and if we limit our description of someone to that of “crippled” or “retarded” or “handicapped,” then we are limiting our thinking about them to one very narrow aspect about who they are.  And if we let that narrow label define their life, we perpetuate a perception that permits the world to isolate them, take away their rights, and do all kinds of things that most of us would find intolerable.

I didn’t get into all of this with him, as he expressly asked for a soundbite.  Can you imagine fitting all I’m writing here into a 2 minute news update?  He told me how tough it had been for him to get anyone to speak on behalf of other people with disabilities on this issue.  I told him that it was impossible for me or anyone else to “speak on behalf” of the 8,000 people with disabilities in Hamilton County and that I thought it was for each of those people (and their families) to speak on their own behalf.  I apologized for not being very helpful and acknowledged that it was a nuanced issue.

If you read all the comments in the articles and by commenters, you’ll see the truth in the issue, at least for me:

–It is her right to use that word how she sees fit, however distasteful it may be to others.

–That word and others like it (retarded, handicapped, etc.) are not helpful words.  They create barriers between people with the label and those without.  Those barriers lead to most people with the label being treated pretty poorly.

–The marketing was extremely successful, and I imagine most comedians would kill for the free publicity she’s getting out of this.

–Arresting people who make us uncomfortable doesn’t seem to be the way to go about building a more just and caring society.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of using words like “crippled,” “retarded,” “nigger,” “faggot,” “chink,” or “kike.”  Marketing for shock value or advocating by “taking back the word” doesn’t let me or Ms. Bruener or you or anyone else off the hook for being respectful, thoughtful, and careful with our language.

That also means I run the risk of being branded as “politically correct.”

Can’t you just hear it?  “Here come the word police again!”

But here’s the deal:  until you (or people you love) are on the receiving end of one of those labels, you cannot imagine the hurt it brings.  And my guess is that even if you’re “taking the word back,” you’ve been hurt by it, as have millions of others both living today and in the past.

So why perpetuate it for a few cheap laughs?…unless you’re in the business of getting a few cheap laughs, I guess…