Saturday, January 14, 2012

Disappointed by Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Myself

Yesterday I was scolded on Facebook by a former student, and it’s been bugging me.

Here’s the situation: I tweeted, “Magic Johnson's catchphrase for Kobe: ‘Nothing but special.’ If I could only be one adjective, it wouldn't be a synonym for short-bus rider.”

Her response: “As much as I think you rock, that comment was uncalled for and down right degrading to people who are disabled. Not cool, I'm disappointed. :(”

That stung. Especially the frowny face. So far, I’ve come up with five reasons why that’s bothering me so much.

First of all, when I would mess up as a kid, my dad would sit me down on the couch in the living room, then sit down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table. He didn’t shout at me. He didn’t hit me. He didn’t make grand threats about prolonged grounding schemes. He’d just sit silently for a while, then say, “I’m disappointed.” That worked!

Second, I like this former student. I respect her opinion. We agree on most things, and when we disagree I take her seriously.

Third, I like to be liked. Too much. It particularly hurts me as a writer. I can’t write with the kind of conviction necessary to be successful because I’m too worried that people will be put off by what I write. It makes me a hypocrite when I explain effective advertising to my students and grade them down for targeting the ads I make them write to overly large demographics. “If someone tried to make an ad to sell clothes that both you and your grandma would like, they would fail,” I say. “Neither you nor grandma would buy those clothes.” Then I come home and try to make sure that whatever novel I’m working on won’t offend anyone. Clearly, my tweet failed to amuse as much as it offended.

Fourth, I stand by my criticism of Magic Johnson’s choice of words. I don’t think that insults the mentally disabled. I’m not saying anything derogatory about them in saying I wouldn’t want to be described as “special.” I lament the fact that the word “special” has become a euphemism for mentally handicapped. But it has. Instead of attacking the problem at the root and criticizing those who use mental disability as an insult for those who are not mentally disabled, we just keep coming up with new euphemisms. I’m not even sure “mentally disabled” is the right one anymore. Mentally handicapped? I’m usually not one to knock PC re-labeling. All too often, the root is cultural insensitivity, white men grousing that they are being inconvenienced by having to learn a new term. I do not buy into the “white-guys-have-it-so-rough” argument. My frustration comes from my position as an English teacher. “African American” might be a new thing for everybody to learn, but it’s accurate. “Special,” on the other hand, took one word with a certain definition, gave it a new one, then corrupted that one when people used it as an insult. The same thing happened with “retarded.” Instead of well-intentioned people standing up and saying, “Stop making fun of people who are ___x____” and continuing to use whichever word was most accurate, they just switched and hoped the problem would go away, thus loading up our language with a handful of terms that refer to mental retardation. I’ll bet I’d raise eyebrows if I told some parent that their child’s habit of not turning in his work retards his ability to learn the material in my class. That’s completely accurate, but I have to avoid it because the word has taken on these new connotations due to the association with the mentally handicapped. In the same way, Magic Johnson should be careful with “special.” That’s what I was trying to say. (Furthermore, I hate the “nothing but” part. How is it any kind of compliment to describe anyone as “nothing but” anything? When this student says I rock, I appreciate the compliment. If she’d said I do “nothing but rock” I’d think she was accusing me of something.) Magic Johnson’s attempt at a compliment was catch-phrasy, but dumb. That was my point.

Fifth, I’m a hypocrite, because I then participated in the very behavior I was criticizing! Instead of saying “mentally disabled,” I wrote “short-bus rider.” So I’m picking on his thoughtless use of what has become a euphemism for the mentally handicapped while using a different one. I can’t even blame Twitter, because “mentally disabled” is only two characters longer and I had some room to spare. I still wasn’t mocking the mentally handicapped, but, by using a euphemism carelessly, I was participating in the same behavior I was criticizing in Magic Johnson.

So that makes me mad at myself, but not for the reason this former student was mad at me in the first place. And that makes me mad at her. And at Magic Johnson. And, ultimately, at Kobe Bryant, whose only crime (in this particular case) was dropping 40 points on a mediocre Utah team.

See what you’ve done, Kobe? You’ve caused me to disappoint my former student! You know what I have to say about that?


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