This American Life and the R-word – a 2013 Re-broadcast of a cruel joke from 1996

Yesterday, I published a piece on CNN focusing on an episode from This American Life that, I felt, mocked people with Down syndrome. What was interesting to me, though, is that the comedian in question (Wyatt Cenac) wasn’t just telling jokes using the r-word, but had something more complex going on. As a listener, it felt like he was trying to both tell the joke while avoiding controversy for using the joke, and I thought that was worth exploring. After the piece was published, Cenac called me and we talked for a long time, which I summarized here.

I was deeply impressed with his willingness to engage, to discuss, to explain, to listen, and I left the conversation feeling pretty good about things. I still stand by my experience of listening to the piece as genuine, but intention does matter.

Tom Delaney, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, emailed me, though, about another complex case of upsetting speech on This American Life. I’m just going to quote from his letter. It was written after a 1996 show (episode 47) re-aired in 2013:

I am writing this letter with a heavy heart. I am a huge fan of NPR and PRI. Every Saturday I look forward to hearing the variety of programs offered. I have always found comfort in the political views, satire, and social-conscious commentary offered on WBEZ.

This Saturday I was running errands and listening to “This American Life” with Ira Glass. David Sedaris (whom I LOVE) was telling a wonderful story entitled “Christmas Freud.” I was engrossed in the story and vividly immersed into his experience as a Christmas Elf at Macy’s. I will never forget hearing this story…or… the street I was on, the car I was driving, the time of day, the weather, the stores to the left and right of me, the coat I was wearing; I will remember everything about the moment I heard…

“At noon, a large group of retarded people came to visit Santa and passed me on my little island. These people were profoundly retarded. They were rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering towards Santa. It was a large group of retarded people and, after seeing them for 15 minutes, I could not begin to guess where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began. Everyone looks retarded once you’ve set your mind to it.”

I cannot explain my reaction to hearing this in any other way than to say that I felt like I was punched in the gut. I suddenly could not breathe, I had to pull over the side of the road, I turned off the radio, and then I cried. I cried so hard because I have been waiting for this moment for 6 years. I have been waiting for someone to overtly make a discriminatory comment that shook me to my core.

I have a son with Down syndrome. He is beautiful, loved, loving, and a valuable person to everyone who meets him. When he was born I knew that someday I would hear people make hurtful comments about him.

I know this story was written in 1996 and re-aired this weekend. When I came home and shared this experience with my husband we looked up the transcripts. I am baffled at how my beloved NPR would not recognize the insensitivity of the comments in this section of this story.

 I know that gut-punch feeling. You’ve got your head on swivel, waiting for the harassment, waiting for the problems, and they just don’t come. We’ve made so many strides in society in terms of overt harassment. As I wrote for CNN:

The good news is that in recent years, sustained awareness campaigns against dehumanizing speech, coupled with some 20 years of inclusive education since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, have made things a lot better in America. No one is likely to call my son the r-word to his face.

And yet, when the blow comes, it hits sharp and hard.

I think David Sedaris is often both profound and hilarious. I love This American Life. As a historian, I work on the way humans craft stories about their experience and release them into cultures, tracking ripples and aftershocks of acts of narrative innovation. As Ira Glass point out, they have also done really good episodes on Down syndrome.:  Episode #311  and Episode #358. NPR, in general, has a commitment to inclusivity that I value so deeply and that is rare in the media world.

Moreover, 1996 really was a long time ago in terms of the discourse of disability. It’s not that the r-word didn’t hurt people against whom it was wielded, but general awareness of that fact had not yet permeated the culture.

My question is this – what obligations do the producers of This American Life have when re-broadcasting something like this. A warning up front? Bleeping the r-word? To simply not broadcast this Sedaris bit ever again? I mean, the “rolling their eyes and wagging their tongues and staggering” is pretty terrible caricature and some bleeping isn’t going to fix that. This is not about policing the r-word, but something much deeper in the humor.

Like Cenac, Sedaris might claim this was his authentic experience using authentic language from the era, but I just don’t think that holds up in this case. In many ways, comparing Cenac’s careful piece drawing the distinction between his imagined Down syndrome and the real thing shows how far we’ve come, when compared to Sedaris’ lines.

I don’t know the answer here. My gut says, this piece is dead. You can’t play it to an informed audience and expect it to have a positive result, to make people laugh. The joke – New Yorkers look like retards – simply doesn’t play anymore.

Jokes fade. Stories fade. Sometimes, the bias implicit in a story is so powerful, so central, that it will no longer have its intended effect. I think that’s the case here.

I have reached out to This American Life for comment and will, of course, post any followups.

NOTE: Comments welcome. As always, people being rude to my readers get deleted without further warning.

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