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
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):
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.

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.

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

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