As almost everyone probably knows, President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show last week. Many people seem to have thought this was a bad idea right from the start, but I do not see anything wrong with it. Then we (in Canada) have seen our leaders (yeah, well, sort of) appear on shows such as Royal Canadian Air Farce before, and nothing too seriously bad came out of it.
President Obama made a bit of a faux pas when he compared his bowling to being in the Special Olympics. The crowd seemed to be amused, and not terribly offended. I thought it was a funny if not-well-thought-through quip, and was not particularly offended by it – then I am not handicapped/special/differently-abled.
Or am I?
This is not a very PC thing to say, I know. The fact is, I am and have been differently-abled for most of my life. I have always been a good deal smarter than most of the people around me. This is not bragging or conceit, it is just a fact. I grew up reading encyclopaedias, doing math, physics, and astronomy, and reading philosophy – all just because I wanted to and because I found it fun. So, that made me differently-abled than most of those around me. It also meant that I had a great deal of trouble fitting in socially. I was teased, I was bullied. I was beaten up. I was avoided. I was a geek, a dork, a dweeb, a nerd. And those are the names my friends called me.
My troubles may not have been the same as someone normally covered by the term differently-abled, but there are definite problems associated.
It has become very politically incorrect to make fun of someone who is mentally challenged, or has a physical disability, or is short, or is female, or is overweight, or comes from a different ethnic background. The funny (or not so funny) thing is that it still seems to be perfectly acceptable to make fun of people who are smart, who love to learn, who love science and philosophy, and who have a hard time interacting with “normals” simply because we do not think the same way.
How many shows have been on the air (from that show with Steve Urkel to Revenge of the Nerds to Big Bang Theory) that are based almost entirely upon ridiculing this segment of the population? If Steve Urkel had been mentally challenged, would the premise of this show have been deemed acceptable? Of course not. If he had been in a wheel chair? No. Then why is it acceptable to make fun of him because he is smart but socially challenged.
This may seem petty, but take it from some one who has lived through it. It is serious. And not just for the individual. It colours the way our society sees and values people. It drives one of the problems facing our society, which is the low value we place on scientists, researchers, and educators. It influences smart young people to hide from who they are for fear of ridicule and not fitting in. It causes young people who might have an interest or talent in scientific and technical fields to be pushed away from these fields at an early age.
It no longer really offends me. Almost nothing offends me anymore, as I have developed a pretty thick skin, and I am too much an egomaniac to really care what anyone else thinks (just kidding!). But think about it the next time you watch TV, or a movie, or read something – notice how deeply engrained this is, and think about what it means in our society.