My Brain AVM: Disability and Prayers

This week I’ve received a lovely gift: a prayer shawl from the church I attended when I was a child. It got me thinking about disability and prayers.

Content Note: Religion, “I’ll Pray for You”, Ableism, Accessibility, Politics, Social Attitudes toward Disability, Christianity, Mental Health, Parent Death

Close-up on a woman's hands and wrists, wearing a bracelet, holding an older man's hand (wearing a wrist watch.) Speech bubble from the left of the picture says, "I'll pray for you." Speech bubble from the right says, "...Sorry?" Keyword: disability and prayers

Image Description: Close-up on a woman’s hands and wrists, wearing a bracelet, holding an older man’s hand (wearing a wrist watch.) Speech bubble from the left of the picture says, “I’ll pray for you.” Speech bubble from the right says, “…Sorry?”

The shawls are a ministry of my childhood church. A group knits shawls for those in the congregation that need healing, the shawls are blessed and prayed over, and given away. My father received one several years ago when he was in the hospital a few years back. but the ministry hadn’t yet started when I was in the hospital after surgery for my brain AVM and stroke recovery. A dear friend asked last week if I’d ever gotten one, and I said, “No,” and one showed up at my door with this note:

This shawl was knitted by {name omitted} and blessed with prayers for your healing ~ Body, Mind and Spirit

***

The appearance of this gift was timely, because in a Facebook group to which I belong, made up mainly of disability advocates but also of people just generally interested in disability issues, disability and prayers also came up. a thread got a bit derailed the other night when a presumably well-meaning individual offered to pray for us all.

“No prayers, please,” responded one person.

Group member Belinda Downes, who educates people about facial differences,  asked the group moderator if she could explain why the offer would be problematic to many people in the group, and then went on to do so. I quote Belinda here, with her kind permission:

“Thanks for the offer to pray. I’m a Christian too…so may I respectfully explain why offering to pray ‘for us’ is not helpful? If this is not appropriate…please let me know.

1) I understand as a Christian that we are taught to pray at all times about all things, and to have compassion for others. It’s not so much the prayer that is the problem but the ‘compassion’.

2) Speaking for myself, when strangers who don’t know me offer to pray for my scarred face, I know they are praying for the wrong thing. The people offering to pray for me try to imagine what it what be like to be me, and their guess is always a very sad story about loss and loneliness, but personally I’m very happy and have many great long friendships.

3) Because of point two, when people offer to pray for me, I don’t hear kindness, I hear inappropriate judgement. I hear that people think my life is sad and wrong just because of the way I look. And because of that I have the same reaction that {name omitted} has.

4) My advice would be to pray for what you know about, not what you think you know. And God will lead you to really know that He wants you to know about. God Bless.”

I don’t feel like I can comment specifically on everything that Belinda has said, because I’m not a Christian anymore. I’m a happy agnostic –  I figure that there’s something out there bigger than me, and (most days) I don’t feel any real need to pin it down beyond that, for me or for anyone else. I’m happy to let people define it for themselves, as long as they’re not hurting others in the process.

But I do have thoughts on disability and prayers. Let’s talk a little bit about that, and then I’ll tell you about what in Belinda’s post I *can* comment on.

Disability and Prayers: Some Boring Background About Losing My Religion

I was Christian when I was growing up. I was a devout Christian all through my teen years, in fact. My family was Anglican, but my faith had more evangelical leanings – I’d prayed the salvation prayer, and I believed it, even if as a result my faith life mostly vacillated between feeling like I wasn’t a good enough Christian or scared of what would happen if I wasn’t a good enough Christian.

I noticed in my last year of high school that sometimes I didn’t feel like I could “buy into” what my faith was telling me anymore. I simply found it hard to believe that people around me who were doing amazing things to help other people were going to hell just because they weren’t Christian. I wondered why God would judge my gay friends so harshly, and expect me to as well. I didn’t know that I was taking my first little steps away from Christianity.

Sometimes, when I talk about to Christians now, they say, “Did you think about it this way, though? Like – ” and I stop them right there, because I didn’t decide to leave Christianity on a whim. It was a journey. There was a lot of discussion with a lot of people (Christians and non-Christians, of all ages and in all stages of their faith), a lot of crying, a lot of anger expressed that I didn’t even know that I had in me, and a lot of thinking about ideas that I didn’t even understand at the time. My mother said, “Try not to think about it too much.” I wanted to say to her, “How can I not think about it?” In some moments I was very sad, in others I was terrified, in others I was exhilarated…because in leaving one world, a new one was opening up to me, and it was full of possibilities.

Getting through all of that, to a place where I can comfortably, with peace, say, “I’m not a Christian anymore, but if you are, great. Tell me about it!” took about six years, and I did alongside  defining events of my adult life to date.

Losing my grip on my mental health, when I thought that struggle was over.

Losing my mother, when I thought I’d have her for decades longer.

Losing my ability to move my body to move my body the way I wanted, a possibility that I’d never considered. My brain AVM and stroke changed all that.

Losing the life that I’d planned for myself, fighting to gain any bit of it back that I could, with every bit of will that I could muster, and then learning to let it go and build a new life.

So my convictions on my spirituality have been tried and tested, and I’m quite happy and at peace with where I am (and hope the same is true for you, because it’s a nice feeling.)

Disability and Prayers: My Position

I’m afraid that I’m going to sound contradictory. But…

Despite the fact that I’m not a Christian anymore and that I haven’t been to my childhood church more than five times in the last twenty years, I love the prayer shawl that I received this week. I love the idea of something warm to wrap around me, imbued with the loving intentions and focus of others who know me and my family, even if they don’t see me around church anymore. I live in a small town; these people still see me.  Most of them saw me grow up, so they know that there were rough times long before the brain AVM and stroke, and they see that I’ve built a life for myself as a disabled person since the stroke.

I know that lots of people in my community were praying for me when I was in surgery, and afterward, when we weren’t sure what would happen, and as I was recovering, and I’ll always be grateful. And I still welcome the prayers for healing of mind, body and spirit from the people who made my shawl  because I know that I can use this loving focus of intention. After all, there are times when, for a variety of reasons, totally unrelated to my disability, my body, mind and spirit do feel wounded and raw and in need of healing.

I still miss my mother, twenty years after her death.

I’ve often feel helpless and sad for friends and family that are facing far too much grief and uncertainty.

My body isn’t as quick to recover when it’s injured. Pain in my knee and foot set my back significantly this summer.

I wonder what’s ahead for me and if I’m making the right choices for my life.

It’s nice to know that people are thinking of me and that they care, and I will think of that when I wear my prayer shawl on cold nights.

However, in general I feel the same was as Belinda about disability and prayers. When strangers or people who don’t know me well say they’ll pray for me, I feel like there’s an assumption that my weak leg and a weak arm must make my life difficult and unhappy. There are some things about my life that I’d change, but I manage quite well with my disabilities and I don’t give them a whole lot of thought – but, as I’ve written about before, I’m lucky enough to have landed in circumstances that mitigate the effects of constant, debilitating systemic ableism.

I can’t stop you from praying that my physical disabilities be healed, but it’s not what I need. Or even want, really.

Disability and Prayers: If You Want to Pray…

If I could have anything…I’d want a serious commitment from government at all levels (and the funding and resources to back it) that *all* Canadians have what they need to live safe and healthy lives in their community of choice, where they can contribute their talents and feel like their presence is valued and appreciated.

As far as that concerns disabled people, the federal government  is taking some steps with their efforts to create disability legislation similar to the US Americans with Disabilities Act.

But lawyer and  disability activist David Lepofsky declared back in 2015 that Ontario was unlikely to reach its goal of total accessibility by 2025 – bad news, because an accessible Ontario is good for everyone, not just disabled Ontarians.

I’d really like disability-friendly governments.

I need…

I need good snow removal on the sidewalks in town and on steps and ramps so that I don’t fall and hurt myself. I don’t need electric doors to work – I can manage – but, damn it, it’s nice, because I’ve got one arm/hand to work with and sometimes I’m carrying stuff in my hand and have bags on my arm and my cane hooked over my elbow…and other disabled people really do need them. I need people to take me seriously when I say, “This is an access issue.”

I need open minds and open hearts and people to keep talking and not making assumptions about me and my disabled friends – assumptions about what we can and can’t do, about what *you* can and can’t do (and about what you should and shouldn’t do), about what’s legal and illegal. We need people to talk *to* us, not around us or about us – especially when the talk is about things that will impact our lives.

My life’s practically an open book anyway since my brain AVM and stroke, but if I don’t want to answer, I’ll just say so. I’d rather you ask. Just keep it respectful. Respect and dignity. We all deserve that.

Disability and Prayers: Bottom Line

There’s a bit of a list of things I’d love you to pray for, if you want to pray for me:  Friendly governments, accessible spaces, open hearts and minds, respect and dignity. But if you’re still not sure – ask, don’t assume. Even on the days when I look like I’m miserable (and I know that I have them), it’s probably got very little to do with my weak side.

This one rambled a bit. Sorry. Thanks for reading.

Visit Belinda Downes’ Facebook Page – Coffee with Belinda Downes

 

 

 

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Trumpcare, Mental Health, and the Goldwater Rule

Back to politics today for  a moment…because there’s something I want to say, and because I’m struggling with something about Donald Trump and the Goldwater Rule.

Content Note: Ableism, Healthcare, Politics, Trump, Mental Health

Senator Susan Collins, a white woman with short red hair wearing a dark blazer, white blouse, and pearls, stands in front of an American flag background. Keyword: Goldwater Rule

Image Description: Senator Susan Collins, a white woman with short red hair wearing a dark blazer, white blouse, and pearls, stands in front of an American flag background.

Although I have Republican friends that I cherish in spite of our differences in opinion, regular readers know that as a group I’m hard on them. I’ve called them out, sometimes by  name (some have told me unfairly.) I don’t believe that I’ve been off-base.

But I also believe in giving credit where it’s due. So, to Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who’ve stood firm in this round of Obamacare repeal deliberations that what’s been included in the proposed repeal scenarios are not good for their constituents, despite bullying from Donald Trump, thank you. Thank you on behalf of my disabled American friends, and the children, families and elderly people of America that not only depend on Medicaid to keep them happy and healthy, but depend on it to keep them alive. Thank you for insisting that America be a country where everyone is taken care of. Your integrity and courage give me hope.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a white woman with short blonde hair wearing a red blazer, a write blouse, and a pendant on a chain, stands in front of some trees. Keyword: Goldwater Rule

Image Description:  Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a white woman with short blonde hair wearing a red blazer, a write blouse, and a pendant on a chain, stands in front of some trees.

Thank you also to John McCain, a man with whom I’ve definitely had my disagreements, who came to Washington in spite of his cancer diagnosis, right after brain surgery, speaking eloquently about bipartisanship and the need to work together to craft a plan for healthcare, pushing himself through the week and into the early hours of the morning last Friday night to cast the vote that brought down Trumpcare. Sir, I salute you.

Senator John McCain, a white male in his 70s with white hair wearing a navy blazer and blue dress shirt. stands against an American flag background Keyword: Goldwater Rule
MESA, AZ – June 4: Senator John McCain (R – AZ) appears at a town hall meeting on June 4, 2010 in Mesa, Arizona.

Image Description: Senator John McCain, a white male in his 70s with white hair wearing a navy blazer and blue dress shirt. stands against an American flag background.

I won’t ever forget what the three of you have done for my American friends.

And to the rest of GOP who are struggling with the idea of single-payer as an idea for health care in the US…on one level, I get it.

Didn’t think I’d say that, did you? Well, I’m nothing if not practical. Single-payer isn’t a perfect system. Not by a long shot. Are there wait times? There can be, for non-emergency issues especially. Is it bureaucracy-heavy? Not any more than the bureaucracy created by the American system having to deal with many insurance plans, I’d argue, but I could be wrong. But even though I waited a couple of months for the functional MRI that the AVM Clinic at Toronto Western Hospital needed to decide how to best treat my AVM, I didn’t have to worry about whether my family could afford to have one of the best neurosurgeons in North America specializing in AVM treatment rooting around in my head for 14 hours.

Take our system and make *your* single-payer system better. Show us up. In fact (if it’ll get you moving on this), I’ll bet that you can’t do it. Go ahead and prove me wrong.

Please! 🙂

***

Now…why I’m struggling.

Donald Trump, Mental Health, and the Goldwater Rule

Last week, two friends who work in the mental health field, for whom I have a great deal of respect, said that despite their concerns about the Goldwater Rule, they firmly believe Donald Trump has a mental health condition and needs evaluation to determine whether he’s psychologically healthy enough to continue on as President. The American Psychoanalytic Association officially said recently that members shouldn’t feel restricted by the the Goldwater Rule when discussing Trump.

This is a tough one for me. I don’t like Trump at all, simply because I don’t tend to like people that are lying, arrogant bullies.  But I’ve fought hard against the idea that he’s unfit for office because he’s “crazy” because:

  • Even the most qualified mental health diagnostician would need time and access to Trump to make an accurate diagnosis
  • If the policy is that a clean bill of mental health is required to be the President, then Presidents as far back as Lincoln have been in violation
  • It’s ableist. There’s no reason that a President with a well-managed mental health condition should be treated any differently, in terms of perception of ability to govern, than a President with any other sort of well-managed condition.

And I think that ultimately I still believe that the Goldwater Rule should apply to the position of the President, provided that some other safeguards are put in place (because we do know that Presidents have had mental health conditions, and even degenerative brain conditions, that went largely unnoticed while they were in office):

  • Any President (not just Donald Trump) gets his or her mental health evaluated by an independent mental health practitioner on a regular basis. (I don’t know if this happens, or how often.) The Presidency is an extremely high-stress job, and it’s not unreasonable to periodically check at the very least whether that stress is having an adverse affect on the President’s well-being.
  • Concerns about the President’s mental health are treated like concerns about the President’s physical health – they are quickly, and thoroughly evaluated and, if necessary, treated. The President takes time off work if necessary, but the assumption is that he or she will be able to return to work, and that it will happen as soon as possible. The public is entitled to no more information than it would be if the President had a physical issue.

In other words: If the White House properly monitored the President for mental health conditions and ensured that if there were any conditions that were affecting the President so much that they interfered with his or her ability to govern that the President took time off (if necessary) and received the treatment and education needed to ensure that the condition was well-managed and no longer an issue…then I’d continue to stand on the Goldwater Rule and say, “It isn’t up to people who’ve never spoken to President to make a diagnosis. It’s up to the White House.”

But I don’t have that confidence in this White House. They can’t even make Donald Trump stop using his phone. They’re not going to convince him to let someone do even a simple mental health evaluation, or start treatment if that was deemed necessary – and Donald Trump is not a man that would step down. Not for the good of his health. Not even, I don’t think, for the good of his country.

So, I Struggle…

I’ve struggled as I’ve watched mental health diagnosticians openly break the Goldwater Rule since Trump’s election with their pronouncements in the media that he’s got any number of mental health conditions.

I struggle now, wondering if they were right to break the Goldwater Rule the way they did.

I don’t think that a mental health condition should automatically disqualify anyone from any job – I know too many people with well-managed mental health conditions that are in high-stress positions and that do an excellent job. But, like my friend said:

Whether someone agrees or disagrees with the content of his inflammatory statements, that is not the issue. This is not a matter of attributing mental illness because of disagreement with his views/statements. If you go back and view interviews with him from decades ago, he’s still the same big jerk, but his behavior has changed.”

It’s one thing to be a seventy-year-old civilian man with no insight into behaviour change and perhaps the need for help, and with apparently no one around you who will call you on that blind spot. It’s quite another thing when you’re the most powerful man in the world.

I think I know now where I land on this. If the White House won’t take action when there are indicators that the President needs treatment for a mental health condition, other people with experience and knowledge in the field of mental health need to be allowed to speak without fear of what it could cost them. It’s ableism to say, “People with a mental health condition can’t be President,” but it’s not ableism to expect Presidents that do have mental health conditions to work with their staff and medical team to manage those conditions so that their ability to govern isn’t affected.

To be clear:  Mental health professionals who are worried that Donald Trump isn’t competent to lead need the freedom to speak about it. Someone has to.

 

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Armchair Psychology and Election 2016

So I’ve been working on my post about the Democratic National Convention (which I’m finding very difficult to write, for a number of reasons) and I’m hoping to get it online soon. But something else has come up that I want to talk about: how armchair psychology has entered the campaigning in the 2016 election.
Content Note: Ableism, Mental Health, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Politics, Election 2016
The word "crazy!" on a white cloud against a psychadelic background. Keyword: Armchair psychology

Image Description: The word “crazy!” on a white cloud against a psychedelic background.

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Now, I’m certainly not the first to write about this and I won’t be the most eloquent. But I’ve actually noticed this happening since the primaries, when Donald Trump likened Ben Carson’s self-described “pathological temper” to the pathological issues of a child molester (in that neither can be cured, Trump said, but that’s not how the public took his comments.) Nonsense with a recent petition put me over the edge.

Yes, nonsense.

For Clarity’s Sake

Let me say it again, for those that haven’t heard me say it before: I intensely dislike Donald Trump and just about everything he stands for. I think that he’s a bullying, abusive liar and the idea of him as President of the USA is terrifying to me. Despite having some misgivings about Hilary Clinton that I’m finding fairly difficult to navigate my way around at the moment, I’ll still do whatever I can to get her elected, because the alternative is just unthinkable. (And for what it’s worth, the idea of voting someone in to keep someone out doesn’t create any real cognitive dissonance for me — as a Canadian voter, I’ve had to do this several times.)

But despite my dislike for Donald Trump, armchair psychology in the form of speculation about any potential mental health diagnoses he may have has made me uncomfortable right from the get-go, from everybody but a select group of friends and colleagues that I know have a lot of experience in the mental health sector and the qualifications to diagnose someone given the opportunity to spend adequate time with a person. Not that I’m perfect — I’m not qualified to diagnose, and I can remember discussions with these colleagues where, as we’ve speculated on what might motivate some of Trump’s behaviour, I’ve said that it seems like narcissism or perhaps even sociopathy are possibilities. Even those discussions were ones in which I shouldn’t have engaged in, and I don’t anymore. I should have known better than to engage in that sort of speculation.

But I will say this: the difference between this discussion between me, as a person with education about mental health issues and experience in the field and these colleagues presently working in the field and able to diagnose, and the average person on the internet saying, “Trump is such a psychopath” (or “Could Trump Pass a Sanity Test”, where noted media figure Keith Olbermann evaluates Trump for psychopathy using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) is:

  • My colleagues and I know that it’s dangerous to toss around mental health terminology in the general public arena with regards to a person’s potential mental health diagnoses, especially if you’re someone with the power to influence the way people vote (another candidate, a speaker at a convention, a media person), when you’re not qualified to diagnose people. Armchair psychology has consequences.
  • My colleagues and I are careful to avoid even the suggestion that a mental health diagnosis makes people unfit for certain kinds of work, because that’s ableist bullshit.

And this, which really should be most obvious reason to end all this armchair psychology, and the reason why the internet petition encouraging the Republican party to have Donald Trump evaluated for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is in particular so objectionable: My colleagues and I know that even if a person has the credentials required to diagnose mental health conditions, it’s unethical to do so without meeting the person and spending time with them.

(This petition is still up, but I’m not going to link to it. It’s easy enough to find if you want to look for it.)

Unethical! And the petition’s creator knows this — she said so in the preamble to the petition. The interesting thing about this petition is that while its creator seems to know why asking people to sign a petition saying “Donald Trump is a narcissist and I think it makes him unfit for President” would be inappropriate, and makes it appear like she’s not asking people to do that…she ultimately really is. And if she is a mental health professional (she doesn’t state her qualifications), that makes the petition particularly egregious.

Let’s unpack this.

The Petition to Have Trump’s Mental Health Evaluated

The creator, stating that she knows that it’s unethical for clinicians who haven’t spent time with a person to diagnose them, is calling on mental health diagnosticians who have observed in Trump’s behaviour (in the media, presumably) the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder as listed in the DSM-V (she then lists them) to endorse the idea that the Republican party should evaluate Trump’s mental health fitness to hold office based on what they’ve seen. The petition was specifically targeted (as you can apparently do with the particular company that she used to create it) to clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

I would imagine that her argument is that she’s not asking anyone to diagnose, but instead asking people with the credentials to diagnose to suggest to the Republicans that they find someone who can ethically evaluate Donald Trump and have it done for the good of the country. But there are a couple of problems with this:

  1. This petition didn’t stay among mental health diagnosticians. I found the link to it in a Facebook group whose members work in all sectors, and a lot of people indicated that they signed. The link to the petition also went out over Twitter using a hashtag that trended. It invited armchair psychology from all over the world.
  2. Even if it stayed in circulation only among mental health diagnosticians, it’s a request with a bias toward the idea that Trump *does* have a personality disorder that will make him unfit to govern. Obviously the creator, despite her acknowledgement that it’s unethical for someone in her position (assuming that she’s a diagnostician; again, she doesn’t state her qualifications) to do so, has decided that Trump has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is asking other diagnosticians to support her (again, unethical.)
  3. Even if we completely ignored what I said in Bullet #2…she’s asking diagnosticians to support a request to the Republicans to have Trump evaluated for mental fitness based on media footage of his campaign. We don’t see or hear what Trump is like at home, church, in his office every day (at least not unfiltered through the media). We see him in only one facet of his life, and a request to evaluate him based on that is unfair. And unethical.

Story time.

The Unfair Assumption That Unwanted Behaviour is Always Due to Disability

I was in a support position for a family where a 17-year-old male had a developmental disability. The parents came to me at one point and asked if I could arrange for an appointment with a behaviour consultant from a children’s support agency.

“His disability is making him disrespectful, argumentative, and very difficult to deal with,” they said. “We can’t get him to do anything we ask.”

“We can do that,” I said, “There’s a waiting list, but I’ll get the referral started. But keep in mind…him being disrespectful, argumentative, difficult to deal with, and unwilling to do what you ask might have more to do with the fact that he’s a 17-year-old boy than it does with his disability.”

My point? Trump could have an off-the-scale case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Or he could simply be in possession of the “healthy dose” of narcissism that psychology professor Dan McAdams told the Toronto Star “most people running for high office must have.” Adams did go on to say that “It does seem to be the case that he’s kind of off the map,” but also said that he wouldn’t give him a mental health diagnosis.

Trump certainly has been described as a narcissist by many people, and this tendency appears to be accompanied by an inflated healthy self-esteem, a tendency to speak off the top of his head and behave erratically, and a strong dislike of admitting he’s wrong. Inappropriate trait for someone who wants to be President just on their own — why, asks David Perry, the need to further pathologize them? The insistence on doing so without evidence that it’s merited reinforces ideas that:

  1. If there’s something “off” about a person, they must be “crazy”
  2. A mental health diagnosis makes someone unstable and therefore unfit to hold political office (bullshit ableism)
  3. The stigma that continues to exist around having a mental health diagnosis is justified and even rational

Armchair Psychology is Dangerous -Especially During Election 2016

It kills me that I’ve spent over 15oo words talking about why Trump needs to be treated more fairly. But this isn’t merely about defending about Trump. *He* also needs to be called out for how he uses armchair psychology diatribes about Hilary’s mental instability. Questioning the mental stability of those who disagree with him is part of Trump’s modus operundi, as pointed out in Vanity Fair (from the preamble to the the results of Keith Olbermann’s afore-mentioned piece about Trump and psychopathy):

“Except that in his year of campaigning, Donald Trump has called Lindsey Graham “a nut job,” Glenn Beck “a real nut job,” and Bernie Sanders “a wacko.” Trump has insisted Ben Carson’s got a “pathological disease,” and asked of Barack Obama: “Is our president insane?” He called Ted Cruz “unstable,” “unhinged,” “a little bit of a maniac,” and “crazy or very dishonest.” He also called the entire CNBC network “crazy.” He called Megyn Kelly “crazy” — at least six times.”

Here are some recent comments from him attacking Clinton’s mental health status:

This armchair psychology needs to end. We also need to call out people like the speaker at the RNC who explicitly talked about Clinton being unstable (I wish I could remember who this was; I’ve tried to find the clip, but I can’t. Does anyone remember who I mean?) and individuals from the far, far right media crowd like Info War’s Alex Jones who have made “Hilary Clinton is crazy” a stock part of their message.

The campaigns, the media, and people who seek to influence voters need to work in the world of facts, not ableism and messages that contribute to stigma.

Because that really is bullshit.

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Ableism, Other -Isms, And Why I Prefer “Seinfeld” to “Friends”

I don’t blog about disability in media very often, but Andrew Pulrang profiled “Seinfeld” on his Disability Thinking podcast recently, and it really made me think. (He’ll be posting a second podcast on “Seinfeld” in the near future; there really is a lot to talk about when it comes to this show. Keep watching Andrew’s website for details, and listen to his first podcast on “Seinfeld” and disability.)

Content Note: Ableism, Sexism, Classism, Misogyny, Media Depiction

Seinfeld meme. Jerry Seinfeld stands in his TV apartment, wearing a gray button-down shirt, a shocked expression on his face. A quote from the show, "Well, good luck with all that" is written across the bottom of the picture in yellow letters. Keyword: Seinfeld

Image Description: Seinfeld meme. Jerry Seinfeld stands in his TV apartment, wearing a gray button-down shirt, a shocked expression on his face. A quote from the show, “Well, good luck with all that” is written across the bottom of the picture in yellow letters.

***

I love “Seinfeld”. I’ve seen every episode several times, and will still watch the reruns and find them funny. My family can have entire conversations in snippets of “Seinfeld” dialogue, which I realize isn’t necessarily something of which to be proud, but there it is.

I’ve managed to retain this level of fandom despite being achingly aware that over its run “Seinfeld” had moments of blatant racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, and probably just about every other “-ism” that you can think of, including just plain bad taste. Apparently I’m not the only one that noticed – Sola Agustsson recently wrote an article for Alternet.com about sexism and racism in “Seinfeld”, “10 ‘Seinfeld’ Episodes That Might Be Considered Sexist and Racist Today”.

But she also got taken down in comments on her article for not understanding the thing that lets me (mostly) gloss over the glaring prejudices of the four main “Seinfeld” characters: The whole point of the show was that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are supposed to be terrible people. They’re shallow and self-absorbed, they use people with little guilt and almost zero empathy, and they rarely do anything unless there’s something in it for them.

They wanted to be nicer people – but only because of how their real orientation to the world made them look to others, and not out of any real concern for those around them. This is what made the show subversive, ironic, and frankly, hilarious, because the harder the four main characters tried to do “the right thing”, the more apparent it became that they were really just awful people who didn’t care at all.

Disabled People in “Seinfeld”

Take one of the episodes that Andrew rightfully says got the most attention and is about disability. Jerry, also a comedian in the show, promises a fan that he’ll go see his son, a “bubble boy” that has to live behind a plastic partition in his parents’ home because of his poor immune system.

(We learn later that everyone but his mother, including the people in his town, call him “The Bubble Boy”, which is a disability issue all by itself, but not one that we can blame on the four main characters. We don’t even learn his name until well after George and his fiancee Susan meet him. It’s an indictment of how society treats him. )

George and Susan arrive at the house first and find not a bubble “boy”, but a fully grown, very rude bubble “man” who eventually asks Susan to take off her top (the opposite of the “disabled people are sweet and polite” stereotype that we see so much in the media; Andrew discusses this in his podcast.)  Suppressing the urge to respond negatively to the Bubble Boy’s rudeness (which would be “politically incorrect”), George and Susan allow themselves to be talked into a game of Trivial Pursuit. When George and the “Bubble Boy” disagree over the pronunciation of an answer, George finally loses control, the “Bubble Boy” starts to strangle George and George loses control, stabbing at the plastic partition and deflating the “bubble”. His desire to be politically correct has been overcome by his temper, which often happens with George.

“Seinfeld” did a good job of highlighting society’s ableism as well as the main characters’. That’s difficult to do. It requires very good writing.

Now, I don’t know about the writing process for “Seinfeld”, but it seemed that each week the writers came up with a character (sometimes two), said “What if we took a person out there with this set of characteristics and put them in the group’s path”, and that was pretty much that character’s role. Mostly they were romantic interests, like Elaine’s elderly boyfriend, a stroke survivor who required a lot of care. One week it was the Bubble Boy. There were a few characters that had brief story arcs, like the man stalking Elaine and Jerry (who the writers imply has a mental health diagnosis, but never say what it is.)

Are Disabled People Props in Seinfeld?

Andrew also discusses in his podcast the idea that you could accuse the writers of making disabled characters props, in “Seinfeld”. However, with the exception of a small group of secondary characters that had a bit of backstory, everyone in “Seinfeld” besides the main four characters were props. They mostly got burned somehow by being involved with Seinfeld and his group, presumably never to appear again, and the underlying message at the end of each episode was, right up to the group’s one-year imprisonment at the series end for not helping someone who was being mugged, “Don’t treat people like this group does. They’re assholes.”

Unlike other sitcoms in the 90s and after.

Are the Characters in “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother?” actually Likeable?

I enjoyed “Friends” in the 90s, and I found it amusing when I rewatched it on Netflix. However, I noticed the second time around that this group that was supposed to be so close also:

  • Spent a lot of time picking on each other. To the point where it often seemed mean.
  • Were very competitive, and sometimes threw each other under the bus.
  • Couldn’t be happy for each other if a positive change for one meant change for the group.
  • Watched the womanizer of the group treat his dates like crap and never called him on it.
  • Sometimes deliberately behaved in ways that negatively affected another friend’s career.

These people were assholes, but we were supposed to love them. And they set the mold for another “Friends”-types show that debuted in 2005, with a similarly dysfunctional peer group that we’re supposed to love.

“How I Met Your Mother” had the same pattern of young people living and dating in New York, hanging out in a bar instead of a coffee shop, but ramped up the sexism to the nth degree compared to “Friends” (and “Seinfeld”, for that matter).  Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson makes “Friends'” Joey Tribiani look like a lightweight womanizer. Barney sometimes gets called on the womanizing, but more often than not friend Ted is his wingman. At one point, “HIMYM” manages to work approval of Barney’s womanizing and slut-shaming of one of the female members into the same scene.

A peripheral character, a therapist that one of the main characters dates at one point, says about the 5 main characters: “‘You’re all the most codependent, incestuous, controlling group people I’ve ever met!” There was an almost identical scene in friends where a therapist that Phoebe is dating offers about the main characters: “Actually it’s, it’s quite, y’know, typical behaviour when you have this kind of dysfunctional group dynamic. Y’know, this kind of co-dependant, emotionally stunted, sitting in your stupid coffee house with your stupid big cups which, I’m sorry, might as well have nipples on them, and you’re like all ‘Oh, define me! Define me! Love me, I need love!.”

CBS was widely criticized for a racist episode of “How I Met Your Mother”, and on my rewatching of that series I saw some references that I was surprised got by the network (“Mexican Wrestler Ted”, for example).  There are no disabled characters in the show. At least in “Friends” Chandler dates a disabled woman for an episode. She dumps him, and (surprisingly) comes out looking like the decidedly shallower of the two.

The point is that at least “Seinfeld” was honest. It didn’t try to be anything but what it was – stories about terrible people that wanted to nice, but didn’t really want to give anything up to do it.  So they’d do the “politically correct” thing, inadvertently out themselves as being anti-social and barely able to cope with the friendship between the four of them, and we’d all tune in next week to see in what new way they could ruin someone’s life. The thing is, “Friends” and “HIMYM”  weren’t any different (and neither is the CBS hit “The Big Bang Theory, increasingly) – more peripheral characters with story arcs, maybe, but ultimately? Stories about terrible people…more actively masquerading as nice people.

However, they sure were branded to be people that you should trust and love and emulate.

That feels dishonest to me.

And I’m not going to feel guilty about watching “Seinfeld” until people start talking more realistically about that.

More reasons why you wouldn’t want to be friends with the “Friends”

 

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