I haven’t blogged for quite a while, I know. Life has been rather hectic of late — in a good, my-book’s-getting-published way, thankfully (more about that soon). So I thought I’d return, however briefly, with a bit of a bang.
It would seem that, once again, people are intent on telling us what we can and can’t laugh at. Physicist Stephen Hawking — a gentleman I happen to admire and respect a great deal — has been featured in a cartoon which shows two people discussing him and referring to the fact that he’s recently been seriously ill. The caption reads: “I wonder if they’ve tried switching him off and switching him on again”.
Now, I know. Bad taste, right? I mean, the guy was ill and, you know, disabled. We can’t laugh about things like that, can we? Well, if The Motor Neurone Disease Association is to be believed, no. It’s taboo. It’s forbidden — it is, they say, distasteful and mocks disability.
Speaking as someone with a severe physical disability, though, what do I say?
Firstly, Stephen Hawking does not need a charity to speak for him. He has a voice synthesiser, and the last I heard it was working just fine. I understand that the charity was, to a degree, speaking for those who cannot represent themselves. But even so, this in itself does not mean that they are right. (Just in case there’s any doubt, I think they are wrong.)
Secondly, it was funny. I laughed. As someone who is, in my own way, rather dependent on technology, it struck a chord with me. This cartoon was actually rather clever. It doesn’t just speak about Hawking and disability. It speaks about how reliant we’ve become on technology and, to my mind, the whole question of where man ends and machine begins.
Thirdly, humour at the expense of someone with a disability does not necessarily mean that they are being cruelly mocked. Yes, humour can, at times, be used as a weapon — but in my own experience jokes about my disability, jokes aimed directly at me by people I know, often have more to do with inclusion than anything else. We rib people in a friendly way to make them feel, at times, special. The friendly leg pull that says “you are one of us”.
Fourthly, is it just me, or are these associations/charities becoming just a little bit distasteful themselves in the opportunistic way they pounce on these stories — in an attempt, the cynic in me insists (or is it the realist in me?), in an attempt to promote themselves? After all, this particular cartoon featured in a regional newspaper and probably wouldn’t have come to the attention of more than a handful of people had The Motor Neurone Disease Association not insisted on speaking out about it and labelling it offensive.
Ultimately, I have to say I find the very idea of being told what I can and cannot laugh at execrable. To say, as has been said, that such a cartoon reduces Hawking to a condition and the technology he uses is, frankly, far more insulting to the esteemed professor than any cartoon could ever be. By all means, defend those who need to be defended — but I very much doubt that Hawking wants or needs this kind of representation. He probably found it amusing, too.
But maybe that’s too much of a leap for me to take so, instead, I’ll simply say this: if any charity out there ever feels the need to come to my defence without my explicitly requesting it, don’t. It’s presumptuous and offensive… one might even say prejudiced.
© 2009 Gary William Murning