What’s more patronizing: making a joke at someone’s expense, or the contention that the subject of the joke is not capable of defending themselves?
This week it’s war veterans who are not capable, or so some readers seem to be saying. Let’s start with the story — from True‘s 8 February 2015 issue:
Status Doesn’t Always Give You a Leg to Stand On
A few weeks after splitting from her husband of one year, Gemma Pattison, 26, went out drinking with some friends. She met former infantry private Tom Lawlor, 24, who had lost both his legs to a Taliban bomb in Afghanistan, and invited him over for a tryst. The couple left Lawlor’s prosthetic legs downstairs and went up to the bedroom. That night Pattison’s husband, florist Harry Pattison, 28, who had also been out drinking, came by to ask his estranged wife “to see their dog” — at 4:30 a.m. The back door was unlocked and Harry let himself in, prompting Gemma to jump out of bed to see who the intruder was. “She came across the defendant at the bottom of the stairs,” explained prosecutor Kathryn Reeve. “He was very upset she has got another male at the address only a few weeks after splitting up after a long-term relationship.” Harry then allegedly started punching Lawlor in the head, with Lawlor unable to get away without his legs. “This was a serious incident of domestic violence,” said Magistrate Carl Harwood. “Mr. Lawlor was clearly unable to defend himself.” For the assault, Harwood sentenced Harry to a suspended jail sentence, three months on curfew, a restraining order, and a £1,156 (US$1,760) legal bill. (MS/London Telegraph) …Well, it’s apparent Lawlor had at least one working limb.
Is the tagline a bit crude? Sure. Will that be to everyone’s taste? Nope. Is it funny to most? Yep. One mistake True contributor Mike Straw (the “MS” in the source info) made was that he forgot to include the location of the events. There is a hint in the source, and indeed the event occurred in England — Scarborough, in North Yorkshire. The file copy will be edited to add that fact.
But even if the tag is a complete dud, or far off the mark, we’re all human: we work to stretch the envelope a bit, and sometimes we screw up. You should applaud that we try to explore different, unexpected, points of view. Don’t like it? Fine: that’s just one story of a dozen that week alone. Try the next one! You know that you like most of our efforts, or you wouldn’t have subscribed in the first place.
That said, I don’t think that was the case here. There were no complaints from the Premium edition readers, but when this story came out in the free edition, several readers stepped forward because they thought Lawlor couldn’t:
“Making fun of a disabled veteran instead of his attacker was too much. Unsubscribe me.” —Jim, Ohio
(Notice it’s OK to make fun of someone, as long as it’s the right someone, such as a cuckolded husband.)
“Really? Why are making fun of an American Vet? He was attacked by someone. And you are making fun of him because he has sexual needs like everyone else? Come on. You can do better.” —Jeff, New Jersey
(So, it would be OK if it weren’t an American vet? Perfect! Problem solved!)
There were others, but you get the idea.
Readers who really pay attention will remember that Mike (the story’s contributor) is a career (American) military man. Or, at least, he was — he retired recently, after 25 years in the Air Force. He deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. You guessed it: he’s a disabled vet. If anyone is in a position to make a joke about a disabled veteran, maybe a disabled veteran is the one.
This is highly reminiscent of a previous case, which I happened to find as I was researching this week’s “Ten Years Ago in This is True” entry. In early 2005, I made a “blind joke” that quite a few readers complained about. I wrote about that in my blog too: The Dumb Leading the Blind. Jennifer, a blind reader in California, commented “Few ‘sightlings’ are capable of seeing the humor in blindness, and it was refreshing to read your jokes and comments. Thank you for pointing out, by the way, that we blind folk are perfectly capable of writing and complaining ourselves if we’re offended.”
“Notice,” I said in response to Jennifer’s letter, “that she didn’t.” Rather, she found it refreshing. Yet many readers simply assumed that blind people had no ability to object if they found the joke objectionable. How patronizing!
As for last week’s story, not one of the letters of complaint said, “As a disabled veteran, I object to….” — or even “As a former soldier, I object….”
The man — and those like him — lost limbs, not the ability to think, to speak, to stand up for themselves (yeah: literally and figuratively!) We have here a soldier who was able to get up a flight of stairs and into a woman’s bedroom after leaving his prosthetic legs downstairs. Do you honestly believe that someone that strong, who has training and experience as a warrior, had no ability to protect himself from an angry man trying to hit him?! Or is it much more likely that he chose not to fight back, because he understood the other man’s anger?
Of course, this wouldn’t be complete without Mike’s comments. He was pretty firm: “As far as I’m concerned, disabled or not the guy’s a disgrace,” Mike replied. “Being a disabled vet means that a severe price was paid, and I do believe it’s important for us to take care of that veteran and provide for what was lost because of that combat experience, but if he wasn’t a vet, the story would’ve just been funny, and maybe the fact that this was a sort of karma against him could’ve been seen easier. Vet status doesn’t give automatic protection against consequences of your actions. And the fact that some people expect that it should shows the damage idiots like this cause. He’s not an idiot because he lost his legs; he’s an idiot because of what he did, and because his vet status has become the primary focus, it reflects on all vets who also served, but live their lives without doing things like this. Being a disabled vet doesn’t give you a free pass from morality. In fact, I’d say most of us combat vets would hold him to an even higher standard because what he does is a reflection on all of us, and it takes away from the honor of what we did.“
The guy in the story did what, exactly? He slept with another man’s wife. Yeah, they were estranged, but they are (or were) still married, and maybe that man was working toward reconciliation. And here’s a guy doing his wife in their marital bed. Military guys are sensitive about things like that: they leave their wives (and, increasingly, husbands) behind to hold down the “home front” while they go fight for the rest of us. They expect their spouses to take care of their homes, not defile them, while they’re gone.
Think, Damn It!
I’ve felt the need lately to say this a lot: “This is True is about thinking first, reacting later (if at all).” We’ve seen many, many examples lately of why that’s a good idea. Yet rather than thinking about who wrote this story, and why they took the tack that they did, or maybe even asking questions, dozens of readers instead reacted without thinking at all. They loved reading hundreds and hundreds of stories, but they come across one that they don’t like, and react by unsubscribing, or whining, instead. And by doing so, they demonstrate that they consider the disabled vet to be not simply legless, but so damaged as to be completely helpless — and in need of someone else to step forward because they cannot speak for themselves. How patronizing.
This isn’t a one-off thing, as the “blind joke” entry shows. Indeed, a few weeks ago, when I pointed out that the fake police car “dash-cam” video damaged the public trust over policing issues (Call Me a Contrarian), I got complaints …well, let me quote one of them:
“I don’t appreciate cheap shots against a police officer and police department trying to bring a little levity into an extremely difficult, and dangerous, profession, and to try to bring more of a human face to the people who work, at great risk, to protect us. While I’m sure you think your comment was cute, it served to paint all police officers as unethical, which is far from the truth. UNSUBSCRIBE ME.” —Bill, New York
Lots of readers are chuckling right now, remembering that (yep!) I used to be a cop. And that’s just one of the reasons I want cops to act more professionally. Or, to paraphrase Mike, “most of us current and former cops hold the police to an even higher standard because what they do is a reflection on all of us, and it takes away from the honor of what we did.“
Oh, and by the way? I’m disabled, too. I can walk only thanks to three surgeries and a year of terribly painful physical therapy. And as you have no doubt seen over the years, I don’t have much difficulty defending myself from attacks by others.