Tuesday, March 21, 2017

March 21: Crippled Man, Mongolian Idiot, Power of Language

The doorchimes rang.  Billy got off the bed and looked down through a window at the front doorstep, to see if somebody important had come to call.  There was a crippled man down there, as spastic in space as Billy Pilgrim was in time.  Convulsions made the man dance flappingly all the time, made him change his expressions, too, as though he were trying to imitate various famous movie stars.

Another cripple was ringing a doorbell across the street.  He was on crutches.  He had only one leg.  He was so jammed between his crutches that his shoulders hid his ears.

Billy knew what the cripples were up to.  They were selling subscriptions to magazines that would never come.  People subscribed to them because the salesmen were so pitiful.  Billy had heard about this racket from a speaker at the Lions Club two weeks before--a man from the Better Business Bureau.  The man said that anybody who saw cripples working a neighborhood for magazine subscriptions should call the police.

Billy looked down the street, saw a new Buick Riviera parked about half a block away.  There was a man in it, and Billy assumed correctly that he was the man who had hired the cripples to do this thing.  Billy went on weeping as he contemplated the cripples and their boss.  His doorchimes clanged hellishly.

He closed his eyes and opened them again.  He was still weeping, but he was back in Luxembourg again.  He was marching with a lot of other prisoners.  It was a winter wind that was bringing tears to his eyes.

I have to admit that, when Vonnegut starts using the terms "crippled" and "cripples," it makes me cringe.  When Slaughterhouse Five first came out, however, those words were completely acceptable to use in polite conversation among people who knew nothing about living with physical challenges.  Vonnegut isn't trying to shock or demean.  He's just telling a story using the language of the time.
Of course, now, if an author described a character with a disability as a "cripple" (unironically and without attempting to capture some kind of social context), that author would most certainly be the target of justifiable criticism.  Regardless of the current trend against political correctness, words can really harm and injure.

When I was in high school, I was in a world history class.  The teacher--a nice man, full of progressive ideas--made a comment during a class discussion about a "mongolian idiot."  I'm not even sure of the context of the conversation anymore.  All I remember is being really shocked by his comment. 

My older sister has Down Syndrome, and she was a student at the school.  My mother had been fighting for my sister all my life.  She fought to get my sister into a classroom.  Fought principals and superintendents who didn't want to spend school funds to educate "retarded" children.  Fought for other children with various disabilities.  My mother was an activist for the rights of kids with mental and physical challenges.

So, when my history teacher talked about a "mongolian idiot," I took it very personally.  It made me sad.  It pissed me off.  After class, I spoke to the instructor, told him how hurtful his language had been.  He apologized to me, said that he never intended to offend.  I accepted his apology.

Words can be very harmful.  My mother taught me to speak against oppressive speech.  Taught me to lift people up with my words.

Saint Marty is thankful for his mother's language lessons.

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