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Opposing viewpoints

Matt Gamber | Thursday, November 20, 2008

I joked with some fellow Observer staff members last week that I could only write inside columns about Notre Dame football and the Chicago Cubs – those are the only two subjects on which I feel both passionately and well-informed, I said.

Thanks to the Keeler brothers, who have gained Viewpoint-renown for their tragically undying defenses of the movie “Tropic Thunder” and its characterizations of those with intellectual disabilities, I have found a new topic.

I viewed the film last night for the second time with this issue in mind, and the lack of sensitivity toward the subject is both blatant and disturbing.

“I watched a lot of retarded people, spent time with them, observed them, watched all the retarded stuff they did,” says Tugg Speedman, Ben Stiller’s character. “There were times when I was doing ‘Jack’ that I actually felt retarded like really retarded. In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was OK to be stupid, or dumb…to be a moron.”

And then this gem from Robert Downey Jr.’s character: “You was farting in bath tubs and laughing your ass off.”

Seriously? This doesn’t “disparage or harm the image of individuals with disabilities,” which DreamWorks spokesman Chip Sullivan said the film managed to avoid doing?

At its best, this exchange drew cheap laughs from those who didn’t think much of it. At its worst, it broke the hearts of those who love someone with an intellectual disability and work tirelessly to repair this public insensitivity.

In his Nov. 12 Viewpoint letter titled “Learning to Laugh”, Colin Keeler not only states that “a little humor only serves to highlight these great challenges” faced by people with intellectual disabilities, but he concludes, “I’m sure [our Blessed Mother] had a sense of humor as well.”

Forgive me for my lifelong enrollment in public schools (until now), as perhaps I missed the chapter on the Blessed Mother’s comedic tastes, but I find it hard to imagine she’d be chuckling here.

No, my public schooling didn’t teach me whether the Virgin Mary preferred “Yo Mama” jokes to those about “retards”, but it did provide me the opportunity to interact with the mentally handicapped, both on an everyday basis in the hallways and through volunteer work with the Special Olympics.

It shouldn’t even take these experiences, however, to realize the daily hardships both those with intellectual disabilities and their loved ones endure. Does a Hollywood blockbuster really need to pile on with a marketing campaign based on the slogan “Never go full retard”?

Sure, the film’s declared goal, as the film’s supporters argue, may have been to satirize the film industry, and the movie itself also contained jokes about African-American stereotypes, for example. But every time one came up, another character pointed it out and tore it down.

Where was the defense of people with intellectual disabilities, the voice saying “Hey, that’s not right”? Protestors were hidden from the cameras at the film’s premiere, suppressed from defending a minority whose greatest vulnerability is its perceived (and often real) inability to defend itself.

Brendan Keeler’s letter Monday suggested, “the very least you ought to do is familiarize yourself with opposing viewpoints.”

Sound advice – now follow it.