Welcome to Me (and My BPD?)

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

How important is it that movies and television shows get “academic” concepts right?

Sure, superhero movies, action flicks, and even horror movies routinely violate the laws of physics to create interesting visual sequences, and frequently make up pretend science-y explanations for strange phenomena.

But what about when the academic concept is a mental health diagnosis that is supposed to be central to a character’s actions?

Okay, there are numerous representations of people with mental illness in television and film that are just as ludicrous as, say, toxic chemicals causing superpowers, a plague of giant ants, or an out-of-shape ex-cop (or really anybody) outrunning an explosion.

So what about when the academic concept is a mental health diagnosis that is supposed to be a driving force behind all of the main character’s actions in a film that is comedic, but with serious intent? It would probably behoove the movie-makers to get that right? Right?

In Welcome to Me, written by Eliot Laurence, and directed by Shira Piven, Kristen Wiig stars as Alice Klieg, a lottery-winner who decides to channel her newly-won millions into a sort of variety show all about herself, ostensibly due to the effects of her Borderline Personality Disorder.

Wiig, to her credit, plays a fairly credible person with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder. And the film does not shoot for a lot of cheap laughs or cheap thrills at the expense of those with mental health issues (of course, feel free to disagree with me on those points all you want).

Unfortunately, the film botches some really big clinical points in a really big way.

Spoiler alert!  Spoiler alert!

The first truly jarring error is when Klieg describes her history of mental illness (to a TV audience assembled for an infomercial on nutritional supplements). She says, “When I was 16, I was diagnosed with Manic Depression. In my 20s it was called Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Now it’s just called Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Excuse me?

Now, it’s true that “Manic Depression” was once the common term for Bipolar Disorder. But “rapid cycling” is a modifier or course specifier for Bipolar Disorder that generally means a person is having abbreviated episodes of depressive and manic states that are running fairly close together. And by “fairly close together” I mean four or more episodes of mania, hypomania, or depression in one year—not “mood swings” multiple times a day.

As the good people at PsychEducation explain, once mood shifts get close enough together, they can become indistinguishable from relatively normal emotional states. Bipolar Disorder is not just some condition of simple emotional lability or emotional dysregulation, although plenty of people use the term “bipolar” incorrectly in this fashion (hopefully not anyone who is actually diagnosing and treating people, though).

Emotional dysregulation is, however, a common component of Borderline Personality Disorder. It is also relatively common for people who are ultimately diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder to have been incorrectly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder prior to the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis.

So, if Klieg, had said “First I was diagnosed with Manic Depression, which is now called Bipolar Disorder. Then they diagnosed me with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder. Then they determined the appropriate diagnosis for my condition is Borderline Personality Disorder,” then the explanation would have made a great deal more clinical sense.

As it is, Klieg’s dialog implies that Borderline Personality Disorder is just the new name for Bipolar Disorder. This is completely wrong.

Klieg (played by Kristen Wiig) intrudes on her own skit, startling the actors and the audience.

Klieg (played by Kristen Wiig) intrudes on her own skit, startling the actors and the audience.

Another major problem with the film is the portrayal of the treatment that Alice is receiving from Dr. Daryl Moffet (played by Tim Robbins). It’s troubling enough that Dr. Moffet repeatedly mentions the brand-name drug Abilify—in the sense that a movie about a person with a mental illness essentially uses dialog as a form of pharmaceutical product placement. But what’s even more disturbing is that Borderline Personality Disorder is not itself treated with medication.

Sure, plenty of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder are prescribed various medications to address other things they might be dealing with, like anxiety, depression, or poor impulse control. They may even be prescribed mood stabilizers depending on the severity of their emotional dysregulation, or anti-psychotic drugs, depending on the severity of their thought disturbances. But the personality disorder itself is not going to respond to a specific drug.

No doubt, plenty of people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder would love it if there were a drug that would make all their symptoms go away.  Different forms of ‘talk therapy’–most notably Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan–can help people with the disorder develop coping skills to address the various fears, emotional disturbances, and behaviors that are common to the disorder, much better than any pill or cluster of pills is going to manage the range of symptoms.

Beyond the issues of medication, there is a scene where Dr. Moffet tells Klieg that he tried to have her put on a psychiatric hold because he thinks she is a danger to herself. Surprisingly, and probably just to get in a bit of expository dialog, Klieg has to ask him what a psychiatric hold is—despite the ongoing implication that Klieg’s decision to stop taking her medication will lead her to be forcibly hospitalized–an implication that wouldn’t generally exist if such a thing hadn’t happened previously.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Moffet thinks Klieg has done something to warrant psychiatric detention. I can’t imagine there are many places where wasting one’s lottery winnings on a self-indulgent TV talk show would be seen as evidence of being a danger to oneself, even if one is doing things like illegally broadcasting phone calls during that show, or otherwise slandering people. But, really, the people running the TV show should have been aware of the legal problems in all that, and should have put a stop to it.

Still, Klieg’s having gone off her medications is a theme throughout the movie, and one which causes great alarm each time someone hears her speak of it—as if the other characters really know what she is being medicated for, and with, and what the obvious, disastrous consequences will be. It is a theme that culminates in a scene, where Klieg dazedly takes a nude stroll through a casino, apparently in some psychotic, or perhaps dissociative, state. She has to be subdued by cops and hospitalized.

And while such a situation is arguably possible for a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, such occurrences are not generally core features of the disorder, and portrayals of such are certainly not going to contribute to greater understanding of the disorder, particularly when they are shown as a natural consequence of not taking one’s medications—I mean one’s Abilify.

Overall, Moffet’s connection to Klieg is largely unexplored. Mostly he just harps on her about how she should get back on her medication—I mean her Abilify. When he (rightly) gets irritated at her for including him in her TV show, Moffet terminates his services with Klieg, by simply handing her a list of other providers.

One would think Dr. Moffet would, at the very least, try to make sure Klieg was actually in contact with another provider, after trying to process with Klieg about how she violated what should have been some clear boundaries, and why he cannot continue to treat her. Given that a fear of abandonment is a core component of Borderline Personality Disorder, and that self harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts are common among people with Borderline Personality Disorder (in fact, it would have been much more clinically accurate for Klieg to end up in the hospital due to a suicide attempt or self-harm episode after feeling abandoned by her best friend, and her treatment provider, and possibly lashing out at them, than due to a psychotic episode—or whatever that was—from quitting her medications), Moffet’s ‘here’s-a-provider-list-and-a-few-snippy-comments’ therapy termination seems grossly incompetent.  Due dilligence anyone?

And while I’m not advocating for depicting people with a particular mental illness in some format that allows viewers to check the symptoms off a list—that’s ‘disorder of the week’ TV-movie territory—the portrayal of Klieg suffers from being too timid in presenting her struggles. While Klieg is fairly off-putting to many of the people in her life, the filmmakers seemed wary of making her too off-putting. For the most part, she really only lashes out at people from her past through skits on her television show, while recklessly upsetting those around her by being self indulgent or impulsive. The filmmakers tried to keep Klieg quirkily unpleasant, in the kind of realm where one might believe that the right medications can keep her likable enough.

It strikes me, though, that the particular diagnosis is largely unimportant to the story, particularly considering how botched the presentation of the diagnosis-specific information is, and how the “off her meds” theme plays out. The film would have worked just as well (or just as poorly, depending on one’s view) knowing that Klieg was in treatment, and on medications, without having to name a particular psychiatric problem. I don’t think the movie would have suffered if, rather than naming any specific disorder, the characters referred only to Klieg having been in therapy, or hospitalized, or on medications. Hell, without the specific diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, the repeated mentions of Abilify might have been at least slightly less problematic.

At the very least, avoiding the naming of a diagnosis could have provided grad students and armchair psychologists with an exercise in identifying possible diagnoses and rule-outs. As it is, I suppose the film could at least provide valuable material for discussion about whether the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis seems correct, the kinds of errors Dr. Moffet makes, and about the need to make sure that clients and the people comprising their support system understand their diagnoses and treatments—that whole ‘psychoeducation’ piece that therapists are supposed to do.

Of course, I suppose having a character with a non-specified mental illness would open up the filmmakers to other complaints—such as portraying people with any old form of “mental illness” as psychotic and needing to be on medications, lest they burn through millions of dollars producing a TV show and end up running around naked in public—rather than suggesting that such a problem is specific to lottery winners with Borderline Personality Disorder.

All that said, I didn’t hate the movie.  I adore Kristen Wiig.  And, like I said, she does a credible job with the material.  The movie also mostly avoids the more exploitative angles of both comedies and dramas involving people with mental illness.  It’s just that they could have had a much richer story if they hadn’t relied so heavily on the medication angle.  Coping adequately with Borderline Personality Disorder takes a great deal of personal work, not just popping a pill–I mean, an Abilify.

And one last thing. I noticed that there was no clear indication from the credits that anybody had been consulted about the accuracy of the Borderline Personality Disorder information. So, I just wanted to float it out there that I’m willing to accept some of that Hollywood money in order to go over scripts and make sure they don’t make a mess out of their clinical details.

*Welcome to Me is currently available streaming on Netflix and Amazon.com, as well as in a variety of other places.

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Suicide at the Oscars, part one: ‘Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1’

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

The topic of suicide came up in at least three acceptance speeches at the latest edition of the Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. (Okay, yeah, I’m late to the party again). And perhaps even more astonishingly, two of those acceptance speeches were actually related to films about suicide prevention hotlines. First up is the documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. (A post about the short film, The Phone Call will follow soon).

Having spent more than five years working full time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias.

As a matter of fact, I first saw a portion of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 on a Sunday morning after coming home from an overnight shift at a call center where the crisis line calls represent only one of many mental health functions with which the staff is tasked. Having spent the bulk of my work week on understaffed shifts, I was perhaps a bit resentful at flipping on the TV to see a scene what Bob Hosk, one of the Veterans Crisis Line supervisors who features prominently in the documentary, described as “five hours here at the hotline” utilizing “about four personnel to help one guy.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the resources were available and the effort was made, with (spoiler alert) a positive outcome for an active duty service member in Hawaii.

In the time since I first saw that segment of the documentary, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the military in addressing the epidemic of suicide among veterans and service members, and will say it is truly impressive to see the complete change that has taken place over roughly the last two decades—from an approach to suicide and mental health issues that could be described as ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to one of increasing and highly-promoted access to counseling services, to working with suicide prevention specialists and investing in the crisis line depicted in the documentary, among many other avenues.

But, back on that summer morning, knowing that in similar situations (an unknown caller making a vaguely suicidal statement, then hanging up) rather than having a specific staff member on shift to call a special “law enforcement” phone number at cell phone company to get information on the caller’s location by pinging cell phone towers, and then being able to devote ‘five hours and four personnel’ to find the caller, whichever one of us took the call would typically end up trying to call back, and, failing any respone from that, doing a quick Internet search on the phone number (like they show in the documentary) and then making a call to 911 dispatch in whatever location the phone number (probably) originated, to report that somebody had called and threatened suicide—‘no, we don’t have a name; we don’t have an address; we don’t know how they might do it or if they tried anything yet; we don’t know if there are weapons involved; no, we don’t know much of anything about anything—we’re following our protocol, sorry to bother you.’ Then on to the next call—which could range from a hospital social worker inquiring about a client’s mental health history, to a client with chronic mental illness telling us about his dinner, to someone struggling to get help for a family member with a mental illness, to…

In the case of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, my sense is that the caller from Hawaii was truly coming from a place of desperation, and, perhaps, wasn’t aware of other options available to him, or just what sort of response might kick in as the result of the call he made. He may have thought that by hanging up, he could just drop the whole matter. He may have scared himself simply by voicing the thoughts he was having about ending his life, and so tried to walk away from that.

But beyond my initial reaction to the portion of the film I saw back on that sunny Sunday morning, and my somewhat-tempered-by-time-and-new-information response now, I have mixed reactions to the film.

I’ll say that, overall, I think it’s an excellent depiction of some of the most challenging types of work that happen at crisis lines, and at the Veteran’s Crisis Line Center in particular, which the film notes “is the only call center in the U.S. serving veterans in crisis.” (A more accurate description would be that it is the only call center in the U.S. specifically established to serve veterans, and specifically engaging the particular protocols of that call center in order to assist veterans. Any crisis line in the U.S. will take calls from veterans, and do what they can to help. Call centers affiliated with Lifeline routinely take calls from veterans and their families, in part because the callers don’t always ‘press 1’ when prompted to get transferred specifically to the Veterans Crisis Line Center. And, while Lifeline workers typically will explain to such callers that they have not reached the veteran’s line, they always offer to help.)

Semantics aside, not all calls to a crisis line are life and death—or even crises. Each time the phone rings, it’s not a given that the caller is a someone on the verge of taking her/his life, or a family member of such a person. But you wouldn’t know that from watching this film. You only get the slightest whiff of the lighter calls, when, early on, the camera moves through the call center, the sound of constantly ringing phones and poignant snippets of dialog, reaching the microphones at just the right time: “really proud of you…Where were you stationed?..So twice you tried to hang yourself before?…Do you want me to send someone there for you?…Did you get injured while you were out on active duty?…diagnosed with PTSD?…If there’s anything we can do for you…”

Okay, so those don’t come across as all that light. That particular scene is one of many subtle manipulations used by the filmmakers—layering audio to create a particular impression of an “always on” call center. For the sake of drama, the filmmakers leave out audio involving callers who are just seeking information or non-emergency services. They leave out the repeat callers who are really just touching base and giving a brief synopsis of their day. They leave out those calls having any of a number of angles that aren’t even remotely related to suicide.

The filmmakers also choose to escalate the drama in a completely unnecessary way. For instance, the music, most often quiet, involves drawn-out, high-pitched tones that add to the tension viewers are meant to feel—as if trying to talk a stranger out of suicide isn’t drama enough.

I love this woman: Maureen--Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

I love this woman: Maureen–Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

On top of that, the final segment of the film takes place on Christmas Eve. The scene opens with outside shots of the call center at night, American flag flying, trees wrapped in colorful, twinkling lights, as a soft jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays–the song adding a sting of dark humor with it’s ‘all our troubles will be miles away’ and ‘let your heart be light’ emotions. The timing of the scene was undoubtedly selected because of the heightened emotions many viewers are likely to have around the idea of a “Christmas miracle” or notions of family togetherness at the holidays. But it also serves to reinforce the popular, but ill-informed, notion that ‘the holidays’—Christmas in particular—are a time of heightened depression and increased suicide, an impression reinforced by a shot of the notepad where the crisis responder has written a quote from a suicidal veteran: “Holidays are depressing.”

There are other things that could be taken as manipulation, but which I think were not only clinically sound decisions, but also place the focus where the documentarians wanted it: on the people working at the crisis line. Not hearing the callers, for instance–while likely done just as much for clinical reasons, as for legal and artistic reasons–provides for greater control over how the information will be presented to the audience, and also removes any impressions viewers might have of the callers based on their voices, or the tones they are using.  While I obviously don’t know the specifics of how any of the callers in the documentary spoke or sounded, anybody who has spent time working on a crisis line knows that many of the callers can come across in a way that, shall we say, challenges empathy. Responders need to be aware of the potential biases they bring to calls, and need to develop skills for de-escalating and connecting with difficult callers. At any rate, difficult or not, hearing the callers’ voices would create a completely different film.

Still, one of the most valuable aspects of the film is in giving voice to the crisis line responders, not only in their moments of calm where they appear to be completely in control, but when they are giving voice to frustrations as well. During one call, Robert, a veteran himself, complains that the response time from police is “ridiculous.” In a separate interview segment, Robert expresses the anger that crisis line responders can feel toward callers: “How dare you take your own life?” But part of the reason Robert’s rawness comes across in a potentially endearing fashion is that the filmmakers also let him speak about his struggles with questions of his own abilities, whether or not he has made the right decisions, or whether he made them in time—questions born of situations where the interventions failed.

There are other responders in the film with whom I had a harder time connecting—feeling a sense of kinship, or understanding their particular reactions, or the ways they tried to connect with callers. I don’t want to dwell too much on my snotty, hypercritical reactions, though—or even mention them in any specificity. For one thing, I know only a very limited amount about what was happening in those particular situations. And I don’t know how those people move about in daily life, or in their routine work at the crisis line.

But why I will most back away from potentially harsh or nitpicky-sounding criticism of any of the responders is because I can’t imagine having to work a crisis call with the knowledge that cameras are on me, and that whatever I do could end up on HBO.

That said, there is one responder in particular, Maureen, who comes across as the undoubted ‘star’ of the film. Little is explained about Maureen or her background, except, perhaps, that she reveals that she has sons, as she is complimenting a caller on her handling of a difficult situation.

Beyond that, Maureen demonstrates the perfectly complicated balance of compassion and detachment that is rare in crisis line workers. She is able to connect to the callers, but does not get visibly drawn into the drama, despite mentioning calls that ‘stay with you.’ Early on, we hear her say, “It’s ultimately the veteran’s decision if they are going to live or die…and as a responder, you have to have a really good grasp of that.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Maureen is able to deliver lines of perfect connection to callers–lines that may seem odd to those unfamiliar with such situations. After asking a caller about how his friend (who died in combat) would react to news of the veteran’s suicidal intent, she listens for a bit, then says, “He’d kick your ass? So he’s a good friend.” Maureen is able to drably ‘contract for safety’ with callers, getting them to promise that they at least won’t kill themselves while they are on the line with her, and then works to expand on that promise.

Maureen is the responder featured in the final scene of the movie—the one that takes place on Christmas Eve. Against this backdrop of heightened emotion, she is tasked with drawing a soldier with a gun out of the desert, and back to his parents, despite much of his life unraveling. She is further challenged by limitations on her involvement—having to direct the veteran’s mother on how to bring him home, and then sitting silently, listening, and hoping it all works out.

In the end, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 leaves much to contemplate—whether from a clinical or technical perspective—or any of the other myriad perspectives that could be brought to the film. It is incredibly effective in that it is able to provoke a range of emotions, and could, potentially, be used as a tool for training crisis line workers and volunteers, service members and their families, or really anyone who wants a better understanding of how crisis lines work, how the mental health system can be accessed, or how the military is responding to concerns of suicide among its ranks.

It remains to be seen if the film will help draw more workers and volunteers to crisis services, or perhaps scare more of them off. And this is where I have the most difficulty with the film. How much is too much when trying to convey the intenstity of real-life situations? What level of manipulation and film-making technique serves to create understanding, and what level serves to drive only emotional response?

Granted, the vast majority of people who see Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 will never work in a crisis line call center. But, there’s always a chance they might need one.

So (obligatory ending)…

If you are concerned that somebody you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, call (or get them to call) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255—Veterans Press 1.

Bipolar Illusion: Tom Sullivan, Rand Paul, and the Economics of Disability

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Back on Wednesday, January 28, in a discussion of Social Security disability benefits on his Fox News Radio show, Tom Sullivan, who also serves as an anchor for Fox Business Network, said some incredibly stupid things about Bipolar Disorder. Sullivan, or whoever is responsible for the content of his web page, then proudly promoted Sullivan’s ignorance by posting what I can only hope is the worst part of that day’s show in a brief written piece, and a 5-minute audio clip, which you can see here: Tom Sullivan argues that Bipolar Disorder is a myth.

Among his statements, Sullivan called Bipolar Disorder “the latest fad,” adding, “We all have good days and we all have bad; and I don’t consider that an illness; and I don’t consider it a disability.”

Sullivan said plenty of other amazingly idiotic things, like suggesting people are talked into thinking they have Bipolar Disorder, and that it is a “made up” condition, as well as vilifying the entire “mental health business” and “big pharma.” (Wait–I thought Fox “News” liked big pharma.)

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it's the Tom Sullivan Show.  Today's topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

Broadcasting live from the Fox studios in the depths of hell, it’s the Tom Sullivan Show. Today’s topic: Yes, you should hate and fear your neighbors.

On top of that, Sullivan asked a question that anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of psychology, or the skill to do an Internet search, could answer: “What were these people called 25 years ago before they came up with this Bipolar diagnosis?”  (He didn’t mean that as a question that had an actual answer, but in the sense that he believes Bipolar Disorder was dreamed up by psychologists and drug companies 25 years ago).

I could let Jimi Hendrix answer Sullivan’s question in a song from 48 years ago, but I’ll let the good people at Healthline take this one.  Read their answer here: Bipolar Disorder just may have been recognized more than 25 years ago.

In case you didn’t bother to check the Healthline article, it basically notes that the first modern diagnosis of the illness that was eventually deemed “Bipolar Disorder” was first established in the mid-1800s, but that the basic condition was recognized in one form or other going as far back as the time of Aristotle and even before.  And prior to the Bipolar Disorder moniker, it was common to call the condition Manic Depression or Manic Depressive Illness, among other, similar things.

Sullivan’s staggering ignorance of mental health issues (and classic rock) aside, the truly insidious question that he asked in all of this was, “So what are you going to do when the money runs out?” By “the money,” Sullivan meant the Social Security disability fund, which he claimed will be bankrupt by 2016.

Beyond the more obvious stigmatizing of people with mental health issues, Bipolar Disorder in particular, Sullivan’s big question, and his chosen targets, may just be another entry into the vast library of right-wing fear-mongering about Social Security, and why it needs to be privatized. I’m sure it is. But it’s also part of a discussion that’s (once again) rumbling up about “entitlements” and poor people defrauding the government.

In fact, it appears Sullivan’s ill-informed rant about Bipolar Disorder may have been inspired by earlier comments from Rand Paul. As “support” for the items on Sullivan’s show that day, Sullivan’s website features a clip of Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky/compassionate ophthalmologist, speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire about how at least half the people on disability payments are collecting those payments fraudulently. You can see the clip (from CNN of all places) on Sullivan’s website here: Rand Paul is a medical expert who knows you’re not hurt, you crybaby!

Paul tells the (New Hampshire) crowd that, “everybody in this room knows someone who’s gaming the system.” Now, I’m not the kind of person to show up at a Rand Paul event, but I have to wonder about the people who do, if they all know somebody who is “gaming” the disability system. Then again, maybe Paul is just jaded, since his home state of Kentucky ranks third among the states in terms of the percentage of total population collecting disability payments. (I got that information from looking at the actual source of some of the Social Security Administration stats that were posted in an incomplete image on the same page of Sullivan’s website with the Rand Paul video) One might also ask what those stats, and Paul’s claims of fraud, could possibly say about doctors in Kentucky, who are signing off on all those disability claims.

Among those actually deserving of disability payments, Paul counts only paraplegics, quadriplegics, and the “horrifically disabled,” noting that “half the people on disability” are no worse off than anyone else, only “anxious, or their back hurts.” Paul’s standard for not deserving any kind of disability payments: “if you look like me and you hop out of your truck.” So, I guess a whole lot of white males with trucks are headed toward losing their disability payments, unless they’re careful to avoid getting caught hopping out of said trucks.

One would think that Paul’s background in medicine, as well as his position as an elected official might lead him to realize it’s his job to productively address problems with the way government systems work—particularly if those systems are tied to an area of his expertise. Likewise, Sullivan’s background in economics, along with his national platforms on both radio and television, should mean that a discussion of how to fix the Social Security disability system’s funding problem might be in Sullivan’s wheelhouse.

But rather than seeking out ways to tackle, say, the potential of those receiving Social Security disability payments to find work through job training programs; or promoting ways of obtaining additional funding, like removing the income cap on Social Security taxes, we get more condemnation of the poor–calling them lazy thieves.

Instead of having an informed discussion about the needs of those on disability, and why somebody who doesn’t “look disabled” might actually be struggling with things that many of us take for granted, we get accusations that people coping with mental illness are faking it and claiming to have conditions that don’t even exist.

Hell, Sullivan and Paul could even look into ways to make the disability system more functional by addressing the ways disability payments are established and rewarded.

But, no—we get wealthy white guys complaining that people with disabilities are a bunch of cheats, stealing from their neighbors. We get those with tremendous privilege trying to pit the poor and middle class against those with disabilities—’Hey! Let’s all pile on people who’ve been injured! Let’s knock down those who suffer from mental illness!! Get ‘em!!’

There are plenty of other things absent from these discussions of the Social Security disability system, like that those receiving the payments have to periodically have their status as “disabled” validated by doctors or mental health professionals, or that many of them end up assigned to a “payee” who controls the way their money can be spent, or that they have limits on things like what portion of their disability check can be used for housing. They are often confined to extremely limited options for government-approved housing, where their homes are subject to inspections, including being warned with ‘corrective actions’ if they aren’t keeping things clean enough.

Perhaps Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Paul think that those taking in, say, $1100 a month for being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (which is roughly the average monthly payout) are scamming us all, and stealing our tax dollars because they’re lazy. But the amount of money one can earn is hardly worth the effort that goes into obtaining it in the first place, or keeping it over time.  It might be a fun and entertaining exercise to have either Paul or Sullivan attempt to live on that amount of money for a month, and under the same restrictions.

Yet when one is so completely ignorant or out of touch as to think that Bipolar Disorder is make believe, or that we are surrounded by people stealing from the government through the Social Security disability system, then one has given up any credibility in the discussion of how to address the problems of vulnerable populations in our society–or even the discussion of how to address the possibility of fraud in the Social Security disability system.

Demonizing fellow citizens by claiming they have phony injuries or fabricated mental illness is a great way to stir up righteous anger among the poorly-informed. It may even achieve the goals of getting votes, or making disability requirements even harder to meet, or of having Social Security privatized or partially privatized.

So, don’t be surprised if you start hearing more and more about scammers bankrupting the Social Security disability system, or even more about mental illnesses being phony. Even if Sullivan did attract the ‘wrong’ kind of attention with his obnoxious comments, all he needs to do is get the poison in the stream. Then, Rand Paul and his ilk can still seem educated and rational and folksy enough that they appear sensible by comparison.

Honey Boo Boo Needs Some Real TLC, Not Abandonment

by JC Schildbach, LMHC, de-commissioned ASOTP

Not quite a month ago, The Learning Channel (TLC) announced plans to drop production of its ‘reality’ show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, as well as shelving an entire season that has been completed, but not aired. The reason? “Mama June” Shannon was photographed out and about with her former beau, convicted sex offender Mark McDaniel. Even worse, a few days after the original story broke, a photo surfaced showing June, Mark, and Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson together.

McDaniel was convicted of “aggravated child molestation” for sexual contact with Anna Marie Cardwell, who is June’s daughter, and Alana’s half-sister. McDaniel served a ten-year sentence for the molestation, having been released from prison in March.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.   I’ve seen occasional clips on other shows, and watched most of one episode when I came across it while flipping channels. But in that episode, I saw that the family was accepting of Alana’s uncle, who is gay, without making a big deal about it. And, despite my unease at the general weirdness of the child pageant circuit, the family members seemed to enjoy each other’s company. And then the show concluded with Honey Boo Boo climbing up on a chair and sticking her butt in the air to fart loudly, which, strangely enough, served as the lead-in to a very somber, ‘feed the children’ infomercial.

At any rate, speaking of the weirdness of the child pageant circuit, having seen a few episodes of Toddlers in Tiaras, the TLC show that spawned Honey Boo Boo’s spinoff, I am disturbed by what can only be described as the sexualization of little girls on that show. The contestants are small children who are essentially treated identically to adult beauty pageant contestants—made to wear too much makeup, with piled-up hairdos, wearing a variety of—I guess you’d call them revealing, although that sounds weird when talking about children—dresses and bathing suits, while performing routines involving dance moves that I pray the girls don’t understand the origins/meaning of.

I’ve had offender clients specifically mention Toddlers in Tiaras as a kind of ‘gateway’ form of visual stimulation leading to seeking out even more exploitative material. And, while such ‘gateway’ comments are often spoken with the intent to limit the personal responsibility of those clients—the whole ‘society is sexualizing young girls, what am I to do?’ complaint—it is somewhat difficult to view the show without thinking, ‘Wow—pedophiles must really enjoy this.’

So, while I could start shaming Mama June for putting her daughter in the beauty pageant circuit, or for taking up with a man who molested one of her daughters; instead it seems a better course in all of this would be for TLC to invest some more effort and money in the show, and maybe take it in some completely different directions—maybe even directions that would involve some actual learning.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit--Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

Broken portrait of an exploited family unit–Anna Marie, Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and Mark McDaniel.

That is to say, it’s very odd to have a show built on the highjinks of a family that is portrayed as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes chasing a weird dream, and then to turn around and cancel the show when the matriarch of the family does something that shows she really doesn’t understand what’s at stake in a particular situation. According to Anna Marie’s own statements to the media, June minimized McDaniel’s behavior, telling Anna Marie that McDaniel wasn’t all that dangerous because Anna Marie was McDaniel’s only victim.

Such a statement is a big red flag that Mama June just might be buying a whole lot of lies from McDaniels—the kind of lies that offenders tell all too frequently. ‘It was just the one time;’ ‘I was drunk;’ ‘It was a mistake;’ ‘The victim did X first;’ ‘I paid the price/did my time;’ ‘I won’t ever do that again;’ etc, etc.

I don’t know what kind of treatment McDaniel may or may not have received in prison. But unless McDaniel has developed some understanding of his own behaviors, and unless Mama June has been educated on exactly what McDaniel did, how he did it, how he justified it to himself, what kinds of things Mama June needs to look out for in McDaniel’s behavior (preferably coming from McDaniel’s own confession); and unless she’s been given instruction in what McDaniel’s behavior means for the safety of her other children, and how to reduce risk (risk can never fully be eliminated), then it’s a little hypocritical of TLC executives to cut her off, claiming that it is in the best interest of the safety of the children involved.

And just for context, here’s the statement issued by the network at the time of the show’s cancellation: “TLC has cancelled the series HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO and ended all activities around the series, effective immediately. Supporting the health and welfare of these remarkable children is our only priority. TLC is faithfully committed to the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.”

Great, TLC, but where’s the support? I’ve seen many mothers of victims continue on in relationship with the men who molested those women’s children. And a supportive and appropriate relationship with an adult partner can actually reduce risk for re-offense. However, that risk isn’t (generally speaking) reduced when the offender is allowed back around likely victims, particularly without the partner being fully informed as to the nature of the offender’s behavior, and how to provide adequate support for the offender and for other family members. But maybe TLC executives are just looking at this as another example of the stereotypes they’re comfortable promoting–of poor, Southern folk accepting child molestation as a routine part of life.

It is potentially extremely damaging for victims of molestation, like Anna Marie, to see their mothers return to relationship with the offender, or to, in any way, be given the impression that they are being treated as secondary to the perpetrator of sexual violence. It definitely sends some disturbing messages about who is being given priority, and where the concern of the mother lies. It is possible to mitigate that damage, but only with some very involved, professionally-guided therapy.

I don’t want to over-simplify things here, but a major reason for women to continue on in relationship with offenders is economic. I don’t have any idea if McDaniel has any real way of providing for June’s family, but since TLC just cut off the family’s current main source of income, they are increasing Mama June’s likely reliance on someone who can provide support—and at a time when the person June is in relationship with is an offender who is very much putting Honey Boo Boo—that “remarkable child”—at risk.

So, again, why not take the show in a new direction? A learning direction? I don’t mean to advocate for making an offender a reality TV star, but TLC could at least build in scenes to Honey Boo Boo’s show, or maybe a spinoff, that follow McDaniel through treatment, and through all of the difficulties he now faces as a convicted offender trying to rebuild a life outside of prison, in conjunction with Mama June’s exposure to McDaniel’s treatment process.  The audience could see scenes of June attending sessions with McDaniel—scenes of McDaniel explaining his ‘offense cycle’ to June, of McDaniel explaining his actual offense to June, of June going through a chaperone class where she learns just what limits need to be placed on McDaniel and his contact with June’s children.

And what about making sure Anna Marie’s okay? How about, instead of channeling any income to McDaniel, any money involved in a standard TLC reality-star fee, over and above the cost of his evaluation and treatment—funded by TLC—goes to Anna Marie to make sure she can get some ongoing treatment herself?  Perhaps let Anna Marie gain some economic benefit from the exploitation she’s already suffered? She’s had various media outlets contacting her to ask how she feels about the man who molested her being released from prison. How about making sure Anna Marie’s not being re-traumatized by all of this? After all, how many victims of molestation really want the molestation being made public, and then want to have to address it, with complete strangers, for the purposes of having it blasted out all over the airwaves and the Internet?

Of course, TLC doesn’t have to do anything in this case. Perhaps TLC executives were grateful that a scandal of this sort came around when Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was pulling ratings of less than half of its peak performance, just so they had a good excuse to cut their losses. Then again, TLC could really do some good in this case. TLC could truly support the “health and welfare” of their child stars. TLC could really help advance public discourse on offenders, offender treatment, and victim advocacy.

Or TLC could just leave Mama June, Honey Boo Boo, and the rest of the clan dangling—dangling over a cliff where falling means families torn apart and potential acts of child sexual abuse—and move on to whatever other ‘reality’ show goofballs America wants to laugh at, until ‘reality’ creeps in and undoes them as well—leaving TLC to cut its losses, abandon its ‘stars,’ and run.

 

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

Happy Birthday to Me II: Contemplate This on the Cake of Woe

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Fashion Icon

(for part one, click here https://respecttheblankie.com/2013/09/20/happy-birthday-to-me/ )

Check out this picture:

It's 1971--do you know where your emotions are?

It’s 1971–do you know where your emotions are?

Pretty amazing, right?

No, no, I don’t mean the fetching haircut accentuating the perfect, potato-esqe shape of my head. That haircut was a dad special a la 1971—the hairdo all of my brothers and I had by dad’s decree. I’m thinking a “1” setting on the clipper.   Quick and easy, nice and tidy.

And, no, I’m not talking about the fashion, although I am pretty damn suave in that dual-layer, v-neck with mock-turtleneck, combo. Or, more accurately, I guess that would be a mock-mock-turtleneck, given that it’s not even a real mock turtleneck, but just the neck and a little bit of the chest of a mock-turtleneck sewn into a shirt. The dead giveaway is that the striped part of the outfit is short-sleeved, and who ever heard of a short-sleeved mock-turtleneck? Right? The dove-gray slacks perfectly compliment the olive stripes sandwiched between the ocean blue stripes that match the mock-mock-turtleneck.*  Still, I’m thinking that this getup would definitely make it into a top ten list of my all-time most fashionable outfits, such is the limited ability I have to dress myself.

No, I’m not even talking about the gift, proudly displayed—that Fisher Price Little People airplane—the red winged version. Pure brilliance of design, down to the weird, yellow plastic string tied to the front so it could be pulled along the ground, the pilot, head flipping back and forth, ever vigilant. Of course, the pilot eventually wanted to break free from the tarmac, and I obliged. The plane today (still in a closet of my mother’s home, or perhaps in a box in the “workshop” of my house) is missing the door, and a chunk of one of it’s horizontal stabilizers, courtesy of a few attempts over the years to see if I could get the thing to fly properly. Perhaps such confusion over aerodynamics is tied to why I became a therapist, and my older brothers went into the “hard sciences.”

Anyway, any other guesses as to why the photo is so amazing? The cake? Well, I did reference it in the title of this piece, I suppose. And it is pretty impressive—home-baked, double-layer, chocolate frosting on devil’s food, set atop a shimmering, crystal cake stand, the candles, playfully askew. But, that’s not it, either.

Are you ready for it? The big reveal?

What’s so amazing about this picture is that it was taken, by my mother, one week after my father’s rather unexpected death. That the picture is so normal, that it fits in so perfectly with the small parade of yearly birthday pictures of all of my siblings and me (all featuring the birthday kid, with a cake and a gift, either posed alone or with that year’s cadre of siblings) is what is amazing to me.

My mother managed, seven days after what I assume was the absolute pinnacle of the sadness and distress in her entire life, with that sorrow still hanging heavily over her and the entire family, to make a cake, wrap a gift, and provide me and our family with some small bit of normalcy. I can imagine my mother just realizing that it was her duty to do so, that she signed up to have kids, and, well, that’s what you do when you have kids…you soldier on and keep things as stable as possible even if everything just collapsed right out from under you.

I have always wondered (and I suppose it wouldn’t take all that much to ask, but since mom will be reading this, I’m sure I’ll get an answer of some kind) if that plane was purchased before or after my father’s death…since it wasn’t until after my father’s death that what would be my first plane ride—out of Nebraska, and on to Oregon—would even be a thought. Was it a gift meant to help prepare me for that trip, or was it merely a coincidence? Was I fascinated with planes at the time? Was it just kind of a cool thing my parents thought I would like? Or was I manipulated by television commercials telling me I wanted that plane?

As a bit of an aside, here’s a Fisher Price commercial from 1972, including the plane, and narration by Dick Cavett. The gentle pitch to parents (although the images would definitely grab the attention of children) is rather quaint now, compared to todays ads telling kids that they MUST HAVE THESE TOYS NOW!!

At any rate, one thing I never noticed in this photo until I scanned it and really looked at it earlier this morning—is that the door behind me opens onto my parents’ bedroom—or what had recently become only my mother’s bedroom.   I can clearly see the same bed that my mother still sleeps in through that open door just behind me.

Not long ago, I told my mother that one of my earliest memories was of going into her bedroom (I believe after being told to leave her alone) and finding her lying on her perfectly-made bed, crying. I asked her why she was crying. I don’t recall that she said anything, only reached out to me and put her hand on my arm, which I had rested on top of the bed. Soon thereafter, somebody—a brother? Some other relative? A family friend?—stepped in and ushered me out of the room, closing the door behind us.

In my mind, the setting for this memory always defaults to our house in Oregon, because that is the only house my family lived in that I consciously remember. But seeing that, in this photo, the bed is covered in a white bedspread, just as it always was in our house in Oregon, it is easy to imagine that same scene playing out here, in the Nebraska house, although to ‘block out’ the scene would require flipping certain elements in different directions. I can definitely imagine that the dining room furniture in the photo here would have provided me with some measure of blockage between me and whoever (may have) told me to leave my mother alone, just as the short distance between our dining room and my mother’s bedroom in the Oregon house would have given me that tiny bit of time to do the same. Nebraska in September (probably more likely) or Oregon in November, it makes sense to me either way.

Getting back to the specific elements of the photo, certainly, other mothers have done the same as my mother did, in similar circumstances, just as other mother’s have fallen apart. Certainly, plenty of fathers have also had similar experiences following the loss of a spouse, and the effort to carry on and keep things stable for their children (or of falling apart). But it’s my birthday, and if I want to tell my mom she did an amazing thing—then I get to do that.

So, happy birthday to me, and thanks, mom!

 

*Color matches approximated using Ingrid Sundberg’s “Color Thesaurus” which can be found here: http://www.boredpanda.com/color-thesaurus-char-ingrid-sundberg/ .  If you have suggestions for better labels of the colors in the photo, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

Suicide?!? Shazbot!

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize it. Part 4: Colbert Gets Snarky, Dodges the Issue

With Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling grabbing the headlines for their overt, easily-condemned racism, I really should have cranked out these Park/Colbert-related posts a lot quicker. After all, in the U.S.A. we can’t go all that long without another disturbing, race-related story coming to light. And so long as we have people like Bundy and Sterling saying such outrageous things, we can go along ignoring more subtle examples of racism, which really aren’t that subtle at all, as we pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as those guys.

Still, when I started these posts calling #CancelColbert necessary, the underlying idea wasn’t that it was necessary to cancel “The Colbert Show,” but that the discussion that arose out of the #CancelColbert campaign was necessary, especially given the rather harsh, negative reaction to the campaign, not by the usual hard-right, proud racists, or even the Fox News fan base of racism deniers, but by a large group of people who count themselves among Colbert’s enlightened fans, those people largely being liberals or progressives. The necessity for the discussion was furthered by the severe freak-out aimed at Suey Park, the person behind the #CancelColbert campaign, and the avoidance of actually talking about whether it is okay for white people to use racist language targeting one group in order to criticize/satirize white racism against another group.

“It was a joke,” or “It was satire,” is simply not an adequate answer. It is exactly the kind of thing that Rush Limbaugh fans say anytime anybody criticizes him for his vulgarity and stupidity—“It’s just a joke. Get over it. Why are you so sensitive?”

The underlying debate is, arguably, another version of whether it is okay for white people to use “the n-word,” in any of its variations, and if they can expect that people will take it in the way they intend—or if it’s just plain offensive regardless. If you want to get down to finer points, it is possible to argue that Colbert’s language wasn’t specifically a racial slur against people of Asian descent, in the same way that “the n-word” is a slur against people of African descent. (Of course, maybe “people of African descent” isn’t the best description, since that includes everybody on the planet–but I think you take my meaning).  Still, the language Colbert used was not innocuous.

Consider it: “The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Just imagine you heard this language, or more specifically, the “Ching Chong” or “Orientals” part, coming out of the mouth of a white person in a restaurant, or a bank, or pretty much any other public setting. Would it strike you as odd? Offensive? Would it seem perfectly okay? If one of your white friends used this language, would you call them on it? Ignore it? Analyze the context to determine if it was an acceptable use of those words?

My guess is that, unless you’re cool with racist digs at people of Asian descent, it might seem more than a little ‘off.’

Yet, despite the clearly offensive (sorry if I’m making assumptions) nature of the language, when Park called Colbert on the use of this language, a bunch of people attacked Park as lacking a sense of humor and failing to understand the context of the joke.  Rather than an exchange of reasonable viewpoints, the ugliest garbage the Internet can produce came flooding out—including targeting Park with unquestionably racist and sexist language, rape threats, and death threats. There was an all-out effort to tear Park down, without ever giving any real consideration to whether the language is, at base, offensive.

Several people, including Park, have noted that Colbert chose to craft the joke with offensive language targeting Asian people rather than other ethnic groups, exactly because it was accepted that the “Ching Chong” language would be seen as an obvious joke, whereas other racially-charged language wouldn’t be so readily viewed as ‘satire’—one underlying message being that Asian people are in on the (white people) joke, and cool enough not to get all freaked out about white people saying racist things in service of satire. Such a belief falls into ideas of Asians as the “model minority”—willing to go along to get along. When Park raised an issue by objecting to the language, fans of Colbert immediately shifted the issue away from Colbert using the language, and on to Asian people who “can’t take a joke.”

Now, I get that Colbert is arguably painted into a corner in that the character he plays on “The Colbert Report,” and the kind of person that character represents, would never issue an apology or acknowledge any kind of mistake or wrongdoing. And given that he is playing a character, it is more than difficult to say anything that would be taken sincerely, or really understood as him breaking character. Still, Colbert’s response, which notably did not refer to Suey Park by name even once despite showing a picture of her, was sadly lacking. It never once addressed the use of the particular language, or why it might be offensive, and instead, chose to repeat the language multiple times, while saying “not my fault” and “don’t take jokes out of context.”

You can watch the whole piece here:  Colbert’s Dodgy Response

Colbert’s response can be summed up in the following points (now drained of humor, sorry):

  1. I am playing a character.
  2. I was mocking Dan Snyder.
  3. The joke was repeated several times (reruns and social media) with no reaction.
  4. Somebody other than me sent the problem tweet.
  5. The tweet did not provide any context for the joke.
  6. The news media blew this out of proportion
  7. Michelle Malkin attacked me over this, and she is clearly worse than me.
  8. This took the attention off Dan Snyder and put it on me.
  9. I’ve done a number of other pieces involving race issues that would seem really bad out of context.

So much of this response seems as if it were crafted by handlers following social media reaction, who then ran it by a focus group just to make sure it would resonate with Colbert’s adoring public. It was a joke/satire—check. You’re taking it out of context—check. Don’t you get it?—check. Why now?/Why this?—check. Snyder is the issue here—check. This was blown out of proportion—check. Michelle Malkin sucks—check.

Colbert’s response, by failing to name Park, implies that Michelle Malkin—someone many Colbert fans despise—is the person most associated with the #CancelColbert campaign. It also has this creepy mythological undertone of refusing to name one’s enemy—“She Who Must Not be Named” in Harry Potter Parlance. Or, if you want to go into a history of racial issues involving naming and claiming, Columbus declaring, well, everything for Spain while refusing to acknowledge or accurately identify those he was claiming it from, or even concern himself with whether they were speaking the same language…

Okay, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic, but why couldn’t Colbert say who started the campaign, or even identify what she said was the underlying point? Don’t want to add any more to her (as every hack has written) 15 minutes of fame? Sorry, I don’t think Park is going away that soon, unless it is by her own choice. (And, btw, you don’t get to claim somebody and her particular form of communication is insignificant while also blaming her/it for allegedly derailing an important national conversation. Calling attention to a joke, thereby creating a national conversation is not the same thing as derailing a conversation that was already taking place). Don’t want to direct any attention toward her because then people might see that she has already engaged the same kinds of “hashtivist” campaigns in service against racist mascots? I guess it really doesn’t serve your attempt to tag someone as ‘anti-First-Nations’ if she’s shown support for First Nations people. Don’t want to answer the question regarding the use of particular forms of language? That sounds more like it.

I’d have at least a little more faith that Colbert’s audience is laughing at the sophisticated satire and context of the joke if they didn’t all giggle each time he used the “Ching Chong” language, as if they were toddlers hearing someone say “poopy.”

I’ll concede that Colbert isn’t the poster boy for racist comedy.  He’s been a voice for progressive causes, and has called out hypocrisy in politics, religion, and the media for a good long while.  Still, if someone questions something he does, it doesn’t speak highly of his audience if they are going to react with anger and hate–regardless of who is asking the question.  If someone asks whether Colbert’s language was racist, supporters of Colbert replying with name-calling, particularly grossly racist name-calling, doesn’t really lead to the conclusion that they are enlightened consumers of sophisticated comedy.

And when those supporters, and Colbert himself, dodge the actual question that was raised, they don’t appear to have some amazing sense of humor that the questioners lack.  They just look like they’re afraid of the question.

I’m still not sure why it was so impossible for (white, liberal) people to have this conversation in particular. I’m still not sure why Park had to be attacked by Colbert fans who were unable to accept the idea that maybe this kind of language should be dropped. After all, when Rush Limbaugh mocked Chinese President Hu Jintao with a ridiculous verbal stream of mock-Chinese “ching chong” talk, plenty of people rightfully criticized him.

Some have said the use of the language comes down to intent—that Limbaugh was talking in ignorance, while Colbert was talking with satire in mind.  And, sure, there’s a difference there. But isn’t that just a way of saying that we are laughing with Colbert, and laughing at Limbaugh? Or that Limbaugh was laughing at Asian people, while Colbert was laughing with Asian people?  But, then, where does that leave you when you find out that not all of the Asian people are laughing with you? Or at you? Or at all?

At base, it’s the same language. It’s the same stupid joke. Whether someone is laughing at or with somebody, they’re still laughing at the idea that all that “ching chong” talk is the basis of a good joke.

And when Colbert fans start decrying the people who questioned the use of the language in the first place, and acusing them of being anti-white, they sound an awful lot like those racism-denying Fox News fans—you know, the ones who think that the real race issue in America is that non-white people dared to admit that they aren’t all that happy with the way white people treat them—or talk about them.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

It’s a pretty long trek from “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s worth considering,” to “Your opinion is stupid.” It is, however, just a small step from conducting an interview with the subtext “I don’t have to listen to you,” to actually coming out and saying, “Your opinion is stupid,” which is exactly what Josh Zepps did in his “HuffPost Live” interview with Suey Park on March 31st.

Park made an appearance on Zepps’ show, via webcam from her home, to discuss the #CancelColbert campaign (related to a segment on “The Colbert Report” where Colbert used racist terms for people of Asian descent in order to mock Dan Snyder’s use of the racist Redskins football team name in the name of an organization created with the alleged goal of supporting First Nations people). Channeling Ron Burgundy, Zepps spent the bulk of the interview pushing Park to acknowledge that the Colbert segment that led to Park’s campaign was just a joke, and to chuckle along with him.

Zepps’ preparation for the interview seems to have involved little more than getting a couple of screen grabs off of Twitter, watching the Colbert segment, and coming up with different ways of saying, ‘Come on, it’s a joke. Get over it,’ while smugly smirking and chuckling. It’s unclear if he actually prepared himself to follow the indignant, defensive white male playbook, or if that just came naturally to him.

Apparently incapable of hearing anything Park said, Zepps stooped to asking her if she even knew what satire was, explained the definition of satire, and made multiple attempts to tell her why Colbert’s joke was funny/not offensive, as well as trying to tell her she shouldn’t be upset about racist language if it’s used in a satirical fashion.

Oddly enough, despite his attempt to educate Parks on the meaning of various words and concepts, Zepps didn’t seem to recognize at least one word Park used: “Orientalism.” Zepps failed to distinguish between Colbert’s use of the word “Orientals” (a derogatory term for a huge swath of people from Northern Africa, throughout all of Asia) and Park’s use of the word “Orientalism” (which I will loosely define as the practice of viewing/referring to the region previously mentioned, and the people from that region as exotic, strange, and “other”). Park took Colbert to task for engaging in Orientalism–in this case, making a joke that relied on viewing people of Asian descent as “other” and making them the punchline of a joke allegedly aimed at white racists–not just using the word “Orientals,” although using that word didn’t help anything.

Apparently, realizing he was not going to get any traction with Park on the point of how funny the Colbert segment was, Zepps tried to pull his fellow commentator, Jason Linkins, in on the debate by addressing him directly, saying, “Jason, a part of the whole gag here is the use of the term Orientalism which is such a weird, old, loaded (laugh) like, it’s just a stupid, stupid word. But to get upset about the use of that word when it’s in a satirical context strikes me as misguided.” Yes, that’s right. Zepps attempted to enlist the support of his fellow white guy in an effort to tell Park that having a negative reaction to the use of racist terms that are aimed at people of Asian descent (as Park is) is misguided—y’know, because it was a joke. Or, to put it more bluntly, Zepps asserted the right of white people to tell people of Asian descent how they should react to a joke using racist terms for Asian people.  (In an even more ludicrous exchange Zepps and Linkins spent a short time after the Park interview bemoaning the fact that, as white men, Park was denying them the ability to express, or even have, opinions–this coming from two guys who are paid to sit around and give their opinions on issues on a high-traffic website).

Park responded to Zepps insistence that the use of the racist terms was okay because it was satirical by saying that “satire caters to the audience that you’re speaking to,” and is an indication of “what the audience finds humorous or acceptable.” In other words, Park said that Colbert’s audience was willing to laugh at a joke wherein, to mock a racist, people of Asian descent were used as a punchline. The language Colbert used is still degrading, and the history behind those words is such that it can still provoke some rather powerful responses. But that idea was ignored, or perhaps not even considered. To put it more concisely, Park explained that “white liberals feel like they are less racist because they can joke about people that are more explicitly racist.” But in that equation, the joke still involved the use of racist terms and the joke was still built on the idea that racism is funny.

To further his argument that Park (and, by extension, anybody who had a problem with the Colbert joke) was simply wrong, Zepps suggested Park would better spend her time actually “attacking Dan Snyder’s racism” rather than attacking “a satirical attack on Snyder’s racism.” Again, Zepps tell’s Park what her reaction should be, and what the appropriate issue is, as well as what the appropriate course of action (for Park) should be.

Park’s response to this challenge contained a number of intertwined and somewhat complicated points, all of which Zepps ignored. First of all, Park argued against ‘individualizing’ the issues regarding racism by breaking them down into issues particular to separate ethnic groups, especially when her critique was, at base, against racism, and the use of racism to mock racism.  Park also pointed out that she has been involved in the campaign against racist mascots like the Redskins (see the above point regarding Zepps’ failure to prepare for the interview), and that regardless of the specific issue raised with regard to racism, the response—backlash against the person pointing out the racism, rather than focus on the actual racism—tends to be the same. Park further explains that, even as Zepps tells her she should be directing her attention at Snyder’s racism, he (and many others) choose to spend their energy coming to the defense of Colbert and a joke, while attacking Park, rather than doing anything about the racist mascot that Zepps tells Park to address.

Park made the rather biting comment that for “white liberals” and other supporters of Colbert, “it’s not really about whether or not the Redskins exist or whether or not racism is over, it’s really about feeling like they can’t have fun anymore and feeling entitled to be able to laugh at things that aren’t really funny.” If there’s any doubt about this point, one need only look at how Park has had much more ire directed at her for raising a question about Colbert’s joke than has been directed at Dan Snyder or the Redskins organization, despite decades of people attempting to focus attention on the issue of racist mascots, and a complete refusal by those with the power to do so to change the name of the Redskins. There has been movement on the issue with regard to mascots at the high school and college levels. But, as Park points out, Zepps is directing his efforts at defending a joke that used racist terms, while telling Park what her reaction should be to hearing racist terms used against people of Asian descent, and where she should direct her attention and political activism.

But none of Park’s arguments sunk in with Zepps. What did sink in was when Park criticized Zepps more directly, saying it was “incredibly patronizing for you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man.” Park attempted to actually have a discussion about the issues she was trying to raise with the #CancelColbert campaign, while Zepps repeatedly defaulted to the idea of “it was a joke” or “it was satire” and insisted that Park was merely misunderstanding Colbert’s intent, and did not know what satire is.

Park went on to say that she didn’t expect Zepps “to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying.” Zepps, and many others, took this to be a completely unfair argument, even racist on Park’s part (Oh no! She said that white people don’t listen to people of color–and in a context where a white guy was clearly not listening to a person of color!). But, throughout the entire interview, Zepps did not once acknowledge anything that Park said, or give any credence to the idea that anybody of Asian descent might be offended by the use of the “Ching Chong” and “Orientals” language that Colbert used. Zepps simply insisted it was a joke, so Park should not be offended. In other words, Zepps didn’t listen to Park at all—and she pointed out that he wasn’t listening to her at all.

Park gives her best

Park gives her best “Thanks for talking down to me” smile.

So, this resulted in Zepps engaging in a little defensive tantrum, wherein he said that being white does not “prevent me from being able to think and doesn’t prevent me from being able to have thoughts…reasoned perspectives on things.” Note, first, that Park did not say that being a white person prevented Zepps from thinking, she said it was getting in the way of his ability/willingness to listen to what she was saying. He wanted to argue a particular point.  She was trying to explain that she had a different perspective. Zepps simply continued to assert that his perspective was the right perspective, without acknowledging that he had any understanding whatsoever of Park’s point of view.

If there’s any question about Zepps’ intent, or Zepps’ belief in his own rightness, when Park pointed out that he was minimalizing her experience and minimalizing her opinion, read: he wasn’t listening at all, and denied that anything she said was valid—which is exactly what he did—Zepps said he was not doing any such thing, then said, “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Let that sink in. Zepps said that he was not minimalizing Park’s experience or opinion, but then called her opinion “stupid”—a word that could not more clearly demonstrate that Zepps had no intent of considering anything Park said, because her arguments did not fit in with Zepps’ overriding premise that Park had a “misunderstanding of what satire is…a misunderstanding of what irony is.”

Perhaps Zepps can understand this little bit of irony, though. Early on in the interview, Zepps said, in defense of Colbert’s use of slurs against people of Asian descent, “isn’t his point that there are lots of stupid racist people who, even in their attempt to be conciliatory on race end up putting their foot in it, and saying something dumb?”  Yes, Mr. Zepps, that was Colbert’s point, delivered in a way that some found objectionable. Still, thanks for providing another example of just that point.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved that #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part One: She Said What?!?

Way back on March 27 or so—an eternity in Twitter time—Suey Park, a 23-year-old writer, comedian, and activist, in response to a post from the Twitter account of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” (but not actually Stephen Colbert’s account), started a (Twitter-based) campaign: #CancelColbert. Park’s point (overly simplified): using racist jokes to mock racism isn’t really an effective way to combat racism, or particularly funny. The outcome: a bunch of (mostly) white (mostly) guys told her to shut up and learn how to take a joke.

Colbert’s original segment, which aired on Wednesday, March 26, mocked the racist name of the newly-established “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” in part, by claiming that Colbert (in the person of his mock-right-wing character) was establishing his own charity, named after an Asian character with a racist name, in support of “Orientals…or Whatever.”

Late on Thursday, March 27, “The Colbert Report” Twitter acccount posted a tweet announcing the establishment of the foundation for “Orientals…or Whatever,” which, due to a limited number of available characters, and a lack of forethought, made the use of the racist terminology that much more blatant.

It was at this point that Park entered the (Twitter) picture, calling for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” by pointing out that mocking racism with racism is still a form of encouraging people to laugh at racism and racist stereotypes. Park has since explained that she is a fan of Colbert, and did not literally mean that she believed Colbert’s show should be cancelled, but that she was using hyperbole as a means of calling attention to a particular idea. In other words, a Twitter campaign called #PleaseKindlyAskColbertNotToUseRacistJokesToMockRacism is much less attention-getting than #CancelColbert.

Never mind that Colbert had used hyperbole (involving racist stereotypes uttered by Colbert’s clueless commentator character) to make his original joke, Park’s hyperbole was, at first, dismissed as the misguided ire of somebody who was not aware of the context of the joke, and soon thereafter, dismissed as the ignorance of somebody who did not understand comedy, or, more specifically, satire.

The dismissal was accompanied by an insistence that if Park just recognized the context of the joke and/or was capable of comprehending the joke, she would recognize her mistake, demurely apologize, give a little giggle, and we could all feel good about our (her) little misunderstanding.  But to believe such an outcome is possible one has to assume that when Park started the campaign, she had no idea who Colbert is, or what his comedic persona involves.  To believe that Park misunderstood the joke because it was out of context, one has to believe that Park saw the ‘partial joke tweet’ and believed that the joke was not related to anything else, and was being presented as a self-contained idea.

Not surprisingly, all the people who insisted or implied that the joke was lost on Park because the Colbert Report tweet existed outside of the joke’s original context were, themselves, choosing to take Park’s criticism out of context. Rather than give Park credit for understanding the joke, and recognizing that Park was actually criticizing the joke, and with good reason, many Colbert supporters/Park detractors kept coming at her with a variation of, “It was a joke. Don’t you get it?” When that didn’t get the desired result, objections to Park slipped, unfortunately but all-too predictably, into the territory of personal attacks—refusing to hear Park and meet her ideas with careful consideration, because it was much easier to tear her down, in many cases by resorting to stereotypes of women, people of Asian descent, or women of Asian descent.

It didn’t help that virtually every news story, in almost every format, explained Park’s campaign as the result of a joke tweet that was made out of the context of the original segment that was aired on “The Colbert Report.” Rarely was any space given to explaining Park’s actual position, as it was much easier to state or imply that Park’s misunderstanding was the real problem.  After all, when a news organization devotes several small chunks of time, over the course of several days, to an entertainment-related news story, why bother to insert any challenging ideas into that story?

I recognize that there have been plenty of occasions of people taking Colbert’s (and others’) satire as a serious statement of position, and reacting out of that misunderstanding. But that is not what happened here. To continue to insist that Park was upset because she misunderstood a joke is to continue to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park.  Even worse, it is continuing to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park because that is much easier than considering the implications of what she is saying—that maybe by laughing at Colbert’s joke, people are complicit in supporting racist stereotypes.  In that light, misunderstanding Park serves a very important ego-defense mechanism for people who may not, at base, be so much in disagreement with Park as afraid to acknowledge that their own behavior might be a part of the problem.

Of course, it’s natural for people to become defensive when they feel they are being called out on something. But rather than taking a little time to try and take in a criticism and give it some consideration, a large number of people reacted swiftly and harshly to Park’s criticism.  And “it’s a joke, calm down,” quickly turned into something much more vicious.

To reiterate, Park was saying that to use racism to mock racism still encourages people to laugh at racism and stereotypes, when it would be preferable to just steer clear of racism and stereotypes altogether.

To state it another way, using racism as a punchline keeps racist stereotypes in common use as something to laugh about. It involves maintaining a low standard for how we choose to interact, and ensures ongoing marginalization of several groups.  For instance, it is easy to recognize that a skinhead with swastika tattoos extending his arm and barking “Heil Hitler!” is racist, and it is easy to avoid being racist in that same way.  It is also easy (although apparently not easy enough for Dan Snyder and many others) to recognize that naming an organization that allegedly supports an ethnic group by using a slur against that ethnic group in the name of the organization is a racist thing to do.  Park was urging people to consider a little higher standard–perhaps one where Snyder remains the punchline/butt of the joke, rather than people of Asian descent.

So, maybe rather than insisting that Park just needs to learn how to take a joke, or how to understand a joke, it would be better to do the work of learning how to listen to other viewpoints, rather than just reacting to them without even taking them in.  Hammering on somebody for their lack of understanding, while demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of that person’s viewpoint, would be funny if it weren’t so sad.