by Alex Lester
From the Editor: Alex Lester was the tenBroek Library’s first intern during the summer of 2016. He is now a senior studying psychology and ethics at Misericordia University near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the NFB. In exchange for course credit, living quarters, and a stipend generously provided by Misericordia, Alex spent six weeks working on preservation projects with NFB archivist Anna Kresmer. His dedication to the work of the library, as well as his positive attitude and enthusiasm, were appreciated by all. However, the space where Alex truly excelled was in embracing the history and philosophy of the NFB and applying it not only to his own life, but to his research and thought processes as a philosophy student. As part of the requirements for his internship, Alex was asked to submit this article, which perfectly reflects his absorption of the Federation’s philosophy. We gladly welcome Alex to the Federation family and wish him continued success as vice chair of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Scranton. Here is what he has to say:
“Television could perform a great service in mass education, but there's no indication its sponsors have anything like this on their minds.” – Tallulah Bankhead
Television is a part of millions of Americans’ everyday lives. In fact, “According to the A.C. Nielsen Company, the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day (or twenty-eight hours per week, or two months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a sixty-five-year life, that person will have spent nine years glued to the tube,” according to an article by N. Herr. That’s a lot of time to influence what everyday people are exposed to and how they behave. However, this puts producers in a position of great power and creates a moral dilemma since they are able to either inspire equality for all or create divisions where there aren’t any. This also creates a specific issue for the viewers. How should one hold content creators accountable for their actions, and do we have an obligation to only view projects that promote equality? To wrestle with this issue, we must look to ethics. Ethics is the philosophical study of what is right or wrong, what is good or bad, and is concerned with how one should act.
In ethics there are many different theories, but I want to focus on only one. This is a theory that Americans unknowingly use to judge daily actions. It is called utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics (the branch of ethics that focuses on how we should act) which holds that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined as what will cause the least amount of suffering and promote the most happiness. How does one measure utility? Utilitarianism is in a category of ethics known as consequentialism, which simply means that you can only judge an action’s morality by the consequences it produces. There are two types of utilitarian ethics practiced but here I am just focusing on one, and it is called Act Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism requires that for a person's act to be morally right, it must produce at least as much happiness as any other act that the person could perform at the time of the action.
Instead of using this system of mass media influence to promote people with disabilities as equals to their nondisabled counterparts, television and film producers constantly find new and creative ways to depict people with disabilities by employing something I call the “Otherness Factor.” The Otherness Factor is where a character with a disability is only represented via an archetype character (1) who is somehow “othered” or different in some way. An example of this would be if a character is blind, they either have a super power that romanticizes their disability as something mystical (such as the superhero Daredevil’s radar sense), or they are represented as something undesirable or evil (such as the bumbling idiot or a serial killer). There are no depictions of an average blind person. The one unifying trait of the Otherness Factor Character (OFC) is that each and every OFC is defined by their disability and lacks any sense of being a well-rounded character.
Now knowing what the OFC is, we must ask what the effects of the Otherness Factor are. Quite a few studies have been done on children’s exposure to unhealthy food television advertisements and children’s food choices, ultimately showing that “considerable scientific evidence establishes a link between unhealthy food marketing and children's food choices, purchases, and consumption,” according to a 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health. If advertising food to children can have such an impact on their actual behavior, what effects do depicting people with disabilities as othered and ultimately advertised as a person’s defining factor have on both the disabled and the general public? With a lack of role models, disabled people are missing out on psychological benefits that their nondisabled peers have. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people with role models who exhibited certain traits (traits that are not depicted in an OFC) were likely to enhance motivation in a person.
The continued reinforcement of the negative and misguided stereotypes of disabled people starts to become applied to the disabled community as a whole, not just to a person who has the disability with the promoted stereotype. For example, people with disorders that are not severe developmental disorders are treated as if they had them anyway, like a waiter asking a sighted or hearing person what the blind and/or deaf person wants to eat.
In addition to these two negative consequences, the focus of over- or underachievement means that disabled people are exposed to rhetoric that they can never be who they are without striving to overcome their impairment. However, disability across the board does not have to define a person. The National Federation of the Blind’s one-minute message states that, “We know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.” I think that in the one-minute message, the word blindness could be replaced with the names of other disabilities. People are more than just their disability. It can be hard to believe that when the rhetoric is discouraging you from separating truth from fiction; when the distance placed between disabled people and the intended audience (nondisabled people) reinforces a socially constructed gap between disabled and nondisabled people. That gap creates stress not just for the disabled person, but also for the nondisabled person who then doesn’t know how to treat a disabled person when they encounter them in the real world. The distance makes it hard, if not impossible, for them to interact with them as regular people.
An Act Utilitarian would say that Americans and content creators would act morally if they snuffed out the Otherness Factor Character archetype from all films and television shows and replaced it with complex, well-rounded characters who promote the positive representation of disabled people. The Golden Girls is one example of a past production whose social influence was so great that it “inspired older women to dress and behave in a way they have always felt inside,” by representing older women in a way that was unheard of during the 1980s according to Rue McClanahan in an interview in 2000. If a new show could pull off a similar stunt with its depictions of blind or disabled people, we would no doubt see a change in how disabled people are treated as whole people in real life, resulting in both disabled and nondisabled people becoming happier. This happiness would be greater than creating content that ignores an entire group of people and causes stress for another. Creating more complex disabled characters is the moral thing to do. Although Act Utilitarianism states that the act must create the most happiness at the time, their past actions cannot be condemned as non-moral unless they were aware that the project would cause such harm. One case where filmmakers can be held accountable with this theory would be when the filmmakers of the 2008 film Blindness, which contained a gross depiction of blind people, were made aware by the NFB that it would cause damage in representing blind people the way it did. Still they chose to release the project and by doing so perpetuated a non-moral representation of disabled people.
Knowing that the moral thing for content creators to do is to create complex disabled characters and get rid of the OFC, what should viewers do to encourage moral representation? Act Utilitarianism also has something to say about this. The theory says to act only in a way that will create the most happiness, which means that viewers have a moral obligation to not purchase or watch films that feature OFCs, thereby using one’s money as a means of social pressure. Political action is also extremely important; organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind lobby and engage in discourse with the local, state, and federal governments, production companies, and anyone who needs to be educated to advocate for just treatment of the disabled.
It’s important to understand that cutting off funding to these projects by not watching them and by advocating for equality by writing letters and starting discourse with friends, family, film producers, and the government—be it through an organization or on your own—will help millions of people benefit by getting rid of negative representations and an increasing positive representation. These actions will encourage positive depictions and a better understanding of what people with disabilities are capable of doing. Using Act Utilitarianism as a way to judge morality and conduct behavior can cause both great and tangible change as well as promote a great happiness for all of humanity.
(1) Although the Otherness Factor Character may be recognizable, it is an archetype character and not a stock character.
Bankhead, T. (n.d.). Tallulah Bankhead Quotes. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/tallulahba393219.html
Herr, N. (n.d.). Television & Health. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from https://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html
Jordan, C. (2002, November). Motivation by positive or negative role models: Regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4): 854-64. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/lockwood/PDF/Lockwood 2002 Motivation.pdf
Kelly, B. (2010, September). Television Food Advertising to Children: A Global Perspective. American Journal of Public Health, 100(9). Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2009.179267
Rue McClanahan [Television series episode]. (2000, June 19). In Intimate Portrait. Lifetime. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLmMZZrFGCw