Photo of Michael Baillif

The Naked Truth about Benign Discrimination

by Michael Baillif

From the Editor: Michael Baillif is an attorney working in New York City. Until recently he lived and worked in the nation's capital, where anything can happen and eventually will. In the following article he reflects on the significance of one of the more bizarre incidents to occur recently on the diplomatic scene.

This is what he says:

Have you ever had a dream in which you found yourself in public and, to your horror, realized that you didn't have on any clothes? Believe it or not, a variation of this nightmare actually happened to a man in Washington, D.C., early last summer.

In June the President of South Korea came to Washington to meet with President Clinton. Among other festivities a state dinner was held to celebrate the occasion. As the guests walked through a receiving line shaking hands with President Clinton, the unthinkable happened. One of the attendees, a renowned video artist, who also happened to be disabled, stood up from his wheelchair and, with the help of a walker, approached President Clinton for a handshake. As he extended his hand, the man's pants somehow became unfastened and fell down around his ankles. To make matters worse for both the man and those in the audience, he wasn't wearing any underwear!

The next day the poor man's disaster was greeted with howls of laughter on news shows and talk radio programs across the country. After all, the image of someone's pants falling down as he greets the President is something right out of a Marx Brothers movie. Significantly, however, the laughter evoked by this incident choked in the throats of many when they learned that the man was disabled. MSNBC, for instance, refused to air the report of the mishap, describing it as "an unfortunate incident with a handicapped gentleman."

This unwillingness to join in the merriment, however, revealed a second naked truth, this time about the nature of benign discrimination. With the best of intentions some in the media denied the man the most basic aspect of equality: the right to be laughed at when one is at the center of an absurd situation. As Jane Austen so eloquently phrased it in Pride and Prejudice, "For what do we live but to be made sport of by our neighbors and to laugh at them in our turn?"

Where a potentially humorous situation is attributable, not to a person's disability or some other distinguishing characteristic, but to a circumstance that could involve anyone, laughter is the appropriate reaction. Indeed, to suppress mirth in such a case is to build a protective wall around the member of a minority group. While this wall may shield the member of the minority from the few snickers that everyone occasionally merits, it just as surely precludes the person from full acceptance as an equal in the world we all inhabit.

An important contrast to the concept exemplified by the man and his fallen pants was the misuse of a particular characteristic perpetrated in the Mr. Magoo movie. In Mr. Magoo the attempted humor was specifically based on exploitation of blindness. In an effort to gain chuckles, blindness was portrayed in a way that was not only inaccurate but insulting and ultimately harmful. The distorted image of blindness on which the creators of Mr. Magoo sought to capitalize was, for the most part, recognized as tasteless. It no longer tickled the funny bone of a society in which the understanding that blindness does not equate with incapacity is steadily advancing.

In Mr. Magoo the subject of the humor was blindness. In the case of the man and his fallen pants, however, the humor was derived from an event that could have happened to anyone. Coincidentally, it befell someone who was disabled.

In this case the immediate and natural reaction is the healthiest and most productive one. People should laugh and enjoy the strange events that fate drops in their path.

Ultimately, the extent to which a person who happens to be a member of a minority group is subject to laughter for the right reasons is one of the most accurate measures of equality. Once we are successful in helping society understand why the incident with the man and his falling pants is funny and why Mr. Magoo is not, we will have taken one more step toward ending benign discrimination. This reality is a basic truth that was revealed when the man dropped his pants in President Clinton's receiving line.