Thursday, October 4, 2018

Dear Netflix: Using the r-word is not creative expression

Dear Netflix,

Recently, CEO Reed Hastings spoke out about the r-word. As in, he defended it despite the fact that it's a slur against people with intellectual disability.  So-called comedian Tom Segura says it in his Netflix special, Disgraceful, along with other derogatory comments. His idea of a joke: "Now you can't say that. Now you gotta be like, 'That's not smart. Your idea has an extra 21st chromosome.'"

This summer, Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe wrote to Reed Hastings, asking him to take action. As he noted, "I cannot recall encountering anything more hateful or painful than the stigma Segura has weaponized in the name of comedy." Hastings' response to him, as shared on Disability Scoop: "Our view is that, even though many find Tom Segura's comments hurtful, in this instance they fall within the bounds of creative expression as part of a stand-up comedy performance. Certain portions of any creative work including stand-up comedy can and do offend and are intended to evoke a range of responses." He continued, "As an on-demand service, no one has to watch any particular show on Netflix."

Sure, we could refuse to watch any show on any TV channel because it's offensive. That's besides the point.

Fact: Hate speech is not creative expression. It's hate speech. Even when the r-word is not directed at a person with intellectual disability, and used in a joking way, it perpetuates old, damaging stereotypes. It slams an entire population, as slurs do.

Fact: A group of Special Olympics delegates, including S.O. athletes and disability self-advocates, met with Segura in June and asked him to remove the offensive material. Then the Special Olympics asked Netflix to. The special is still available, in its entirety, online.

Fact: If Reed Hastings had a child with intellectual disability, you can be sure he won't be sticking up for it.

Fact: A few months ago Hastings fired public relations PR chief Jonathan Friedland for using the n-word in a meeting as well as in a subsequent discussion about what happened, saying that it showed low "awareness and sensitivity." The exact same thing could be said of comedians—and anyone—hi who uses the r-word.

Fact: Hastings' memo noted that the n-word was created as an euphemism "to move people away from using the specific word." Again:, the same can be said of the r-word. (Irony: The meeting at which Friedland dropped the n-word was one about sensitive words.) It is not my goal to delineate from the weight of the n-word. What I'm saying is, we widely recognize the use of racial and ethnic slurs as an issue. So why is it OK to degrade the entire population of people with intellectual disability?

Netflix, I love a whole lot of your shows. But as the parent of a child with intellectual disability, it is disappointing, disheartening and downright despicable that you condone the use of hate speech. My son—a bright and determined young man—has enough challenges to overcome in life, many having to do with the limitations society imposes on him. Programming that belittles him is not comedy. It's cruelty.

It's not too late to recant. As Hastings himself said of the n-word incident, "I should have done more to use it as a learning moment for everyone at Netflix about how painful and ugly that word is."

There's still time to do that with the r-word, Netflix.

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