Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why must everything be such a circus?

Appearing on NBC's "The Tonight Show" Thursday, the president told host Jay Leno he'd been practicing at the White House's bowling alley but wasn't happy with his score of 129. Then he remarked: "It was like the Special Olympics or something."MSNBC

Even when I first encountered the Special Olympics—when I was a teenager in the early 70s—it struck me as misguided and disrespectful. On TV, I'd see intellectually challenged kids running down a track while parents and onlookers cheered. I'd see kids at awards ceremonies receiving ribbons and applause as though they had won something, when, in fact, some of them had come in last. The kids beamed, many of them uncomprehending.

The scene was disturbing to me. Everyone there knows what’s going on, I thought. Everyone except some of these kids. Nobody means to ridicule them of course. Nevertheless, in reality (thought I), this is a game of pretend, and the only people fooled are the kids.

It hasn’t helped that, over the years, the Special Olympics movement seems to have overlapped (in its philosophy) with the uncommonsensical and counter-productive (and largely discredited) “self-esteem” movement. The latter is a good example of how well meaning but gullible and trendoid people can screw things up. Yes, self-esteem is a good thing. But detaching it from virtuous striving is a very bad thing. That's the great and consequential sin of the "self-esteem" crusade.


That’s one of my beefs with the Special Olympics. It seems designed by people who get the moral cart before the horse, or maybe the moral apple before the orange. To them (it seems), it's all about the highly valuable experience of winning, which, for them, is the same thing as achievement.

I can’t make sense of that. —On the other hand, maybe these games are not really about competition and achievement.

The Special Olympics people do seem to think that they are about competition and achievement. But sometimes they seem of two minds about that. For instance, at their website, they provide a list of values and principles, including this one: “At every awards ceremony, in addition to the traditional medals for first, second and third places, athletes finishing from fourth to last place are presented a suitable place ribbon with appropriate ceremony.”

A charitable read of this is: any kid who shows up and competes has already achieved much. And so he/she deserves recognition.

No doubt, many of these kids did strive to do better in their event. But surely some did not. And some barely understand what the games are about.

If the point of Special Olympics is not really to employ such concepts as “competition,” “achievement” and “honor” but rather to put these kids through a pleasant experience that will somehow benefit them—well, I suppose then I’d rethink my objections. But I have my doubts about that empirical claim. It should be tested, of course.

Or maybe the point is that, apart from what it does for or to the athletes, the Special Olympics causes the public to be more understanding and accepting of these kids. That's a noble goal. But do we have any reason to be confident that the claim is true? What if it is false? What if the Special Olympics causes people's attitudes to get worse?

Competition, of course, is as American as artificially apple-flavored pie. Is it a good thing? I suppose it’s a good thing that we honor those who run the fastest or who remember how to spell the most words.

Well, no. On its face, that seems idiotic to me.

It’s good that we honor achievement, when, that is, what is achieved has some sort of meaning. The ability to spell even esoteric words has no meaning. And the ability to run faster or jump higher than everyone else—well, what can I say?

We like to see people striving for something worthwhile and, through effort and virtue, achieving it. And I suppose that struggling (through work and virtue—as opposed to, say, taking a drug or undergoing a surgery) to run fast or spell unusual words—prima facie meaningless things—can be a kind of preparation for or introduction to more meaningful strivings.

Meaningful competition need not involve impressive abilities. I have always believed that, in a more just and kind world, people would be celebrated, too, because they achieved in a relative sense—i.e., relative to their starting points, which might be dismal. But “achievement” here is a tricky thing. There are some for whom the ability to add 2 + 2 is a stunning achievement. And yet that ability is not intrinsically impressive.

But achieving such abilities can be meaningful. As a parent, one seeks to have one’s child join in society, to do what people do. For some, attaining the ability to add two small numbers together moves them closer to that.

My guess is that the Special Olympics has seemed to be a good idea in part because, via training, it puts intellectually challenged kids/adults in society, or in a part of it. And the spectacle of the games might seem to hold the promise of helping ordinary people to understand and thus to respect these special people.

But the “everybody knows we’re pretending—except for the kids” factor undercuts the latter for me. I have a hard time getting past that.

I can imagine a “Special Olympics” that more clearly focuses on achievement. Parents/teachers would be working hard with kids (and adults) to move them towards the attainment of hard-to-attain abilities. Many of these kids would be impressive in their progress and overcoming.

This would likely occur away from audiences. Some crew of “judges” would discreetly monitor these efforts and identify those people who worked the hardest and most virtuously--who achieved the most overcoming.

Here, a kid who attained the ability to add 2 and 2 might well be deserving of the gold medal. Now, that would be a Special Olympics that I could get behind. It would be a good and dignified thing, no circus, no bizarre spectacle of reason and common sense going totally on holiday.

I don’t think that including the “athletes” in the awards ceremony/event would necessarily be a good idea. Is it obvious that those (surely there will be some) who do not even understand the ceremony would benefit by attending it? I don't see how.

I suspect that Special Olympics medal ceremonies do more for the parents (et al.) than for the kids/adults. Surely, for some of these athletes, the whole experience is simply puzzling, apart from the sense they might have that they are approved of (though not respected) by all of the people around them.

The people behind the Special Olympics are good people. They want the right things and they’re willing to work hard to achieve them. When I read their philosophy and principles, etc., I am mostly admiring, though, as with any large amount of verbiage, their tenets and guidelines exhibit tensions and contradictions.

They have an oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” The Special Olympics people explain that these “words were spoken by Roman gladiators as they entered the arena, facing the greatest battle of their lives.”

It is unfortunate that the oath originated with those who were forced to maim and kill others for the sake of appalling entertainments. But I like the reference to virtue (bravery) and overcoming. But when I read about the ribbons and when I watch the games, I don't see an emphasis on virtue and overcoming. I see spectacle and confusion and self-deception.

If the Special Olympics really were to make sense as a way to honor meaningful achievement—and as a way of bringing ordinary people to a better understanding of and respect for the intellectually challenged—I would be fully behind it.

Apparently, there are those within the expert community who have doubts about this optimistic assessment of the Special Olympics. According to J. Thomas Kellow,
professionals in the field of mental retardation have criticized segregated recreation/sports such as Special Olympics on numerous grounds, including negative effects on attitudes toward persons with disabilities, the promotion of handicapism, and continuation of self–fulfilling prophecies about deviant characteristics of persons with disabilities….

I don’t know yet whether these criticisms are valid. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a well meaning activity--one attaining "sacred cow" status--was in fact counter-productive.

My guess: many of us suspect that, though the motives and goals of the Special Olympics are good, there is something wrongheaded (and maybe even wrong) and, yes, ridiculous about it.

I do think that we should love and respect intellectually challenged people (and, of course, not only them). I think we should do more for them and try harder to understand them. But the Special Olympics strikes me as an unfortunate and misfired effort.

And so, among my friends, I might joke about my own mediocrity in some sphere; referring to my abilities, I might joke about my likely victory in the “Special Olympics.”

Does that mean that I am insensitive to the intellectually challenged?

It would surely be a lapse, I think. The joke expresses the perspective of an outsider looking casually and thoughtlessly at something that, though (arguably) in a sense ridiculous, is an attempt by good people to do something about an important problem.

See also the Journal of Disability Policy Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 35-42 (2004):
The Case Against the Special Olympics by Keith Storey. (I haven’t actually managed to secure this. I look forward to reading it.)


Professor Zero said...

Great post, and I love the title. It applies to so much.

Anonymous said...

You've said it so well..

Elizabeth Sweet