Last week, comedian Norm Macdonald made news by apologizing for his apology. The controversy started when Macdonald, while promoting his new Netflix show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, suggested that his friends Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr were suffering in ways that even the victims of #MeToo wouldn't understand. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Macdonald said that his friends were incredibly hurt by the public backlash and that he was happy that the "#MeToo movement had slowed a little bit." Macdonald continued: "Of course, people will go, 'What about the victims?' But you know what? The victims didn't have to go through that."
A few days later, while on a promotion stop on Howard Stern's show, Macdonald attempted to apologize for his earlier remarks—by suggesting anyone lacking in sympathy for sexual harassment victims must indeed have an intellectual disability. "You'd have to have Down syndrome," Macdonald told Stern, "not to feel sorry [for harassment victims]."
Macdonald has a long history of making jokes predicated on deploying the word "retard" or "retarded." On Stern's show, he was trying to avoid the R-word by deploying "Down syndrome" as an inoffensive synonym, a tactic he later copped to in a post-Stern appearance on The View. (For those keeping track, that marks an apology for an apology of an apology.) "There used to be a word we all used to say to mean 'stupid' that we don't use anymore," Macdonald said on The View, "and stupidly I was about to say that word and then stopped and thought [about] what's the right word to say." He chose "Down syndrome," an oddly specific and specifically wrong term when it comes to empathy.
Macdonald used the clinical term, Down syndrome, as an attempt to maintain his ability to make de facto "retard jokes"and use intellectual disability as a comedic punching bag without coming under criticism for doing so. In the aftermath of the Stern snafu, Macdonald's defenders on social media claimed the criticism levied against him for mocking intellectual disability was just another instance of oversensitivity. But the issue runs much deeper than questions of casual offense; Macdonald was implying that people with Down syndrome were subhuman and incapable of higher emotions.
This kind of dehumanization of people with Down syndrome and similar disabilities has an ugly history in the United States and around the world. It's a history that has led to sterilization, incarceration, institutionalization, and untimely death, with these horrific outcomes often linked to misconceptions about the full humanity of disabled people.
George Estreich, author of The Shape of the Eye, points out the connection between this horrible history and the misuse of Down syndrome as a synonym for "empathy-free sub-human." The condition was identified in the mid-19th century by British physician John Langdon Down. Down described the condition as "Mongoloid idiocy," placing the disability, according to Estreich, "in a rough hierarchy with Caucasians at the top and other humans closer to animals." People with Down syndrome typically have almond-shaped eyes, which Langdon Down regarded as a mark of their "Asiatic"—and thus less fully human—nature.
The historical consequences of that prejudice don't just emerge from the well-known horrors of forced eugenic sterilization, but infused the lives of people with the genetic condition from birth to death. Doctors, Estreich says, would tell parents that their child would never recognize them or love them, so would be better off in an institution. Medical textbooks not only contained erroneous information, but weren't updated as new editions were published. "Even into the 2000s textbooks were saying the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome is [around] 30." Today, life expectancy is, in fact, at least 60.
Macdonald is wrong on specifics. People with Down syndrome tend to be over-empathic, on average, rather than devoid of feelings for others. And while Macdonald has apologized for his remarks, his defenders seem to refuse to acknowledge the historical context around the joke. Left unchecked, those inaccuracies and stereotypes can perpetuate the unjust systems that perpetuated discriminatory practices in the first place.