Many people have opined on a Slate article, penned by The Crimson’s own Lucy M. Caldwell ’09, that exposed Caroline R. Giuliani ’11’s membership in a Barack Obama Facebook group. Bloggers and anonymous commenters have debated the nature of Facebook, politicians’ families’ right to privacy, and other topics of legitimate discussion. But in the midst of this, a number of people viciously mocked Caldwell for lisping during a television interview. While some moralists among these bloggers deemed many of the jabs against Caldwell as inappropriate, very few questioned the attacks on her speech.
The first such derogatory remark I encountered came from a commenter on the blog IvyGate, where a naughty tiger named “p’07” said “It’s hard to hate someone with such an adorable speech impediment...”Such ignorance out of Jersey is to be expected, I thought, and shrugged off the comment.
What I found surprising, though, was a comment right below from the IvyGate summer editors: “Please watch your language on the comment boards. We love having comments and hearing your takes. While things like ‘self-serving’ are OK, hateful personal attacks are not, and we will delete such comments if we see them.” Yet “p’07’s” hateful personal attack remained, as did “haaaaaaaa’s” “She hath a lithp!!! She’th doing a pretty good job covering it up, though. It’th clear she’th taken a lot of thpeech clatheth.” Not to be outdone, one of my classmates (“h ’08”) offered the following: “hey, shouldn’t the title of this one have been ‘lucy morrow caldwell thpeakth’?” (The “th”-for-“s” gag appeared in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times” in 1854. The past 150 years haven’t made a hackneyed joke more clever.) An e-mailed question about IvyGate’s policy has not been answered, and at time of writing the posts remain up.
It goes on. The blog “Classically Liberal,” written by a brave soul named CLS who provides no contact information on any of his several blogs, has this to offer in the midst of a strident criticism of Caldwell: “She even lisped her way through a nationwide television appearance.” As one of many hurtful barbs in the piece, the attack is not noteworthy. But when commenters on the post slammed the author for using terms like “bimbo” and “stereotypical blond” as well as for the lisp comment, CLS responded at length to the former but completely ignored the latter. God forbid someone think him a sexist; no big deal if he slurs stutterers. CLS opens his post with the line, “There are two rampant pack of vultures in modern society. One group is politicians and the other is the press. Neither has much respect for people.” Apparently, CLS has respect for people, just not people with speech impediments.
Finally, on a blog called “HarvardOTR”—a blog that makes up for its obscurity with some misplaced moxie—we find a post titled “Facebook Strikes Back, or: How I Learned to Stop Ranting and Love the Lisp.” The author, named “Captain Planet,” cites Caldwell’s “mild speech impediment” and jokes: “Looks like it’s Lucy—not Facebook—who’ll have the last lisp—uhhh, laugh. I swear, I meant laugh.” One commenter asked if making fun of someone’s lisp was necessary; another replied “no, but it’s fuuuunny.”
Now, anyone who reads The Crimson’s comments section knows that many users of the internet cloak their cowardly selves in anonymity, posting comments that show everyone how their parents, preachers, or school system failed to teach them courtesy and good values. That’s a given. But in the above instances, making fun of a person’s speech impediment seems to be a privileged category of hate. The IvyGate moderators declared that they would delete “hateful personal attacks,” and thus imply that the three comments I cited are something besides hateful or personal. CLS, whoever he is, does not want to be called a sexist, but apparently doesn’t care that he made a hurtful comment about someone’s lisp. Whoever is writing HarvardOTR is so warped that they see nothing wrong with mocking someone’s speech impediment in both headline and body. (Though the poster apparently does have a problem with writing funny jokes.)
I’ve scattered humor through this piece because I don’t want hateful speech to be taken too seriously. But the above posts are evidence of a mystifying callousness toward those with speech impediments. Caldwell’s lisp, if she even has one, is barely noticeable; many of us are not so lucky. Millions of Americans feel an illogical but powerful shame at not being able to do something that comes as easy as breathing to everybody else. We garner curious stares when we exhibit secondary symptoms, like twisted faces and balled fists. I would bet I’m not the only person in the College who has tasted blood in his mouth after clenching his teeth so hard during a block that made his entire head hurt. About once a month, a waitress or waiter will take my stutter as evidence of mental retardation, and proceed to treat me accordingly.
And that part is fine. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining, because we all have our own crosses to bear. The stutterer’s is not necessarily more arduous because it is more visible. But what is surprising and unsettling, what does merit comment, is when educated people consider shots at a genetic speech impediment to be fair game while other slurs are not. The nimblest speaker couldn’t come up with a defense for that.
M. Aidan Kelly ’08, a Crimson magazine chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Cabot House.