Friday, November 7, 2008

It Will Not Happen Here Next Year

Earlier this week our nation made an historic choice for president. As Mr. Obama addressed the nation for the first time as president-elect, I was struck by the tone of humility and lack of excitement in his voice as he recounted the momentous occasion. Many of his supporters wept openly and cheered wildly at his words, inspired by his accomplishment. Mr. Obama chose, however, to reflect not upon his personal achievement of being elected, but on the hard work that now faces the new administration. His personal reflections were spoken of in terms of America taking a new direction. In effect, the message was not about himself and personal triumph, but of the need to move forward in a new direction.

There was also a dramatic shift in the rhetoric about his opponent. Both candidates immediately shifted away from the political rancor of the campaign toward a message of the common interests of American citizens. Completely gone were the personal charges of cavorting with terrorists, being unstable and being unprepared to be president.

In a somewhat similar fashion on a microscopic level, I have some of the same feelings as Mr. Obama about the issues surrounding my advocacy efforts on the haunted house issue. Yesterday a letter arrived from the City of Portland detailing the action taken about the protest that I filed about the haunted house being held on a city-owned property. The parties involved had met and the issue had been discussed about the design of the house being based upon the depiction of those in an asylum going on an uncontrolled rampage. The city and facility management both expressed support for the position that events with depictions such as this should not be held on public property. The event planner, while angered over my approach and expressing the position that the event was due to be redesigned, got the message that such depictions were not appropriate.

There was no joy in vindication of my advocacy position. As in the election for President, it was never as much about the vanquishing of an opponent as it was about having people adopt a more enlightened position about such depictions. Further, the design of the house should never have been viewed as displaying an intent to discriminate against those with mental illness, rather, it should be viewed for what it usually is, an insensitive portrayal.

Reflecting upon the issue gives you greater perspective about the path that people of color who are currently in the minority in our country can see in portrayals of stereotypes and stigma surrounding their situation. Much of the portrayal of minorities was perhaps not intended to be hurtful, but a horrifyingly degrading message was nevertheless sent to those in the minority. Those sending the message may be woefully unaware of the harm done to others, and may not understand what they have done.

This should be no excuse for those who promote stigma and prejudice regardless of the intent. Unintentional harm is every bit a bad as that created with intent to the person being harmed. A far worse form of injustice is done when the person who has unintentionally harmed another refuses to admit the error of their ways. That is when advocacy is truly necessary. America has learned some painful lessons in its history and has many more lessons yet to be learned.

The prejudice and stigma associated with mental illness is one such lesson. In this case, pressure can be applied to the situation and keep that venue from hosting such events in the future. More important, however, is the awareness created about the fundamental issue of depictions with those who suffer from mental illness and the unwitting advertisers and promoters of such events. All of the sponsors, publicists and locations involved in this situation responded with empathy to the issue and real progress was made in assuring that sponsors of future events will keep a more critical eye on the design considerations of those events.

If there is a reason to celebrate any part of the process it comes from a personal friend who has spent time in a State Hospital. She wrote "As one of the people who was offended by the Halloween Attraction, I do understand that there was no malice involved . . . Thanks to your sharing this information, I have a much better understanding and wish for a better outcome next year." That Ashleigh is able to put into perspective those thoughts and ease her hurt, is reason to celebrate for her well being.

Like Mr. Obama, the reflection here should not be about the process or "winning" or "losing." The real point is the awareness of people about the issues involved and moving forward to a place of acceptance and understanding. No one should use the plight of others to perpetuate prejudice and profit from that portrayal regardless of the lack of intent to harm others. We must stand vigilant to protect those who are marginalized until they are no longer marginalized. Mr. Obama's election shows that we are ever closer to that goal regarding the issue of race. Perhaps someday, we will recognize that those with mental illness simply suffer from diseases and deserve better than marginalization and prejudicial portrayals.

When that day comes we will be able to say "It will not happen here next year."

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