Turning the Paralympics into a political tool

These Games are an inspiring showcase of human resilience, but that doesn’t mean we should feel a moral duty to get excited about them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

If you thought the only people being put on the spot in the London 2012 Paralympics were the Paralympians, think again. So are you.

Where the Paralympians are having their fitness tested, you are having your attitudes tested. According to disability-rights campaigners and their cheerleaders in the commentariat, the Paralympics are potentially a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to ‘soften’ the public’s attitudes towards disabled people and eliminate the ‘aggression, hostility and name-calling’ that us plebs are apparently wont to hurl at the less able-bodied. In short, this event is as much about socially re-engineering the masses as it is about providing a platform for disabled athletes.

The politicisation of the Paralympics puts in the shade even the explicit exploitation of the Olympics to promote a new vision of Britain as a multicultural, NHS-worshipping nation. In the Paralympics, the process of politicisation is more upfront and constant. Disability-rights group Scope talks about the Games having a ‘real and lasting impact’ – not on disabled sport or infrastructure, you understand, but on ordinary people’s apparently problematic minds. This is an opportunity to ‘change the way society views disability’, says Scope, ‘at a time when… public attitudes have got worse’.

Meanwhile, Lib-Con culture secretary Jeremy Hunt says the Paralympics are an opportunity to ‘really change perceptions’. Others hope the Games will ‘enlighten the general public about disability’, because apparently we’re totally unenlightened about the existence of disabled people and how to treat them. One observer claims that in this era of recession, disabled people face a ‘tidal wave of prejudice’, which is fuelled by the public’s ‘complicity’ with the government’s belief that ‘in hard times, disabled people should no longer expect so much and need to tighten their belts’. He hopes there will be a ‘tabloid media change of heart about the disabled’ (because of course it is mainly the tabloids, and their dumb readers, who cleave to backward ideas about disabled people), but he counsels: ‘Let’s not hold our breath.’

The cynical exploitation of the Paralympics to try to remake the masses’ minds is based on the assumption that a lot of us, if not most of us, have backward attitudes towards disabled people. But where is this army of hateful morons who exhibit ‘aggression, hostility and name-calling’ towards the disabled? Commentators insist that ours is an era of ‘extreme, open contempt for disabled people’, almost like ‘a return to Nazi Germany’, says one. Where is this open contempt? Where are the gangs of savages chasing disabled people? Where are the political leaders or parties who want disabled people euthanised, as happened in Nazi Germany?

The idea that there is a tidal wave of hate against disabled people that needs to be corrected by the ‘lavish spectacle’ of the Paralympics is a figment of the observing class’s imaginations. Because here’s the thing – in wringing their hands over the dumb public’s alleged prejudices against disabled people, these observers reveal their own, irrepressible, never-changing prejudice: namely that where they are enlightened and tolerant of difference, the Daily Mail drones that make up the febrile public are not. Fretting about the public’s prejudice towards disabled people has become a coded way of expressing one’s own prejudices against the general public, against people presumed to be so unversed in the values of inclusivity that as soon as they clap eyes on a person in a wheelchair they burst out laughing.

No doubt there are some idiots out there, especially among teenage constituencies, who insult disabled people. But the idea that this is a society-wide phenomenon, that it is reaching Nazi-like levels, and that it is an attitude implanted in the public mind through government and media messages about disabled people being ‘scroungers’, is pure fantasy, and one fuelled by some pretty poisonous views of its own. Campaigners always claim that it is the public’s lack of familiarity with the reality of disabled people’s lives which makes them ‘disablist’ (which will come as news to the great number of ordinary people who live with, work with or care for disabled people); but by the same token, it is the opinion-forming set’s lack of connection with Joe Public which leads it to view him as a naturally prejudicial creature with fewer tolerance-producing brain-cells than his betters in political circles.

As a consequence of the politicisation of the Paralympics, it is now effectively a moral duty to watch and cheer the Games, and a palpably censuring climate surrounds this event. Because as Scope says, in order for the Games to ‘have an impact’ – that is, to ‘change attitudes for the better’ – the public ‘has to engage’ (my italics). In an attempt to get the fickle public engaged, disability spokespeople are openly talking about using the Games to ‘create disabled celebrities’, because by ‘turning a lot of disabled people into celebrities… [the public] will feel far more comfortable with disability’.

Meanwhile, the media are promoting what feels like a slightly forced excitement about the Paralympics. Certainly it is disingenuous of media outlets to depict the Paralympics as being the equal of, or even better than, the Olympics. With Channel 4 running with the slogan ‘The Olympics are over… let the Games begin’, and The Times describing the Paralympics as ‘The Real Thing’, we are implored to see these Games as more thrilling and important than the Olympic Games themselves. But they aren’t. And these media outlets know that. Watching Paralympians overcome their physical shortcomings to excel at disabled sport can certainly be inspiring. But in essence the Paralympics are a showcase of human resilience, a celebration of an individual’s, and increasingly science’s, ability to override physical limitations, whereas the Olympics are a purer, more universal fight among men and women to be the fastest and strongest. That latter kind of Games is always going to draw in larger, more gobsmacked audiences than the former.

But we must be careful what we say about the Paralympics. An event that is being explicitly used to reshape social attitudes cannot be criticised or frankly debated. There is a stultifying cultural atmosphere around the Games. The ‘comedian’ Frankie Boyle discovered that when he made unfunny remarks about Paralympians on Twitter. So did funnyman Simon Pegg when he made what he thought to be a complimentary comment, saying: ‘Watching the Paralympics, you realise what an utterly stupid term “disabled” is.’ For that, he was subjected to a twitch-hunt and branded ‘disabilist’. As he later said, ‘Good to know Twitter’s vein of obtuse, bone-headed, humourless, wilfully ignorant, high horsedness remains intact’.

The reason heated discussion about the Paralympics is subtly circumscribed is because so many attitude-changing hopes are being invested in these Games. And we can’t have comedians or anyone else making fun of this event, or even using innocent-sounding but allegedly ‘disabilist’ terminology, when one of the key aims is to re-educate the moronic masses about how to think about and talk about disabled people. Disability campaigners love to say it is the public’s backward attitudes that really disable people. No it isn’t. It is disabled people’s physical limitations that disable them. And to address that problem, as every civilised society ought to, we need more resources that will enable disabled people to work and live full and fruitful lives, not the further haranguing of Joe Public for being ignorant and failing to speak in PC, positivist lingo.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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