The Downside of Trevor Noah’s Disability Representation Epiphany

Over-rationalization, Tone Policing, and Why the Disabled Can’t Just Be Happy About Ableism?

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Trevor Noah delivers his monologue on disability representation. Noah, a medium-dark complected mixed-race man with black, short hair and black eyes, is wearing a white dress shirt and a dark blue blazer with a grayish-black tie. He is holding a blue cue card and sitting at a reflective desk, and behind him are mixed images from monuments in Washington, D.C.

I teach students about ethics and philosophy, so of course I use Aristotle’s texts early in the course. It’s not that any of the Classic Western philosophers are perfect… or even non-ableist — it’s often the exact opposite. However, that’s not to say that the toga-wearing crowd didn’t occasionally get some things right. One useful tidbit illustrated by Aristotle is that virtues, when practiced incorrectly, can become vices. My students are often perplexed as to how this can be. This is where I turn to the sometimes-dubious virtue of rationalization.

Nothing’s wrong with attempting to be rational, but some things shouldn’t be rationalized. If one tries hard enough, they can find that they can rationalize away some of the worst treatment forced upon other groups of human beings. This unvirtuous rationalization occurred prominently in the commentary upon the article I wrote critical of Microsoft’s Autism hiring program — “They have to make money!” some commenters claimed. However, while how one makes money is important, the need to turn a profit is not a free pass to exploit one’s workers. There was another over-rationalization present, also: “They’re a technology company!” Of course, Microsoft is a technology company, but they have many other non-technical employees, too. As I replied to a few of these commenters, over-rationalization is often an insidious tool for disregarding the rights, freedoms, and feelings of others.

I’d seen the same problematic over-rationalization in the otherwise delightful and progressive comedian Trevor Noah. I was not surprised when the same man that refused (originally) to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that Trump campaign took clandestine and most probably illegal measures in working with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. Thus, I was not taken aback by that same over-rationalization in Noah’s January 10th monologue regarding disability representation and Bryan Cranston’s role in The Upside as a wheelchair-using quadriplegic. It even speaks volumes to note that Comedy Central’s description of the monologue describes Cranston’s character as “wheelchair-bound” — an antiquated term that misunderstands the freedom of movement that the wheelchair represents to wheelchair users.

It’s troublesome at this point in Noah’s monologue that braying laughter — the kind of mocking, smug laughter that bullies, confident in the superiority of their positionality often exude — can be heard above Noah’s voice.

While Noah does, eventually, get to the point that representation on film is important, as the Slate article published a few days after in reply indicates, his response lacks a depth of understanding. It is a prime example of the dangers of not only over-rationalization but also of tone policing. Noah begins with an old, tired argument about actors being definitionally composed of people pretending to be someone who they are not. It’s troublesome at this point in Noah’s monologue that braying laughter — the kind of mocking, smug laughter that bullies, confident in the superiority of their positionality, often exude — can be heard above Noah’s voice. It is a normative affirmation in the superiority of abled people on full display.

It is at this point, however, that Noah beings to make a (slow) rhetorical turn — careful not to admonish his audience for their brazenness in assuming their own superiority. Far from warning the audience away from such egocentric glorifications of their own positionality, Noah takes the opportunity to remark upon the discourse he finds most offensive on the internet. “Obviously, online, everybody swears at each other, nobody speaks anymore,” says Noah. And it’s important to mention here that while Noah does have a point about some discourses being more helpful than others, he herein allows bias towards over-rationalization to metastasize into one of the most harmful and abusive tactics used against social justice movements: tone policing.

If the truth can only be the truth if said in a tone the listener likes, how can we ever get to the truth of the affective components of oppression?

Tone policing is both a logical fallacy and a tactic of marginalization. The tone policer’s position is that if they don’t like the sound of one’s argument, then the argument isn’t valid — the entire argument can (and should) be dismissed. The most dangerous and callous element of Noah’s rationalization of tone policing cements the oppressiveness inherent in tone policing. The cumulative effect of this type of tone policing allows for the person observing the argument to disregard actual harm done and the affective components of that harm. In other words, in validating tone policing as a rational rhetorical tactic, Noah recognizes instead that those in a position of power can disregard all the understandable anger and frustration marginalized people feel as a result of their oppression.

Does it not make sense that people being infantilized, ignored, and insulted would be irked? And is it not also reasonable to assume that this fury would come across when trying to explain the resultant conclusions of marginalizing treatment? If the truth can only be the truth if said in a tone the listener likes, how can we ever get to the truth of the affective components of oppression? Is it your own fault that you’re not able to be the most rational kind of happy?

The critical race theorist Sara Ahmed’s brilliant book The Promise of Happiness proposes to examine the search for happiness through a type of scholarly archeology, constructing and excavating an archive of unhappiness. Ahmed details, among other things, how society often uses what is understood as an individual duty toward happiness to erase social injustice and the misery of inequality. Although her archives are constructed of mad black women, killjoy feminists, and sad queers, the angry crip could easily compose a chapter. After all, according to the disability studies scholars Simi Linton and Tobin Siebers, disability is also considered an individual issue, the result of biological misfortune, to be mitigated or eliminated on an individual basis (almost never accepted), rather than a natural variance to be understood and included.

Therefore, the maddening frustration and fury felt by the disabled is often misunderstood as a disabled person angry because they are disabled, rather than a disabled person (rightfully) angry that they are mistreated because they are disabled. Indeed, this is perfectly attuned to historian and film critic Paul Longmore’s analysis of the disabled villain trope, a trope still prominent today. In movies such as Iron Man 3 and Unbreakable, we have a disabled villain so furious about his disability that he lashes out at the nondisabled world. Iron Man 3 is probably the worst offender with its inclusion of disabled veterans longing to be “whole” and “useful” again; in their gratefulness for the “cure” to their disability, they willingly become terrorists.

The (non)talking head disabled person is a common, shameful trope. It sends the message that disabled people are only objects (rather than subjects) in stories meant to glorify, entertain, and reify the perceived superiority of the nondisabled.

Ultimately, I am glad that the disabled actor that posted his experiences got through to Noah regarding even the beginnings of the representation problems of the disabled in Hollywood. But this also raises another problem with Noah’s framing of the issues: as pointed out by disabled activist Annie Segarra on Twitter, rather than use his platform to further aide this disabled actor in giving him a space to discuss his take on the issue of disabled representation in Hollywood, Noah allows the man to continue disembodied and literally nameless. This, too, is a common occurrence in the media. There are countless inspiration porn stories bandied about the internet that either do not name or give voice to the disabled person involved, referring to them instead by their disabilities and asking nondisabled friends and family to speak for them.

A few years ago, a young Autistic man was “interviewed” for a segment of “Shutting Down BS with Dylan Marron” in which the Autistic man, Avery, attempted to answer questions for Dylan only to be interrupted by clips of Avery’s father literally speaking for his son. And a recent news segment regarding two friends, one Deafblind, who regularly attend soccer matches together with the sighted hearing man explaining the happenings in the game to his disabled friend featured footage of the Deafblind man communicating to the camera through sign language; however, no one bothered to translate what the man was communicating.

The (non)talking head disabled person is a common, shameful trope. It sends the message that disabled people are only objects (rather than subjects) in stories meant to glorify, entertain, and reify the perceived superiority of the nondisabled. The common, ableist occurrence of ignoring and silencing the voices of the disabled is explicated by activists like the late Stella Young and scholars like Melanie Yergeau in her book Authoring Autism, in which Yergeau argues that Autistic people are without rhetoricity — it doesn’t matter how an Autistic person communicates, it will be silenced or ignored. This is, sadly, true of many disabled people.

Ultimately, I am glad that Trevor Noah reached the conclusion that disability representation matters, but anti-ableist discourse also matters.

Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak’s central premise, critical inquiry, and title to her most important work is “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak’s question is rhetorical in multiple dimensions — ultimately, this question is unanswerable because no matter what those pinned under the hegemony say, it will be ignored, silenced, and rationalized out of existence. The danger of over-rationalization and tone policing is the easy slide into oppressing people with their own marginalization. “If you’d just stop being so passionate, so angry,” they say, “you might be less sad.” Of course, to make this argument, you must totally ignore your own complicitness in creating that marginalization. Once again, people who are mistreated are bound to feel passionately about that discrimination; however, when people like Trevor Noah give out free passes to rationalize such treatment as the sensible alternative to a truly empathetic and understanding conversation, we continue the cycle of abuse.

Ultimately, I am glad that Trevor Noah reached the conclusion that disability representation matters, but anti-ableist discourse also matters. And, even though I am nearly 100% sure that I will be bashed for “slamming” Noah, I would like to state that I do like Trevor Noah. I find him clever, insightful, and delightful in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that he (or anyone) is beyond critique. If there’s one thing my studies in rhetoric have proven to me, it’s the inherent danger of humankind’s propensity to uncritically accept messages — no matter how dangerous or marginalizing — from those that we personally like.

Although I am frequently bothered by Noah’s propensity toward over-rationalization, the real problem here is that this insistence upon rationalization has led Noah to subconsciously reinforce the message that tone policing is an ethically neutral and even laudable tactic. The truth is that arguments, both on and off the internet, have grown increasingly uncivil. However, implying to his audience that it is acceptable to dismiss arguments from the marginalized if they aren’t stated in a tone in which those in places of power find pleasing reifies a cycle of ableist abuse that I do believe would horrify Noah, if he truly understood the potentiality for perpetuating that abuse.

Trevor Noah, it’s time to really, seriously talk about ableism and disability rights on your show. The ball’s in your court.

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