Tom Segura’s stand-up routine is pretty basic insult comedy, lining up targets and pushing them over, one by one. He’s all fake rage and listless aggression, like a guy slumped on a couch playing a shooter video game. This sucks. This is stupid. Don’t you hate this? Pew, pew, pew.
It’s hard to get up the energy to hate his act, with its bits about “midgets” and “cracker-ass inbreds” and other people he finds irritating or amusing. Hard but not impossible, as I learned while watching his latest TV special, “Disgraceful,” which I had heard was causing a lot of pain for people with Down syndrome.
When the special was released in January, word spread quickly among people with Down syndrome and their families and allies. Advocates started a petition to get Netflix to take it down. Special Olympics athletes made personal pleas to Segura and Netflix in June. But Netflix is standing by Segura, who called the criticism “absurd.”
I pulled up the show to see what the trouble was. It was this:
You can’t say retarded anymore.
It was just here, don’t you remember? ‘Retarded.’
People get very upset.
I don’t really support the arguments against it.
When people are like, You shouldn’t say it.
And you’re like, Why?
“What if there’s one … over there?”
And you’re like …
He shakes his head.
I watched the whole show. As he paced and grumbled, doing his black voice, his redneck voice, his Chinese-sex-worker voice, I became aware of my breathing, the twinge in my neck, the passage of time, the waste of bandwidth.
Down syndrome is a soft target for people like Tom Segura, who like to take credit for their own intelligence, and who like taking the easy shots.
I thought about how he and his audience seemed to deserve each other. I thought about the hazards of getting offended by a comedian. This is the trap we fall into, we who make the mistake of caring. It’s a stupid thing to do in Segura’s world, where everybody has something about them worth mocking.
But here goes. We need to walk into that trap, we humans, those who are on the receiving end of Segura’s slur, those who have been fighting against the casual cruelty embedded in that word, and the world of hurt and humiliation it represents.
Segura’s riff continues with an imagined conversation with a friend, who poses an idea so laughably stupid that he wants to slap it down with the R-word.
Now you can’t say that, you’ve gotta be like, “That’s not smart.”
“Your idea has an extra 21st chromosome, if you ask me.”
This line gets big laughs and applause, because what is funnier than realizing that by “21st chromosome” he means Down syndrome? And, to echo Segura’s point, how great the R-word is, for being so much stronger than the alternatives, because it contains so much contempt. Funny, right?
But people with Down syndrome are not punch lines. And Segura is despicable for punching down at them.
Segura and his defenders portray him as a target of word police. “The joke is that the suggested alternative way of saying it doesn’t work,” Segura said on Twitter. But he is not a victim. He is an attacker, and he’s wrong.
I have been immersed in this world for a long time. My two oldest brothers were Special Olympics competitors back in the day, and recently I’ve taken on a project to write about the Special Olympics, which got its start in Chicago 50 years ago this month.
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that people with intellectual disabilities are still marginalized and mistreated, even if they aren’t locked up in brutal institutions the way they used to be. They are still humiliated and excluded at school and in the workplace. Things are far worse in the developing world, where people are held in closets and institutions, neglected, malnourished, sometimes literally in chains.
Even in the United States, people with intellectual differences have shorter lifespans, often because they get bad medical care. Special Olympics runs a global program to screen millions of athletes for untreated health problems because of the shocking number of athletes who show up to compete when they should be in a doctor’s office, or the hospital
I recently talked with a young Navy petty officer who lost a colleague in Afghanistan to a suicide bomber. The man, who has an older brother with autism, said the Taliban would sometimes strap bombs to innocent children with intellectual disabilities. He said people in Kandahar had told him that such children were seen as “subhuman.” The thought of the injustice keeps him awake at night. Angry tears rimmed his eyes as he told the story.
Brutality and anger are not what people associate with intellectual disability. Down syndrome is cute, isn’t it? It’s about chubby kids running relay races and group-hugging afterward. It’s about the benchwarming kid who finally gets to shoot a basket on the last meaningless game of the season, making everybody feel good about their condescension.
Down syndrome is also a soft target for people like Tom Segura, who like to take credit for their own intelligence, and who like taking the easy shots.
I’m sure the advocates would prefer to hug it out with Segura, and would welcome his change of heart. I hope it happens.
But if it doesn’t, I hope enough people continue to denounce him and his corporate enabler, Netflix, to name and shame and shun the both of them, even at the risk of turning the confrontation into something people mistake for artistic courage.
There is a telling moment in the Netflix show when the N-word comes up. Segura, a self-styled badass, doesn’t say it. He starts to, but then his voice trails off. He jokes about how scary the word is: “When you hear that, and you’re in public, you’re like, Oh my God, I’m gonna die.”
Segura seems to know the damage it might do to his reputation and paycheck if this white guy tosses off a word with such a history of exclusion, humiliation and pain. It’s time to raise the penalty for using the other word, the R-word.
If Segura is a courageous artist, let him go ahead and keep using it. But let him face the consequences, delivered to him by people who are sick of being targets of such hate.
There is another moment in Segura’s show when he is complaining about how he’s been on tour for a long time, too long, a toll on his composure.
“Don’t you hate everyone?” he asks.
No, Tom, we don’t. Not everyone, not even miserable people like yourself. But we do hate what you’re saying, and the way Netflix amplifies your contempt.
Lawrence Downes is a writer and editor in New York.