Recently, I wrote an open letter to Chuck Klosterman, The Ethicist at The New York Times. I asked him what are the ethics of using the R-word? I directed that question to him not only because of his role at the New York Times, but as someone who had published offensive statements about people with intellectual disabilities. I wanted to know his answer because I am the parent of a 7-year-old child who has Down syndrome.
His response was completely unexpected. In fact, it was unprecedented. It was profoundly and beautifully simple:
I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your website. I've slowly concluded the best way is to be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right.
His apology included a self-imposed penalty. He would donate $25,000 to an organization that made a difference in the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
As I read the letter I burst into tears. I have heard from many parents of children with intellectual disabilities who have told me they had the same reaction. Many shared a thought I had that day which remains -- the world feels better somehow. When I wrote back to thank him I shared:
I believe the world will shift a bit in favor of people like my son because of your response to my letter. The R-word is representative of an underlying hostility towards people with cognitive disabilities. When you say you were wrong in such a genuine way you are helping to erase hatred.
I am not alone in knowing the pain that word causes my son and our family. Or what it feels like when yet another celebrity, public figure or even a neighbor uses the word. Or what it feels like when the person either refuses to respond to criticism or worse, defend their right to say the word.
At the risk of sounding trite, Mr. Klosterman is who we have been waiting for. People with intellectual disabilities and their families and friends and allies have been waiting for someone of his stature and character to come to the fore.
It would have been easy for him to counter my question with the ever-popular rant-against-political-correctness. You know the one since retired in defense of words like "homo" and "that's so gay." The most reasonable explanation is Klosterman responded the way he did because that is what kind of person he is in life. But, he did it at a time when the basic human rights of people with intellectual disabilities are finally being recognized in a world that mostly finds them worthless.
It has become clear to me it is Chuck Klosterman's character that moved us. Here is a man with an above average intelligence yet that attribute was not necessary to him addressing this situation. He addressed this situation by demonstrating his character. His ability to connect to other people's suffering and the use of basic language of responsibility and accountability: I was wrong. I am sorry.
Our societal aspirations are often puny. We live in a world that rides high on the smartest guy in the room mystique; gotcha moments and full-on snark. Authenticity. Responsibility. Accountability. These are passé.
Our evolution as social beings still rely more on what kind of car we drive, what we do for a living, where we live, who we are married to and where our children go to school as the standards. But these goals don't say much about someone's character. It says nothing about the way someone comports themselves in the world.
Given these standardized measures it is understandable how our son is constantly compared unfavorably to every other person and falls short. He is never perceived as an equal.
Klosterman's words are a reminder of how we can join with others by simply acknowledging their pain:
"I feel terrible about this and deeply embarrassed. I take full responsibility for my actions and understand why this matters so much to you. I'm truly sorry."
In the closing of my letter I stated:
"I believe your response to my question could make all the difference in the world."
That was a deliberate challenge. His comeback was beyond any expectation I could have ever imagined. What he did is a game changer in the narrative to secure acceptance for people with intellectual disabilities.
What if we placed a premium on this ability to take responsibility for one's actions?
What if how we treated others is our true measure? What if character is our greatness?
Character levels the playing field. On that field my son competes as an equal among peers.
Most days my son would be a champion.