Facing up to CNN
April 23, 2013 6:14 PM   Subscribe

Should viewer discretion be advised for pictures of children with congenital deformities? One Ontario woman doesn't think so: "I am 'deformed' and reading that viewer discretion warning ahead of the article (amounted) to telling me that every time I left the house I should wear a similar warning."

Born with Goldenhar syndome, Penny Loker (blog, Twitter) hasn't let her congenital facial abnormalities stop her. She works in customer service at one of Canada's biggest telecom companies, Rogers, and volunteers regularly at Kitchener, Ontario's Grand River Hospital. Oh, and her dream is to head to Comic-Con one day.

Penny's email to CNN resulted in the network apparently changing (but not removing) the warning displayed before accessing the photo gallery in question, and a detailed profile about her life, not to mention an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's local affiliate.
posted by greatgefilte (32 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I can't be the only one who noticed that CNN put their Agent Orange deformities gallery just a few spots down from this one. WTFCNN?
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:34 PM on April 23, 2013

I'm with Penny, and good on her for taking a stand. I'm reminded of this FPP where commenters demanded that a warning be added to the post because they couldn't bear to view the images of a toddler with a skin condition. Are you also going to hide your eyes when you run into an atypical-looking person in the real world? Look at the ground? Cross to the other side of the street? Dr. Mew provided an excellent comment on the topic.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:40 PM on April 23, 2013 [14 favorites]

She was on CTV as well last night, she's got a lot of guts doing this, and is of course absolutely right. What are we saying when we hold a real, live person to be so grotesque that their picture merits a warning?
posted by sfred at 6:44 PM on April 23, 2013

Oooh and next can the nude human body not be considered offensive either?
posted by crayz at 6:52 PM on April 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

Leaving aside the origin of the images, they are shocking, and I don't think it's out of line to add a warning so the person reading the story can at least mentally prepare for it.
posted by grahamsletter at 6:59 PM on April 23, 2013

CNN: "Breaking" the news since 1980... and still nothing has been fixed.
posted by J.W. at 7:02 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think I remember a link to an article about babies and children with physical challenges/special needs having some kind of warning at the beginning that the article and images might be upsetting to pregnant women. It specifically said "pregnant women."

It makes sense. I imagine a lot of them probably worry about having babies with problems and it would cause undue stress.
posted by discopolo at 7:16 PM on April 23, 2013

Do you remember, about a year ago, there was a post about this column that a psychiatrist wrote, a horrible story about his ob/gyn rotation in his medical training, back in the '60s. A baby was born with a severe and fatal deformity - I think it's where the whole symmetrical embryonic development fails, and the name has something to do with 'cyclops' - and the hospital simply lied to the parents, and told them that the child was stillborn? Since it would be too unthinkable a horror for them to look on that child.

It seems like that's the cultural background that Ms. Loker is fighting against - disfigurement is something that must be hidden, it's too horrible for people to be exposed to or even told about. That's courageous as hell, and I admire her.

But I'm not totally OK with discounting the reality that a lot of people cannot handle pictures of this, and are pretty traumatized by suddenly being shown them on the news. Not sure what the right thing is here.
posted by thelonius at 7:19 PM on April 23, 2013

thelonius: What exactly does that mean 'cannot handle pictures of this'?

Makes them uncomfortable? I'll admit it makes me uncomfortable, but I personally view that as a character defect of mine - something I should face and address.

The thing is, there are other images that have made people very uncomfortable - seeing interracial couples, seeing gay couples, seeing people in wheelchairs... Instead of pushing this on those people who are the subject of the discomfort, we should (as a society, as individuals) take responsibility for our own discomfort (and ideally become more comfortable).

It's through confronting these things that are different from what we are used to that we normalize them.

I'm grateful to Penny, terribly glad she did what she did (help create a conversation at CNN, in her other media appearances, here on the blue).

If I see ever Penny, I will personally thank her for what she has done (she lives in the same city as me).
posted by el io at 7:30 PM on April 23, 2013 [28 favorites]

el lo, I simply mean that they are very upset by seeing them, and that they wish to avoid seeing them
posted by thelonius at 7:36 PM on April 23, 2013

[A few comments deleted; whether trigger warnings are ok in other contexts is really a derail here.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:37 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

thelonius; that may be true, but I'll stand by my observation that may be true to varying degrees about people in wheelchairs (or any other physical disability) or interracial relationships, or same-sex relationships, or transgendered folks, or people of ethnicity other than theirs.

I'm not sure we as a society should be catering to people who may feel discomfort seeing things they aren't used to, and in fact if they are exposed to things outside their comfort zone, their comfort zones may expand (they may not, but I'm still not really okay catering to bigots of various flavors).
posted by el io at 7:48 PM on April 23, 2013

It's natural for American to feel revulsion to the deformed, the abnormal. It's not every country where the healthcare system is expected to perform regular miracles, where the 'special needs' children are hidden away in separate classes, assigned to different buses, where lines like gender and sexuality and race are tough enough to cross and plastic surgery exists as a viable market.

Head to any country marked as 'emerging' and you will see people afflicted with scars from polio, TB, other diseases, from accidents that happen because there is no access to an infrastructure that allows things like stoves and running water, with congenital deformities and those that come from malnutrition and exposure to harmful pesticides and pollutants in the drinking water.

I think a lot of the revulsion felt here is a privilege of the environment as much as it can be argued as being a 'natural' thing, and it's something that deserves questioning.
posted by dubusadus at 7:54 PM on April 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'll admit it makes me uncomfortable, but I personally view that as a character defect of mine - something I should face and address.

I am the same way; I know it's my issue to address, but congenital deformities are something that make me very uncomfortable. But I'm not asking for a warning.
posted by crossoverman at 7:59 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, much as I enjoy mocking CNN, this was the right thing to do as a response. Especially reading the article, which is interspersed with other links that might be helpful or as interest, particularly the 'Talking to someone with a chronic illness' link. The idea that more people might be exposed to these ideas and therefore be more sensitive to these things makes me happy, and frankly it surprises me that CNN put in the effort when they could have either ignored it or just changed the text and sent a perfunctory email back to Penny. So good on them for that, at least.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:00 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

six-or-six-thirty: holy shit! the infants in the link you pointed to have *ANGEL WINGS* (you could have given me a heads up before clicking that - I've seen some deformities in my time, but never friggin angel wings!)
posted by el io at 8:05 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

dubusadus: do you have any personal experience or evidence to support this (I'm curious, don't mean to attack your assertions)?

I found some academic literature that suggests there are indeed culteral differences, but it didn't break down between developed and developing nations (that paper looks at africa vs india vs china). There are indeed cultural differences, but they seem to be complex differences (many factors involved).
posted by el io at 8:27 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting perspective on something I'd never really thought about. Thanks.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:29 PM on April 23, 2013

Thin-skinned people need to grow thicker skins. How can you go through life as a functioning human being and not ever feel discomfort? Live in a city and you see uncomfortable things every day. Avoiding that would be a neurotic way to live -- a major deterrent for my day to day life. I wouldn't even be able to get to work.

Would this image cause a flashback to PTSD or cause a child to be irreparably traumatized? No and no. This stuff is only traumatic to very sheltered people, the kind of "sheltered" that doesn't occur on accident but occurs from years of looking the other way and ignoring/neglecting other people. Screw that. The thin-skinned made their own bed.

I hope it's not insensitive to say that I could really imagine a sketch artist drawing each of these faces as if there were no deformity. My mind's eye makes the translation and there's something really compelling about them that I can't quite put my finger on. In any event, I hope Penny and others with this condition can see that translation, too. I think there's handsomeness and beauty there.
posted by Skwirl at 8:49 PM on April 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

She has a really attractive smile and some pretty courageous guts.
posted by bystander at 8:59 PM on April 23, 2013

dubusadus: do you have any personal experience or evidence to support this

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner el io! I don't have any data to back it up other than this CDC link about TB rates worldwide and this Nature study that stresses the importance of prenatal environment and diet as major factors in birth defects. I assumed there wasn't a lot of government or infrastructure available to people living in emerging markets and general historical knowledge leads me to believe that people living prior to the industrial revolution(s) were a lot shorter and carried a lot more scars and deformities.

Anecdotally, my girlfriend was telling me about seeing polio scars for the first time in her life when she went to Ghana for a year and physical deformities as the result of accidents were, if not commonplace, were at least far more common than she had seen in the US. It was jarring for her and it's something I never really thought about until now. Whatever this was it wasn't far removed from asking someone to put a warning label on a picture of two men kissing and claiming fealty to the natural.
posted by dubusadus at 8:59 PM on April 23, 2013

Surely this warning would be more usefully deployed before Piers Morgan's show.
posted by steganographia at 10:48 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Wonder is a really great YA novel about this topic. It is the kind of book that really stays with you. If you are the kind of person who picks your next book based on mefi comments, you should check it out!

/reading rainbow
posted by that's how you get ants at 2:40 AM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm reminded of this bit from Clifford Geertz's Local Knowledge:

"Americans regard intersexuality with what can only be called horror. Individuals can be moved to nausea by the mere sight of intersexed genitalia or even by a discussion of the condition. The reaction is to encourage, usually with great passion and sometimes with rather more than that, the intersexual to adopt either a male or female role. "All concerned," Edgerton writes, "from parents to physicians are enjoined to discover which of the two natural sexes the intersexed person most appropriately is and then to help the ambiguous, incongruous, and upsetting 'it' to become at least a partially acceptable 'him' or 'her.' In short, if the facts don't measure up to your expectations, change the facts, or, if that's not feasible, disguise them."

So much for savages. Turning to the Navaho..."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:07 AM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

they wish to avoid seeing them

Subcategory of "Irrational Reactions to Vastness and Variety of Universe" section of the Compendium of Reasons We Can't Have Nice Things.
posted by kengraham at 6:00 AM on April 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

Cool, is she going to be on Embarrassing Bodies soon so I can spectate from the comfort for my armchair?
posted by fistynuts at 6:38 AM on April 24, 2013

Right on. I have microtia (a relation of Penny's conditions) and most of my life after early childhood I wore my hair over my ear to save other people from seeing it. Only recently have I realised I should be proud, confident of who I am and if other people are disturbed, well. Fuck them.
posted by wingless_angel at 8:27 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

People really need to get over themselves.

And further including so-called "trigger warnings" on slightly troubling content only serves to provide ongoing support for the sense in the thin-skinned that the "experience of discomfort" is something that one has a right to be protected from.

I see these requests for trigger-warnings as a symptom of a spreading misunderstanding of the reasons behind Political Correctness. I think for some there is a misunderstanding that requests for Political Correctness are essentially requests for the avoidance of 'disturbing images or ideas'. People want to be warned of these things because they seem them a bit like blonde jokes. They want to block out all possible sources of uncomfortable content as though that will somehow result in a 'perfect world'. You see this a lot when say artworks that attempt to comment on racism are themselves called racist.

People associate all 'troubling content' with 'offensive content' due to an inability or lack of desire to actually engage with the issue at hand.
posted by mary8nne at 9:07 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Only recently have I realised I should be proud, confident of who I am and if other people are disturbed, well. Fuck them. posted by wingless_angel

Right on.

.... And eponysterical there at the end.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:41 AM on April 24, 2013

[can we not attack people who express differing opinions about this? or it that too thin-skinned a request?]
posted by CyberSlug Labs at 1:59 PM on April 24, 2013

[can we not attack people who express differing opinions about this? or it that too thin-skinned a request?]

I'm kind of with mary8anne, here. Being conscious is often uncomfortable, unpleasant, and harrowing. If one's way of being makes being conscious terrible for others (like if one's way of being involves being inconsiderate or intentionally offensive), that is bad. If, however, one is willing to shut out perfectly harmless Facts of the Universe (like human morphological variability) to avoid having it be unpleasant to be conscious, that's totally fucking lame, and likely itself offensive (if, for example, one doesn't want to hear about what living in the universe is like for others).

If one is a broadcaster, trying to put asses in seats for ads (like CNN), it makes perfect, perverse sense to put warnings on depictions of human morphological variability. Only a few people will notice that this is offensive, while the majority of the asses in the seats will be pleased that they do not have to experience the aspects of being conscious* that they find harrowing. They're thus more likely to stick around and be exposed to advertising. This says something unsettling about CNN and its ilk, I think.

(Of course, one wonders where the advising of viewer discretion happens when there's footage of violence. I guess the viewers are supposed to be trained to think violence is okay, and can be freely admitted into one's consciousness, but human morphological variability is too icky and terrible.)

So: hai MeFitez. I have frenulum breve. It is not super-severe and doesn't cause hygienic problems or interfere with sexual function, although I have to be a little careful, so I've chosen to keep it around rather than let a surgeon put something sharp near my junk. I think it's interesting that I thought this was just how dicks looked until I was like 19, 'cause I'm a hetero dude with no brothers who hasn't done much locker-room time. I think it's interesting that there is an illustrated Wikipedia article on the subject, so I have shared it with you, because it's usually fun to learn things about the universe that one might not have known (like if one is a straight guy with no brothers or locker-room experience who does not 'suffer' from frenulum breve)! [If this revelation is offensive, mods, please delete this comment and MeMail me so that I know it is gone and that I should not derail here and instead make an appropriately-NSFW-labeled FPP about this condition.]

*(One fact about the universe I find unpleasant and alienating and depressing is that some of my fellow-people find human morphological variability, or even disease, too uncomfortable to acknowledge. How are these people to be trusted, if they're squicked out by innocuous things, or too disturbed by unpleasant things to acknowledge them? Not wanting to reexperience personal trauma is the only thing that gets a pass, here, I think, and this sometimes justifies the "trigger warning" thing.)
posted by kengraham at 7:41 PM on April 24, 2013

I don't know. I'm obviously, physically deformed, but I've never expected anyone to accept me as I am. I avoid mirrors and shiny surfaces for a reason; I understand that I am repulsive.

That's the thing: I'm not blind or stupidly entitled, like this woman seems to be. I understand and appreciate physical beauty. And I understand that I'm condemned to the shadows forever.

In my life, I've encountered a few kind people who have been able to smile at me, but they are rare. Everyone else tolerates me, at best, but everyday I see the contempt in their eyes.

"Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night."

Welcome to the world. That's just the way of things.
posted by SPrintF at 8:39 PM on April 24, 2013

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