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Does the benefit of an exposé outweigh ethical problems?

I’m taking a class this semester called Disability Policy and Services. In last week’s first session we saw the documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, an expose of the dehumanizing treatment of institutionalized persons with disabilities.

We were asked to write a summary response to the documentary. While the film precipitated the world’s attention to the plight of those who were institutionalized, I couldn’t help feeling really uncomfortable about watching the documentary.

The words I wrote in my notebook immediately after the film include: exploited, victimized, re-victimized, hopeless, helpless, sensationalized.

As much as I understand that Geraldo Rivera’s expose did SO much to bring attention to the disgraceful treatment of those institutionalized at Willowbrook and other institutions, the first thought that ran through my mind as the cameras panned on the naked, dirty residents was whether the film was exploiting these residents once again, for the purpose of journalism. Did they have consent? Could they even have elicited consent? Would I want my family member, naked and dirty and running through an institution be filmed for the whole nation and world to see? I understand that the purpose was to highlight how awful the living conditions (if you can call it that) were, but I felt viscerally that they were still portrayed as inhuman.

I am all for the use of journalism to highlight inequity; I just wish it didn’t also sometimes exploit the very persons they are claiming to respect. One more thought – I guess what I’m asking is, to what extent is it justifiable to exploit the vulnerable? We might say the ends justified the means…but that makes me really uncomfortable…I’d love other people’s thoughts about this.

Below is the trailer for the documentary.

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A new year begins

I’m not a New Year’s Resolution type of person – for many years, as a younger adult, I chose instead to write letters to myself, similar perhaps to the holiday newsletters that people sometimes include in their cards around Christmastime. These letters were retrospective reflections of the past year – the ups and the downs – and thoughts about how I could encourage myself to continue with the things that went well and working towards changing what didn’t work for me. Over the years I would re-read the past year’s letters and reflect on what had (or more often, hadn’t) changed over the years.

After having children and getting busier with life, I stopped writing those letters. A year ago, inspired by a friend of mine, I began a new New Year’s tradition – rather than vague goals and a list of tasks or things to do, I choose a word that I want to guide my actions over the coming year.

Last year’s word was “intention.” I had been feeling pulled in many directions, feeling like I was bad at saying “no” to things even though with a full-time graduate school schedule, 20 hour a week Research Assistant position, and parenting two teenagers, I didn’t have the time to do everything I was being asked to do on a volunteer basis. Sometimes when you work really hard to get to a point of competency, the push-pull of suddenly being asked to contribute to a lot of things by Important People is both a blessing and a curse. Having a well-known blog and all that came with it certainly added a lot of wonderful things to my life but it also contributed a lot of stress and uncompensated time that often took me away from the things I should have been focusing on instead.

So, I chose the word “intention” in order to fill in the sentence “I want to live my life with _______.” Having a guiding word really helped me make some tough decisions. Rather than doing things because I felt obligated, out of guilt, or just because the opportunity was presented to me, I began to ask myself if doing this particular task was an intentional thing or if I was just going with what someone put in front of my face. I ended up cutting out several items from my life and while it was difficult at times, it was absolutely the right thing to do.

So as we approached the beginning of 2011, I began reflecting on what I would choose for my guiding word for the year. I decided it would be “compassion.” Compassion for others, of course, but also compassion for myself too. As my family and friends would say, I am often my own worst critic (and I have a pretty sharp tongue). I want my guiding word to help me reflect thoughtfully about the actions I take this year, and think about whether they are compassionate to me and to any other people who are involved. This is not to say that I will be a doormat or let people walk over me; that would not be compassionate to anyone.

Rather, since the purpose of compassion is to feel the suffering of others – I am operationalizing “compassion” by thinking of it in terms of trying to think about other people’s perspectives and not jumping to conclusions or taking personally actions of others.

Finally, although I don’t typically make “resolutions” I do admit I have a small goal I want to do this year – blog more! I’ve had a good “break” from the time-consuming blogging of my past blog and want to blog more than I have on this blog over the past six months or so.

Are you a resolution type of person? Or do you have any other New Year’s goals? I’d love to hear about them!