Most of us have had the experience of being misunderstood by others. Sometimes these misunderstandings are small. For example, a host may choose to serve you a vegetarian meal, mistaking you for a vegetarian, when you were really hoping for a steak. Some are bigger: You might be invited to attend a fundraising function for a political party or cause, when you are an ardent opponent of that party or cause.
Can we misunderstand ourselves? Small self misunderstandings may be possible: You order a beer, but after one sip realize that what you really want is a glass of Pinot Noir. Larger self-misunderstandings seem implausible. I am unlikely to find myself attending a fundraising function for a cause to which I am ardently opposed. Here the distinction Wittgenstein made between mistake and mental illness is worth recalling (Cf. “A World of Difference”). “The Last Night of a Jockey” suggests that deep self-misunderstand that cannot be explained away as mental illness is in fact possible.
In order to misunderstand oneself, one has to try to understand oneself and fail. Usually, an attempt to understand oneself requires reflection, and reflection often occurs when one has a problem. Grady is a successful jockey who has a career setback. He has been handed a sixty day suspension for cheating in competition. This is his problem, and it leads to critical self-examination.
Such setbacks and challenges prompt local reflection, tied to the events and circumstances that precipitated the setbacks and challenges, but they can lead to further reflection on more durable features of one’s character or characteristics. Grady begins by regretting his decision to cheat, but from there he mulls over the personal defects that have contributed to the sorry state in which he finds himself.
Grady’s alcohol-fueled revelation is that the source of his lack of well-being is his small stature. As a small person he has been ridiculed and marginalized. As a small person he has been perceived as different and has not been accorded the respect that is enjoyed by others. When Grady assesses himself as a flawed person, he does so from the perspective of others. He adopts and seconds the opinions of others who discriminate against him because of his size.
However, by taking the perspective of others, and seconding it by wishing that he didn’t have the features that are the basis for discriminatory treatment, Grady tragically rejects the very features that set him apart from others and provide him with the capacity to excel in ways that others can’t. His small stature is crucial to his ability to excel as a jockey, and by wishing his smallness away, he rejects what has enabled him to flourish.
“The Last Night of a Jockey” raises questions about the nature of disability and discrimination based on it. When is a condition a disability? Is being smaller in size than the average person a disability? Is is instead a different ability? Answering these questions may very well depend on paying attention to the perspective we take when we attempt to understand physical, perceptual, cognitive and affective differences across persons. Individuals with what others describe as disabilities often have a very different sense of their differences from others. Hearing impaired individuals, for example, who use American Sign Language, see themselves as members of a rich linguistic culture, one that they value and believe deserves to be seen as we see natural languages other than the ones we speak and understand.
Hellman, Deborah. 2008. Why is Discrimination Wrong?, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Silvers, A., 2003, “On the Possibility and Desirability of Constructing a Neutral Conception of Disability,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 24(6): 471–487.