An Open Letter to John Oliver

Dear Mr. Oliver:

When I first found out in 2014 that you had gotten your own television show, I was thrilled. Back when I was 15 years old and watching The Daily Show on a regular basis, you were my favourite correspondent, if not my favourite person on the show altogether. (Sadly, due to a combination of various personal problems (including – but not limited to – a too-early bedtime), I was unable to watch your subsequent stint as host in 2013, but from what little I have seen of it online, it was fantastic.) Naturally, I started watching Last Week Tonight, and it is now one of my favourite television shows. I appreciate the humour, the nuanced look at serious social and political issues, and, above all, your sensitivity towards marginalized groups.

This is why I was so disappointed by the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, which aired on May 22, 2016.

For some context, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) a month before I turned 16. Five years later, my life has balanced out well, but for two years of my life following the diagnoses, things were awful. I was subject to harassment and mistreatment by the staff at my high school. I will spare you the details of what happened, but I will say that even now, as a fourth-year university student, I still bear the mental and emotional scars of what was done to me on the basis of my illnesses.

This history of mine is why I took a particular liking to Last Week Tonight’s 2015 segment on mental health. It hit the nails on their heads, exploring the various ways the mentally ill are (and have been) abused and mistreated by American society. I still sometimes tear up watching it – between the rhetoric that the mentally ill should be allowed to live in the larger society and the notion that the lives of mentally ill people – lives like mine – matter, the clip proved something of a safe haven when confronted with ableism, either from my past or my present. What really got to me, though, was the brief moment where you touched upon ableist slurs – words such as “wacko, ps*cho, and cray-cray”, as the psychologist featured in the one news-clip said. As someone who is both mentally ill and a person who works professionally with language, it made my heart light up to hear someone as influential as you speak out against these terms. So often in public discourses on mental illness and ableism, the topic of slurs gets pushed to the side. To see it discussed was a great thing for me.

All of that said, I am brought back to the May 22 episode of Last Week Tonight. You did a segment about Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his lost cat. Opening the segment, a graphic is shown of Kadyrov wearing a “2Ps*cho” shirt, and you claim that the shirt is “fitting” of Kadyrov’s character. Over the course of the segment, we learn that Kadyrov is authoritarian and an alleged human-rights abuser – and that he loves animals, of course.

Being authoritarian and abusing human rights are wrong. Most peoples living in any Western democracy would agree, I think. However, authoritarianism and abusiveness are not part of psychosis, as the statement at the top of the segment would suggest.

Now, I, personally, do not have psychosis (which is why I have edited any instance of the word “ps*cho” here – it is not my slur to reclaim, so I will not use it). However, I have listened to the testimonies of many people who do have psychosis, and they have overwhelmingly stated that they are not bad people, and they do not appreciate a slur against their disorder being used as a synonym for “bad” or “evil”.

Moreover, to say I was disappointed with the conflation of mental illness and wrongdoing is to only give part of the picture. Not only was I disappointed, but I was also hurt. You spent an entire segment devoted to refuting the stereotypes that paint the mentally ill as violent and evil. Not only that, but you specifically demonstrated that the use of slurs (like “ps*cho”) is wrong. It seemed as though you knew all of this, but then, you went and made those jokes about Kadyrov anyway.

Now, I know that it was absolutely not your intent to hurt the mentally ill as a group. That is the exact reason I am writing this letter – it’s because I know that you would probably care about the opinions and feelings of the marginalized people about whom you speak, and it’s because you seem willing to learn from mistakes. You have earned my trust, Mr. Oliver. If I did not trust you to do what is right in this regard, I wouldn’t have wasted my time with this letter.

I am not a bad person, Mr. Oliver, and neither are you. We are both complex human beings who cannot and should not be compartmentalised, stereotyped, and written off over some aspect of our identities. We can engage in meaningful dialogues and work to better understand and help those around us.

When I first began writing this letter, Kadyrov had not yet responded to your #FindKadyrovsCat campaign. Now that he has, I can understand if you do not find this letter. Going into this, I figured the odds of you actually seeing it were slim, and now that you’ve got a warlord on your case, it’s completely understandable if discourses surrounding language and disability are the least of your concerns. Determined or not, there are some things a 21-year-old writer can’t fully invoke. Somehow, I feel that a warlord’s charisma is one of those things.

Nevertheless, I still feel that what I’ve written here is worth sending out. The Kadyrov segment, as well as Last Week Tonight’s May 22 episode as a whole, could have been great fun, had it not been for the unnecessary shots at the mentally ill. I have seen you do great work in the past, and I look forward to seeing more of your great work in the future. Hopefully, Kadyrov’s cat will have been found by then.

Respectfully yours,



Anonymous (the pseudonym, not the hacktivist group)



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