Thursday, 20 October 2011

Don't be such a "Mong"

What does the word "mong" mean to you?

Does it simply mean "idiot"? Or is it a derogatory term for those suffering with Downs Syndrome or other forms of disability?

Well this has been a hotly argued debate on twitter recently after Ricky Gervais' regular use of the word when addressing his followers. When fellow comedian Richard Herring wrote about it on his blog, that there are some words with horrible meanings relating to disability that are now so easily used but that words relating to race are still rightly frowned upon, some of Gervais' followers didn't take too kindly to it.

The thing is, not all disabled people are able to kick back when these words are used; call someone a n****r or a p**i and they can turn around and respond. Call someone with a learning disability a mong and not all of them will be able to hold you accountable. People say it & go "oh it wont offend them, they don't understand…" But what about when they say it to someone that can turn around and say "what did you say?" - the fastest way to get out of it without looking like an arse? "oh I don't mean it like that, it just means "stupid". And that's when the word changes; people get away with saying it, it becomes more widely used as a substitute for "stupid" and fewer people link it to it's previous meaning.

Now, I don't think Ricky Gervais meant it in a derogatory way - he's far from being an enemy to those with any form of disability. Watch any of his shows - especially Extras - and he has found some extremely talented actors who aren't afraid of using their disability to challenge and humour people. My sister has mild Cerebral Palsy and her favourite moment was someone blindly accepting when a woman with the same condition as her says she'd just been tap dancing: "I was joking.. Me…? Tap dancing…?" - cue fits of giggles from my mum, sister & I.

Yes, Gervais bravely challenges the "oh we shouldn't say anything about disability" mentality that a lot of people have. People like my sister don't want pity - they don't want to be tip-toed around. As a child, I constantly had kids coming up to me and going "sorry if this sounds rude…but…what's wrong with your sister?" and found it hilarious seeing the shock on their faces when telling them "you can ask her yourself, she won't mind!" or the relief when I told them without the slightest show of offence. Gervais has pushed boundaries and given people with a disability a spotlight, showing that although they have the label "disabled", they are not less-than-able to entertain and out-wit someone "normal".

The thing is, as said before, not everyone with DS can turn around and say "I don't like you using that word" when Gervais says "mong". If a joke goes too far with someone with Cerebral Palsy, they can turn around and go "um…yeah that's a bit much…" & Gervais can go "no problem, sorry about that" and scrap it. It's not so easy for people with a mental disability to speak up for themselves.

So, when Richard Herring said that perhaps he shouldn't be using that word because it may still offend people, I thought that was a nice thing to do. Gervais' response? "The meaning has changed". Yes, for him and many others it has, but for a lot of other people, it hasn't. Meanings don't disappear until everyone forgets them & that will be most difficult for those who have been hurt by it's usage. Gervais didn't mean it in a bad way, but his continuous use of the word may mean those who do use it offensively can justify themselves by going "but Ricky Gervais uses it all the time!". Luckily, with all this blowing up, Gervais has clarified what he meant by it, so arseholes cant do that anymore.

For his defence, Gervais said "gay doesn't mean what it used to". However, we still listen to and sing Christmas songs that say "make the yuletide gay", but we don't mean make Graham Norton host every TV show on Christmas Day (although that would be amazing). I love the fact that words change their meanings, that the harsh meanings can be taken away and words being made to be just silly insults, but you must remember that not everyone associates it with the new meaning straight away. Oh and I don't want to sound snobbish, but referring to an online dictionary doesn't settle the argument - words often mean different things online & being on some sites can feel like you're reading a whole other language. Even now, online (and more increasingly offline), gay doesn't just mean homosexual, but also widely used as a replacement for "rubbish". Many people just use it meaning "rubbish", but it stemmed from the homosexual meaning by saying rubbish things were 'gay', thus interring that gay people were rubbish. So, when you use it to mean "lame" and don't want to upset your homosexual friends, make sure you are very clear you are not using them as an insult.

But anyway, my real gripe is not with Gervais's use of the word, or his initial reaction - he honestly did not mean for that word to be offensive. What it was was the line "they're not offended by what I said, they're offended by my success".

Ok, I know Gervais loves himself & makes a joke of it, but someone says "er…maybe don't use that word" and you jokingly say it's because they're JEALOUS…? I've been on the receiving end of stuff like this - I made a joke on YouTube that someone had been playing Halo for too long because they were miles better than anyone in the game, that maybe they should take a break and do something more useful with their time. The response? "OMG you're only saying that because you SUCK at gaming! You're just jealous cause he's better than you!" Even if it's said as a joke it's infuriating; it is the very definition of "jumping to bloody stupid conclusions". No, I'm not jealous of someone who is an expert on Halo, and I expect Herring didn't call Gervais up on something that could easily offend people because he was jealous of him. Then on top of this people said they didn't know who Herring was, so they don't care about his opinion. Just because you don't know someone, it doesn't mean their opinions are worth less than yours or some celebrity; Bin Laden was pretty well known, do you think his opinion is more important? Also, if you don't know who Richard Herring is, you should do - he's well funny. Mmmmm…cress...

So, to every single person that tweeted Richard going "so who are you?" or "um….have you won any Emmys recently?", grow up. You may think there was not any need for Richard to say anything, but he was just voicing his opinion & looking out for other people - that certainly doesn't grant the sort of abuse some of Gervais' less-intelligent fans have been throwing his way.

And no matter what people say, Twitter is a public forum that anyone can read and just because someone isn't following you, doesn't mean what you say is any less offensive. Saying, "if you find me annoying then don't follow me" makes sense because it makes the follower's life easier. Saying, "If you find me offensive then don't follow me" is stupid: if someone says something offensive in a sound-proof room, just because no one hears them it doesn't take any of the malice out of their words. It's basically saying, "I want to say whatever horrible stuff I want and I'm fed up of you actually holding me to account".

I don't want comedy to feel like a minefield, with comedians poking the ground ahead with a metaphorical stick of their material, too scared that they'll offend and have everything blow up in their face. Herring is no stranger to pushing boundaries and as a Christian fan of Gervais I'm used to taking a few things he says with a pinch of salt (mainly the bits where he infers that I'm an idiot for believing in any form of deity). I think it's brilliant that we can challenge people through comedy & change their perceptions - when it's done right, comedy is never dull. I'm currently really looking forward to "Life's Too Short", Gervais' new show written with Stephen Merchant and starring the brilliant Warwick Davis, which I think is the only reason Gervais started tweeting regularly and caused this kerfuffle. It's just that if you're going to say something that used to mean something else, make sure that people know for certain you're not taking the mic out of actual disabled people.

But hey, my opinion isn't the be-all-and-end-all. I think the best person to say something is someone who actually has DS. So, Ponceman, what do you think about the use of derogatory words like "mong" and "retard"?

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