A disability rights campaigner has written an article criticising comedian Ricky Gervais for his use of offensive language on his Twitter page. Personally I find it more offensive that someone of Gervais’s calibre has succumbed to this grammatically bereft conveyor belt of inanity from people who have unlearnt the art of the inner monologue. If texting has become the graveyard of the English language then surely Twitter is the all-consuming hellfire that expunges all manner of syntax, spelling and original thought with its demonic lust for poorly expressed clichés, unashamed product placement and the most profound abuse of the exclamation mark since it was fondled in the copy room by an over-zealous semi-colon at the punctuation Christmas party.
The word that drew the ire of the writer in question is ‘mong’, a word of which Gervais does seem to be quite fond. While the word is basically comparable to ‘idiot’ these days, it does have a history of use as a pejorative term for the disabled. It stems from the Mongoloid classification ascribed to sufferers of Down Syndrome, a term coined by John Langdon Down himself, after whom the condition is named. Down saw similarities in the facial features of his patients and those of the vast ethnic group of Asians labelled simply as Mongolians at the time. Given that the prevailing ethnic theory in those days was something in the region of “White man is God, everyone else is sub-human”, I suppose we can forgive John his appallingly racist choice of nomenclature. Political correctness has since seen the word relegated to a relic of a simpler time, until of course people like Gervais use a derivative of it and somebody takes offence.
The gradient of offence taken at the use of certain terms is interesting. In the above article the author cites the following question from a blogger as the most sensible reaction to Gervais’s use of the word: “Just a thought, but if you think ‘mong’ only means ‘idiot’, why not just use the word ‘idiot’?” I’m sure Ricky does use the word idiot, as we all do quite regularly. In fact one of his shows is called An Idiot Abroad, in which the eponymous idiot travels the globe and does idiotic things. Of course, anyone who is familiar with Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s classification system for mental retardation that was drawn up in the early 1900’s (and who isn’t?) will know that ‘idiot’ is also a term that was used to describe a mental disability. The word was used to describe a person with an IQ of less than 30; ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’, other words used frequently today, were also terms included in the system.
So why are these words acceptable? Probably because they were used so often that their original connotations were forgotten, something that is likely to also happen with the word mong if it is allowed to proliferate and become part of an everyday lexicon. Censorship and labelling words as offensive do nothing but draw attention to their original meanings, which would otherwise become unimportant as the word evolves. People from older generations may be shocked to hear young people calling each other ‘retards’ or ‘faggots’ but the fact is that these insults are used in a completely new context, for the most part. It is only on the rare occasions that they are used vindictively in relation to disability or sexual orientation that the debate over their use becomes complicated, and any offence taken can be fully warranted.
Inevitably this episode has raised the issue of censorship of comedians, specifically the question of what, if anything, should be a taboo subject where comedy is concerned. I would be of the opinion that everything is available for parody as long as it’s more funny than it is offensive. Whether it’s religion, race, disability or whatever, by all means use the subject for comedy if you can make it funny. People don’t have a divine right not to be offended and they can simply ignore any comedy that doesn’t appeal to their sensibilities. Any hateful comments masquerading as comedy that simply target these groups or individuals won’t be funny, and are therefore just offensive. There’s a not-so-fine line between the brave, intelligent satire of someone like Louis CK, and the brazen, wilfully ignorant bleatings of the likes of Jim Davidson.
As for words like mong that still upset certain people, hopefully their original meanings will become obsolete with continued use. At this stage as a society we should have moved past the point of mere words being allowed to cause any kind of distress, no matter what their connotations are. Or maybe we’ll always have certain words whose ability to insult and injure is inescapable. Perhaps some of today’s nondescript words will one day be regarded as insults of the highest order. ‘Bieber’ may yet become an outrageously inappropriate slur hurled at simple young men with learning difficulties. The term ‘Glee’ will be used to taunt roving gangs of homosexuals. But worst of all, people whose opinions, and indeed existence, are deemed to be entirely irrelevant will forever be known as ‘Tweeters’. I’d take mong over that any day.