“I thought I better warn you that I am not one of those politically correct comedians, but it turns out that also I’m not really that racist, homophobic or woman hating either, so you might not notice”
This is a reasonably ineffectual line I have occasionally opened with in the last month. These are times where it’s very easy to swipe at people who don’t possess furtive or ironic traditional group hate as “just being politically correct”, as if within us all is a burning desire to shout coon or dyke and we are only stopping ourselves due to a shallow liberalism. These are also time where irony can be draped over gags so that the audience and performer can pat themselves on the back for their sophistication while also enjoying a gypsy joke.
Comedy can be misconstrued in many ways and interpreted by individuals to suit their own ends and prejudices.
Another problem with gags can be forgetting that you are sometimes delivering them to many people. What can be an entertaining aside to a few friends who know each other well, can be disastrously misconstrued when told to many strangers.
Equally, it can be forgotten that not everyone knows the things you do an that can change meaning to. I once, and only once, had a joke about Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. It was a joke about language and bigotry, but if the audience didn’t know it was first published as Ten Little Niggers, it turned out it was just a racist joke in most people’s ears. It got a big laugh the one time I used it and I realized it was for all the wrong reasons. Part of the joke was about how language changes, and this week what a word means or doesn’t mean has become a major talking point on inky pages and across the internet.
Before I continue I should make it clear that I know a few of the people involved in this story. Ricky Gervais is a friend and someone who I supported on two tours and Richard Herring is a comedian I have been on good terms with for some years, and Nicky Clark is a disability campaigner I occasionally bother when I want to know things.
The word that has caused such vitriolic and vicious debates, as well as some individual houndings, is ‘mong’.
Ricky started using in tweets. Some people picked him up on that declaring it was an offensive word due its history of being used to bully and demean people with Down’s syndrome . Ricky then declared that such people were fools as the dictionary definition of ‘mong’ means idiot, then it really kicked off creating the kind of storm the media love; very little research to be done, many morally forthright opinions to be spouted. I felt Ricky was bullish and cocksure in his position, and as Bertrand Russell warned us, “the idiots are cocksure, the intelligent are full of doubt”. To make it worse, he received some tweets that hoped he got cancer. Sometimes cruel jibes can make you feell you are even more right and that perhaps you have the moral high ground. Then some of his followers decided it was their duty to the illustrious leader to be as uncouth and bullying to anyone who disagreed with his dictionary definition. Richard Herring, a comedian who has spoken out about bullying language in the past, took him to task with a tweet which Ricky then RTed and it all became rather unpleasant for Herring for 48 hours. I hadn’t spoken to Ricky for a few days and frankly, I thought he was being a right arrogant bastard. On Thursday night I was in a dressing room with Richard Herring and Francesca Martinez (who appeared in Extras and has cerebral palsy) and the general feeling was that Hollywood had gone to his head and anyone who disagreed with him was a ‘hater’ who must be crushed.
The next day I decided to email him two Guardian columns by disability campaigner Nicky Clark. In one she effusively praised the work of Stephen Merchant and him for creating disabled characters and what this had achieved. The second article, written this week, took him to task over the use of the word mong.
A few minutes after sending the email, we spoke. Rather than a bullish arrogant man on the end of the line, there was clearly someone who couldn’t quite understand what was going on. He didn’t even make the trademark screech that has dogged my life whenever I’ve been in his company. What had seemingly started as a petty feud over language with some of his traditional forthright pig-headedness had now opened up a very different debate. He was horrified to think that people in the street might really feel he looked on the disabled with disdain. I did explain that even I reckoned he’d come across like a bullish idiot.
I explained that though there might be a separate pitchfork mob awaiting him, but people like Nicky and Richard were not part of some Gervais hating campaign. They were people humanely concerned about the bullying of disabled people and the words that are thrown at them.
Unfortunately, the world of 140 characters, the easy access to celebrities and those who might criticize them, can lead to misunderstandings and stupidity traveling around the world faster and with less thought than anything with a stamp could.
On this occasion intention and outcome, as so often can happen on the internet, went their separate ways.
(It is important to remember that you should never follow an atheist unquestioningly.)
What this debacle seems to underline is that comfortable lives can sully empathy. If we live a nice life for long enough, it seems that imagining others less pleasant existence can become trickier.
I hope most people reading this have lives generally free from bullying apart from the occasional slights of drunks on a Friday train or if they tour with Golden globe winners. We can believe that the world is now free of homophobia, racism and misogyny because we don’t really see it where we live or perhaps we don’t notice. When AA Gill made some dyke jokes about Clare Balding and she took him upon it, she was characterized as ‘one of those humourless lesbians’ and Gill suggested that gays and lesbians are all happy now and live in the best of all possible worlds. It might be alright in our comfortable media enclave, you can even see some holding hands in public in London town nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that across the UK there are not people preaching against them, suggesting violence is the best option and thousands of people who may never come out and live agonizing existences in fear that the truth may ever out. Though quite a few people may know someone who is gay, far fewer of us know anyone who has cerebral palsy or downs syndrome or any other condition that marks them out outwardly and effects them inwardly. Most of us don’t know about the sort of staring, bullying and name calling that can blight their life. That is why Ricky was not stirring up hate, his position was one of ignorance and also informed by his being the cheeky shock comic who occasionally provokes the reaction of “ooh, should he say that?” I think he believed he was being contentious and a little edgy (god, how I hate ‘edgy’) by repeatedly tweeting mong. He is a man who likes to annoy and he will have probably enjoyed annoying people initially, but I don’t think he realised how frequently this word was used to abuse the disabled people and just how powerful that word could still be. Unfortunately, some of his followers have demonstrated its thoroughly witless use across twitter. It is important to remember if you are someone with many followers and a powerful public profile, some of your flock may take your words unquestioningly and that’s a nice reason to try and use them wisely. Should he be crucified over this, only if ignorance becomes a nailing offence and then we’re going to need a bigger Golgotha. This also demonstrates the danger of utter certainty, already playing the arrogant showman card on many occasions, for some people this was the point too far. Public humility was never a strong point. Since then, he has spoken to Nicky Clark and I believe heard a differing opinion on disability and abusive language. One thing that this debate has shown yet again is the incredible potency of language. Language took a long time to evolve, it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Hopefully, what may come out of this after all the tuppenny moral outrage (mine isn’t tuppenny moral outrage, as I get no tuppenny for it) is a greater knowledge of the depth of bullying of the disabled and thoughtfulness over your choice of words while still saying what you mean.
Some commentators seem to feel this is a free speech issue, as if free use of the word mong is the most pressing issue Amnesty should be dealing with. I do not think any words should be banned, but I hope that a society can aspire to want more than a rapid response unit to defend playground taunts. When Frankie Boyle makes jokes about down’s syndrome I understand he has the right to say it, I just wonder why he wants to say it. If I look back at jokes I made nearly twenty years ago, I know there are some I would be appalled by, not just because they were awful , but because I was uncomfortable with their morality. That would be true of jokes I made five years ago, and will probably be true of jokes I make now. I do not mind offending people, I’d just like to think that if they cornered me in the bar I could explain the reason I was offensive before the punched me.
Freedom of speech is important, it is so important that there are countries that ban it and where men and women are executed for what they have said or written. When you are fortunate enough to have freedom of speech it becomes your duty to mull over the power of the words you have at your disposal. We are the only animal that has such a rich and varied vocabulary. As a speaking animal we should make use of our language beyond grunts, arse scratches and screams, we are more than a Macaque.
Here are Nicky Clark’s articles
Happiness Through Science tour continues into 2012 – Lancaster, Banbury, Dundee and Glasgow soon http://www.robinince.com
another footnote – some people seem to think I am suggesting Ricky Gervais had no idea that ‘mong’ has been used as a slur for people with downs syndrome. I am not. I do believe that he thought it was archaic and no longer such a frequently used word by people who bully the disabled (of course, I may be a patsy)