will someone rid me of this turbulent language

I haven’t reread this since I wrote it two and a quarter years ago, I wonder if I would agree with myself now?

“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.

my 2014 tour is all over the shop as usual – Norwich, Sheffield, Bristol, Leeds, Uckfield, Eastbourne, Falmouth and a town near you I imagine. Details HERE

latest DVD – Happiness through Science – is HERE


Here are Nicky Clark’s articles



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)

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141 Responses to will someone rid me of this turbulent language

  1. Andrww says:

    Great article Robin

  2. Really enjoyed this post, Robin. It’s good to hear from someone who actually knows the people involved and can give an informed perspective. Ignorant name calling on Twitter between people who have never even met is basically the equivalent of shouting abuse at strangers in the street.

  3. Jill Pay says:

    Such a good piece. I particularly like your point about the difference between the right to free speech and people choosing to use offensive or bullying language – it is about discernment obviously. Whether Ricky Gervais was naive – I am not entirely convinced, but would give the benefit of the doubt. My daughter who has severe learning disabilities (now aged 22) and especially her sister and brother when they were younger, used to be bullied and name-called by other kids on the estate where we lived. But I have also had abuse from adults when out with her in her wheelchair – on buses, etc. It caused me a great deal of upset and, at one time, I was reluctant to go out and about with her – which is awful, as she is a most gorgeous, loving young woman. I was very moved by Jeremy Vine’s interview with Nicky Clark – and her gentle clarity and composure did her tremendous justice. I also welcome Richard’s and your friendly rebuttle of Ricky Gervais – yes, we all stuff up sometimes and it is part of our job as someone’s friend to say -“you behaved like an arse, use your head next time!” Thank you.

  4. Sam Carlton says:

    Well thought out, an interesting read! Particularly poignant to me as I was a target of Ricky’s online lynch mob over the week after he RT’d a question about his usage of mong. I’m not sure how he and his followers can continue to argue that the word isn’t offensive having seen the distress it is causing a large number of people.

  5. Agree entirely with the sentiments above, and there’s a lot more to be said about the dangers of Twitter as a forum. It’s a great place for discussion, but with little room for nuance and thousands cheering on the sidelines, it can sometimes resembled a bear pit.

    That said…

    I don’t know Gervais, so I’m not as qualified to talk about his character as you are, but the explanation given (“his position was one of ignorance”) bugs me a bit when you look at the wider context; specifically, the character with Down’s he plays from time to time, and the ‘mong face’ pictures on Twitter (the facial expressions used for both are the same). I’m not sure how the ignorance defense really tallies with that.

    But maybe he just hasn’t thought it through before now. If he wants to explain his approach, then he could do a lot worse than follow the example set by yourself and Richard Herring, and take the time to organize his thoughts into a blog post.

    People still might not agree with his conclusions, but at least we could see the working.

    • robinince says:

      i fear i may have been overly fair. I think the main thing has been the bullishness and the I am right you are wrong-ness of his position. I thought when i sent him Nicky Clarke’s piece we probably wouldn’t speak again

  6. robinince says:

    it was not ignorance of its meaning, i believe that he really believed that its derogatory connotations towards downs syndrome were gone. what has been learnt from this is just how terrible situation is of bullying of the disabled

    • Hmm…

      Whilst it is certainly possible that RG believed that the word’s derogatory connotations were gone, his Science show certainly contains lines that indicate the opposite.

      Did you challenge him on his belief that he could, single-handedly, reclaim the word via means of reference to Urban Dictionary, etc., or ask why he didn’t bother to look it up in the OED when challenged?

      He’s not only guilty of wilful ignorance (although that’s debatable in any case – personally, I believe he was well aware of the word’s continued pejorative meaning, and posted Twitpics to prove it), he is also guilty of sending his followers off to berate those who challenged his ignorance, which I think is just as unconscionable.

      What is most telling is the singular lack of retraction and/or apology in as public a manner as his previous tirade of insults. Nicky Clarke wasn’t the only person offended by his behaviour over the last week.

      • robinince says:

        i agree, it was the bullishness and the sense of “i am bigger than you” plus the reaction of some of his followers that made it all much worse than it needed to be

      • Ana says:

        Sorry for sending this comment twice, but I wanted to make it clear that I was responding to this part of the thread…

        RG still doesn’t get that part of the problem is the specific nature of his defense of his usage as well as his reaction to critics. He tweeted this last night (10/23): “Have you noticed how all these perfect people without sin, haven’t run out of stones yet. Bet we find they live in glass houses.” Apparently, he contacted the DS Association to explain “I never use the word in association with ANY disability, wouldn’t use it again, sorry, all OK.” His apologies have been completely inadequate, in large part because he seems intent on narrowing the scope of the debate to which his (and his followers’) behavior has given rise.

      • robinince says:

        it does seem a bit bolshy. i fear you might be right

      • Nail on head; it’s TOTALLY about how he initially defended it and how wrong he was to do so. Seems like this “I’m from Hollywood and I’m amazingly not giving a fuck” routine has become who he actually is. The Office was class (and even the American version is brilliant), Extras was verry funny at times, but mainly due to the device of putting famous people in cringewothy situations, But Ricky needs to do some serious explaining. It’s a shame because he really is one of the biggest talents to come out of the UK in a long time, I think. I’ll never not watch him because of it, but if only he’d have just said, “Oh, OK, sorry” from the start we could have avoided seeing him lose face in public.

    • Alan Hope says:

      If indeed he did think the derogatory connotations were gone, he was reminded of his error very quickly. However he then continued to use the word, and attempted to shout down his critics by attributing their criticism to envy, and by posting a ridiculous link to a slang dictionary which seemed to support his case, but which also confirmed the meaning other people were ascribing to the word. So while the defence of being mistaken might be admissible on first glance, his behaviour when the error was pointed out suggests he knew all along the word had at least two meanings.

      And while I’m a fan of his TV shows, this episode has, I’m afraid, cast a pall over previous examples of his dealings with disability, like the episodes of Extras featuring Francesca Martinez and Warwick Davis, not to mention his long-running mockery of Karl Pilkington. All of a sudden those cases don’t look as innocuous as they did at first. Seen in the light of the latest controversy, they’ve taken on a rather nasty colour.

    • hsg says:

      With respect—I realise he’s your friend—it seems impossible to me that he “really believed that its derogatory connotations towards downs syndrome were gone” considering the issues were explained to him when called Susan Boyle a mong last year:


  7. Caroline says:

    A well written, thoughtful blog.

    I think that Ricky knows his audience, he’s not daft, he is rallying them with his new ‘Twongs’ term, making it like an exclusive little tribe ready to wage war. He must know what he’s doing, it’s all on Twitter for everyone to see.

    He’s affected by Hollywood, you only have to watch him on the red carpet to see that – not even the Oscar winners insist on wearing sunglasses when they’re talking to Ryan Seacrest.

    Can someone please prescribe him some time working with a charitable organisation? Hopefully that would rectify his lack of humility. Oh and I don’t mean working with a TV appeal, I mean something on the coal face, without publicity attached.

    He’s a talent, no doubt about that but with talent comes ego and Ricky’s is now out of control.

  8. Reagan Jones says:

    Your friend let fame go to his head when the office was finished. He’s still being aggressive and self-pitying on his twitter and hasn’t really learnt anything.

  9. Nicely said. I am pretty non-PC, but I do find taking the piss out of those who have been dealt such a crap hand is indefensible. I felt Gervais should have climbed down immediately; his arrogant references to tuppeny hal’penny internet ‘so called’ dictionaries was crass. Any one who looks in a ‘proper’ English dictionary will get a real definition of this vile word and it’s etymology. Gervais’s followers really were extremely grim during this ugly spat. I think Ricky should publicly denounce the use of this awful bully’s taunt, lest his fan base start making it’s use more widespread.

  10. chr1sr0berts says:

    Very good piece Robin, and interesting to have some insight from someone with personal knowledge of the central protagonists.

    One of the things I always quite like(d) about Ricky was/is that we never really ‘knew’ the extent to which he was a bit of a boorish twit. I have to say, I always thought he was not – but a slight suspicion always remained. The debacle that played out this week was unpleasant and as you allude to, the absolute certainty with which Ricky Tweeted was rather discomforting and arrogant – he seems to suffer from certainty.

    His Tweets with accompanying “mong” face and the assertion that the term is now not offensive rests on the assumption that “mong” has a different meaning now and that words and their meanings change” Has the meaning of “mong” already changed? His use of it of late doesn’t seem to have shifted its meaning. It’s totally reliant on the old “traditional” understanding of the term. I haven’t seen this transformation taking place and I cannot see how his approach helps said process along. It doesn’t mean something else simply because he says so, and as you also point out, judging by the responses of some of his Twitter followers, they’ve not read the memo, they’re just using it in the old way, as they would, cos it’s the same way he’s using it. At this stage – earlier in the week – I was getting frustrated with him, all he really needed to do was to clarify his position. I was then pleased and expectant yesterday [Thurs] when I heard that he had indeed decided to clarify. However his clarification was inadequate. He still relied on the “meanings change and now it simply means fool or idiot…it’s even in the urban dictionary” “Words change” is self evident, over time, with effort, and in many different ways, with a variety of different interest(ed) groups reframing terms & perhaps attempting to claim them. I still couldn’t see how his specific use of the term had changed its meaning in the slightest. The term “mong” with accompanying “Mong” face has not been subject to the same sort of linguistic and social rearticulation as for instance “queer”; People with a disability are still massively under-represented; Not many people take up the cause; If he is, as he claims, trying to re-imagine it and render it different he’s not really doing a good job by pulling “mong” faces. He’s in danger of becoming a sort of Al Murray figure whose audience flock to his shows now to hear the “unsayable” and to lap up the “Little Englander” mentality that was originally being satirised. OK, so he’s not necessarily responsible for his “army” of apostle like Twitter followers – nor is he responsible for his audience – who are now embarking on a mission to shout down opponents by calling them “mongs” …but it would’ve helped no end had he he clarified his position earlier….and, tragically, when he did seek to clarify, it turns out that he was incapable of admitting that he might have been in the wrong/misguided.

    Anyway, good piece Robin – a measured and thoughtful response.

    Chris Roberts

  11. Yeah, kind of. I agree that Gervais probably didn’t knowingly attempt to hurt anyone. But he knows it’s “edgy” to use the word “mong”, that’s why he’s using it. And I also believe he’s shocked at the storm he’s kicked up. But that simply proves he’s naive and a little bit stupid. What I can’t really forgive are the “belm” pictures on his blog and twitter feed – many put up after the criticisms really got going – which speak directly to a mockery or appropriation of people with learning difficulties. It’s the evidence that *he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks* – and will rub it in to make a point. Sadly, that point is being made idiotically and inappropriately.

    So on this one, he loses. And with his track record (of errors of judgment – and a lot of his material, which isn’t nearly as good as his goons seem to think, tho’ that’s just an opinion…) it’s hard to see how he’s going to recover from this one.

  12. Joe Hayhurst says:

    Gervais is merely a clown. I’m not convinced his and Merchant’s piss-taking out of Carl Pilkington is funny either, it’s not that far removed. The pathetic sight of his sycophantic fans abusing Herring for standing up for disabled people sums up the whole sorry episode.
    I’ve always believed that Gervais’ personality is not that far from David Brent and this proves it to me.

  13. This is a good piece. The key is empathy – which is another way of talking about compassion. Compassion doesn’t mean condescending to someone worse off than you, it means using your feelings and imagination to try and put yourself in their place and understand what they might be experiencing. It’s very hard for any of us to truly share another person’s experience but we are going to have to work at it if we want to make any progress towards greater respect for each other, and avoid the misunderstanding and intolerance that lead to hostility. This applies to a whole range of topics, from insensitive use of language to contempt for other people’s rights, and is at the heart of current debates about free speech and human rights. I’ll take the liberty of providing this link to a blog I wrote last year when I was working with Francesca Martinez on some projects around the whole idea of offensive comedy:

  14. Ontor Pertawst says:

    Let’s hope he actually listened to a friend — but did you notice one of his questions to Nicky Clark was concerning his press coverage? He doesn’t get that people are hurt by his words and seems to be primarily concerned with his press coverage, apparently. Which goes with the Hollywood going to his head narrative, I guess.

  15. xherbivorex says:

    spot on Robin. My sister has Down’s Syndrome. We grew up with the bullying and ignorant, hateful words of other kids at school, and having to try to explain to my sister why these other kids would laugh and run away, or not want to play with her, or why they didn’t want her in the girl guides (despite her being welcome and not requiring any additional help or treatment in the brownies beforehand).
    with this in mind, i wasn’t offended by Ricky’s use of that word (I’ve never used it myself though, and never will); I just thought that he was being initially pretty thoughtless, and subsequently quite a lot of a prick about it.
    The aftermath of his fans and twitter followers was only to be expected, sadly. The downside of social media; the mob mentality and pure idiocy.

  16. Emily R says:

    This is brilliant and makes me understand a lot more where it comes from. But it still does not make it clear to me how he could have thought the word divorced from that meaning, while making faces that were a clear parody of a person with DS. But some people are so ignorant of this world I guess they convince themselves that something isn’t, even as they reinforce that it is.

  17. Mujokivis says:

    Could there not have also been an element of shock for the purpose of self-publicity? He’s got a lot of new stuff coming up. This wouldn’t be the first time that tactic has been used.

  18. M says:

    It would be nice if in a blog post about this whole event you could refrain from misogynistic language like ‘twat’; whilst freedom of speech is important some language is still hurtful, and twat, especially when aimed at men, is one of those.
    Otherwise I agree that it does seem that he was just unaware of how his comments are still hurtful to people.

  19. Thank you for writing this – genuinely superb piece and full of sense.

    Thanks again.

  20. f0ul says:

    Sounds like the worst kind of self censorship to me.
    Giving in to some people’s definition of a word is giving them the power to carry on using it – and that is what you are doing. Other words have been taken by their victims and neutralised. That is the real beauty of language.
    A great example of that is Queer. Nobody in the right mind would use that word in its 60’s definition today – because the homosexual community has taken the word back. They haven’t been so lucky with the word Gay, but that’s another story!

    • robinince says:

      as i wrote, you don’t have to censor, say what you want, but know what others may make of it and understand how it can be interpreted. a large number of ricky’s followers certainly didn’t self censorship when they went about hounding those who disagreed with him.

  21. janh1 says:

    I heard of a new-born baby diagnosed with hypothyroidism the other day – the doctor said “In the old days, the baby would not have been treated and would grow up a cretin.” Interesting that cretin was one of the first terms of abuse I heard – and used – in the playground at school without having a clue it described people with a real medical condition.

    Taking childish ignorant stuff from the playground and regurgitating it for an adult audience is always going to be regarded as facile and, frankly, horribly lacking in imagination.

  22. Paul Rayson says:

    The whole freedom of speech thing is ridiculous anyway. People invoke it as if it’s an absolute. It’s like when people say, “you’re free to disagree with me because this is a democratic country”. Apart from the fact that what they mean is, “I wish I could have you killed”, they treat the word “democracy” as if it’s fixed in meaning and universal in application. I want the RIcky Gervais who worked on The Office and Extras and made the Golden Globes watchable. There’s too much of the one who treads water with “controversial” humour from his vantage point of immense good fortune.

  23. I think the problem was less in Gervais, but his fans. His fans seemed to leap upon his words like… well, fans. They jumped at the chance to agree with Gervais without stopping to think about what it was he was trying to say. Hence it turned into a debate about free speech, Richard Herring received thousands of abusive tweets that completely missed the point, and Gervais was able to dig his heels in and continue with his use of the word without actually having to defend himself in any great detail. His fans simply shouted anyone down that disagreed, suggesting they were living in the past.

    If anything positive came of this, SCOPE saw a rise in donations this weekend. Small comforts etc.

  24. Hey Robin, don’t take this the wrong way, but when I first stumbled upon your stuff I presumed you one of the superior, flat arsed atheist brigade, if there is such a thing.

    The more I read of your stuff the more I’m impressed with your application of reason, and ability to mediate between diametric viewpoints.

    This is an excellent blog. I myself made a callous attempt at one – concluding that if you persist in acting like a c*&t then you cannot protest at being viewed as one. Not very constructive, in retrospect.

    It is a fascinating observation that the bubble of celebrity can create a reflective curtain so impenetrable that the ability to self-regulate and reflect become atrophied.

  25. This is a very good piece Robin but I can’t helping thinking that Ricky asked you to do it, He knew damn well that mong is a word used to abuse people with Downs Syndrome and disabled mentally and physically, good god he was around when the word’s Mongol and spastic were considered okay, are we to believe that he is that ignorant, he has a degree in philosophy for god’s sake, he’s a very intelligent man , I remember one of, if not the first time he used the “M” word on one of his podcasts, could have been the fame give away one, he introduced Karl and said “What a mong” and there was a shocked laugh from Stephen Merchant ,he has since gone on to over use it , I also remember on one of the XFM show’s when Karl was talking about having to sit opposite a lad with DS and you can hear Ricky nearly choking with laughter, another one when Karl was talking about Wheelchair tennis ,Ricky went on to say that if the Paralympic games were for paraplegics ,the only sport would be blow football, now that’s pretty sick, I was a massive fan of him until recently because it’s not an act any more ,he is just a nasty arrogant man, who thinks he is above everyone , there is even an out take on the otherwise excellent film Cemetery Junction where he says ” is Bob Tonk a mongol? , there’s something wrong with him” you could argue he was in character, but he was doing it to get a laugh and to ruin takes, as is his idea of a laugh, and yes very funny normally, but that’s Ricky not the character and he was using the word Mongol for a laugh, well I don’t think it’s funny, it’s sick..

  26. Thanks for the thoughtful article. I think you are buying into a strawman by even acknowledging that this has anything to do with free speech – political correctness has nothing to do with banning words. It is a vector for acknowledging, as you alluded to, the power that words have to oppress, and that they are the first rung on the ladder of discrimination, and seeking to make the experiences of various minorities better through promoting inclusive language. It really only takes effect in the workplace, and is simply another facet of anti-discrimination legislation, of which the only people who still have issues are the freaking BNP.

    Just as Ricky is free to say what he likes (within reasonable bounds), he is free to be taken to task for it, and his responses about “jealousy” are unbelievable. Would he dare say that to a developmentally challenged person who took issue with his absurd crusade? It is hard to believe you when you say how aghast he is at the reaction considering those kinds of statements. In any case, when people claim “free speech” in these cases, what they really mean is that they expect to be lauded no matter what they say. What else could they possibly intend?

    I do respect that Ricky is your friend and I hope you can help push him towards making amends for this, and perhaps to guide his material away from the constant use of ironic discrimination. To paraphrase Stewart Lee, if Jim Davidson can steal your material, maybe its time to start thinking of some new stuff.

  27. Mat Baker says:

    A good effort at deconstruction.

    I like Ricky Gervais, but I am not sure how ignorance can be offered as a defence, simply because so many people were trying to tell him why he was wrong. Arrogance is to blame here, and I really hope he realises what an absolute twat he has been.

    His humour has always walked a fine line, and that it is a big reason I am a fan of his work. He has exercised poor judgement here though, and he needs to rectify matters, or this pseudo-apology by proxy is meaningless.

    I am not offended by the word mong, by the way, but it didn’t take me long to realise this week that a lot of people have very sound reasons for hating it. It is a real pity that it took so long for the penny to drop.

  28. Melanie says:

    How hard is it to change stances towards bullying, when we have a house of commons that thinks a jeering, baying mob is the correct way to debate matters? Robin, you are absolutely right that we tend to forget how bad it can be to have people make cruel assumptions about you, and act on them. Or we don’t all experience as much as some what it is like to have someone pick on you, or do you down, out of fear or insecurity. But we don’t lead by example. I get bullied a lot. I think, though, that I bully too, sometimes.

  29. Jonny Boy says:

    Great article Rob.

    I must say that my greatest annoyance with Ricky Gervais’ tweets was his unwillingness to accept that the word still holds power and can still cause offence or to put it in my own view, his unwillingness to own the word.

    I often hear people use the word ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ in a context that is meant in no harm to homosexual individuals, but just because the word is used without ill will does not mean that the word does not still hold the power to offend.

    I’m glad you were able to express this more eloquently than I could ever have.

  30. John says:

    Hi Robin,
    I have been following the debate on twitter and have been driven to blog, even mentioning Derrida (something that I don’t normally do).

    The difficulty is that language is inexact, what happens in the darkness of someone else’s head is exposed and mutated in the light until it reaches the darkness of the other persons head, where nuance and meaning has been changed. A word that has no intention of carrying offence causes offence. The meaning has been transmitted but not received. http://www.jdoubler.co.uk/blog.php?url=2011/10/words.html

  31. Mark T says:


    What a reasonable and insightful assessment of a thorny topic. Fucking awesome, is what I’m actually thinking, albeit several beers into a Friday night.

    Cheers, Mark

  32. Ana says:

    But he also seemed to believe that *his* intent in using the word is all that should matter: that is, not the history of language, not the lived reality of disabled people, not the possibility that some of his fans aren’t actually informed–to put it diplomatically–enough to get certain ironies or the complexity of the issue. Personally, I was not *offended* by his use of the term; I just found the faces (etc.) accompanying it both unfunny and likely to give rise to precisely the sort of misunderstanding that ensued. What did, however, rub me the wrong way was his seeming refusal to get the nuanced points others were making (or as nuanced as one can be in 140 characters) and going so far as to call people who disagreed with him both humorless & ill informed. The tone as well as the logic of his self-defense (e.g., the false analogy of comparing how “gay” has changed meaning to how “mong” has) was simply off–and off-putting.

  33. Luther Gravy says:

    I think this is an excellent and well considered blog. In my mind, Mr Gervais’ error here has been his response to criticism, more than the original use of the word. If he genuinely felt he was just using a generic word for idiot, then that’s one thing (and clearly lots of people agree with him). But when people who have spent their lives on the receiving end of that taunt tell you otherwise, shouldn’t you just defer to their real-life experience of the issue, say: “Oh right, I didn’t realise it still had that meaning… sorry,” and use another word? Why would you think you know better than them and respond: “The meaning of the word has changed and therefore you are wrong to take offence”? That just strikes me as appalling arrogance. As an able bodied man living (I assume) a relatively comfortable existence, what makes him so sure he knows better than, say, the parents of a child with downs syndrome? Ricky Gervais’ intentions may not have been to insult, but his reaction to being taken to task has lacked any grace or humility in my view. And that makes him come across like a bit of a bully, to be honest…

  34. @TRushbyS says:

    Excellent analysis, Robin. Apologies as I am probably about to make the same points in a more clumsy fashion.
    On the freedom of speech angle, it is unfortunate when people take the view that to say anything is freedom of speech, but to challenge someone else’s words is self-promotion or jealousy.

    I must confess that when watching the excellent Holy Flying Circus on BBC4 I felt that some would draw a parallel between the two controversies. But the furore around the Python’s film was a different issue. Firstly, the criticism came largely from people who had never seen the film in question, and secondly, the satire was really aimed (very accurately) at an institution of tremendous wealth and power.

    It was unlikely that arch-bishops were going to be pelted with refuse while adolescent children screamed “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

    What I hope Ricky Gervais has learned from this is not only that words like Mong will only become archaic when the bullying often associated with their use becomes so.

    But hopefully he will also begin top realise that ‘ironic’ comedy needs to be even more carefully considered than any other. If the target is not meticulously identified, then it will merely be used as ammunition by bigots. Would that Walliams and Lucas understood this too.

  35. Neil says:

    Come off it, Robin: “a cheeky shock comic who occasionally provokes the reaction of “ooh, should he say that?” – his whole public persona is based on the ‘naughty’ assholery of the sneering playground bully. He indulges and excuses bigotry in a fair few of his fans, then intermittently feigns innocence to maintain employability.




    • robinince says:

      you know I am not a fan of dull ironic shock comedy. that’s why i said, sometimes you have to ask why you want to say those things. if it’s shock alone, how very dull

  36. LT says:

    And when he presented at the Nine Carols for Godless people – when he was supposed to be talking on science, but ‘joked’ about a girl being abused by a stranger and then by her dad, and about raping an old woman and killing her…? RG is an ignorant man and it is about time he was brought to task for his comments.

  37. What a wonderful blog-post… In Denmark, where i live, we use the word “mong” or the danish word “mongol” as a slang word for someone, who is stupid, or acting stupid.

    When speaking of people suffering from Downs Syndrome another word is used.

    But seriously, i thought this was a wonderful, insightful blogpost.


  38. Paula says:

    An insightful musing on the debacle.

    I would be quite prepared to believe that Ricky Gervais’ unfortunate faux pas was just that. Resulting from ignorance of the scale of disability discrimination and bullying rather than being intentionally offensive to disabled people. This is based on (my awareness of) his track record. I have always been impressed with his “in-your-face” attitude to disability. He has frequently made a mockery of disability discrimination by being unafraid to make an ass of himself to make the point that first and foremost a disabled person is a *person* and that the one doing the mocking is the idiot. I can think of an instance where he drew parallels with racism – a form of discrimination far more obvious and more abhorred. He has been unafraid to work alongside disabled actors and writers because the quality of their work not because of their quota-box-ticking abilities.

    Unfortunately in this his was too slow to realise the (lets call it a) mistake and too quick to defend himself and in this I agree with you he was an idiot. But in this world of instant communication, it is far too easy for a shouty person to yell back equally abhorrent obscenities. Wishing him to die horribly – ridiculous, unpleasant and unnecessary; wishing he’d learn from the error, put up his hands and say “i was wrong” – reasonable.

    I have a disability (something worth mentioning at the end not the beginning as no doubt many people would ignore every word after that statement) and luckily my experiences with bullying in respect to disability are rare – but then again I have a professional, well-respected job and you’re unlikely to think I have that because of a sympathy vote. However, out of work it is far more likely that I will be treated negatively because there are no cues to prove that actually I’m not an idiot. The default position appears to be – moron until proven otherwise.

    The debate needs to be had and people need to look at the situation with open and honest eyes.

  39. James Flory says:

    Using language that may be considered offensive is one thing, but personally, I found Ricky Gervais’ reaction to criticism the most offensive. Rather than taking a considered approach and taking into account the fact that the people complaining were not the same folk who complain about everything he says, he immediately went on the offensive. He was dismissive and flippant, like an adolescent boy. Or worse, he could be described as having reacted like the kind of person so locked into their point of view and their beliefs they cannot hear anything else: a fundamental religious person, inflexible and deaf to all other points of view.
    I was glad to read that privately, his reaction was different, and he may have felt some remorse. Though usually people do this the other way around. You show your remorse publicly so that privately you can say whatever you want.

    • robinince says:

      i think one of his biggest mistake was to be be pig-headed and just react to criticism as if he must be right and everyone else was wrong even if their motivation for picking him up was clearly well-founded

      • James Flory says:

        Well, thanks for writing this. I am amazed at how personal and how visceral my own reaction was to all this. I am a fan of both Ricky Gervais and Richard Herring, so the whole thing was very troubling to me. They both seemed to react like angry peacocks, feathers erect and dancing around ridiculously. Your mediation has taken quite a lot of the sting out of it. So, thanks.

  40. JT says:

    I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
    From personal experience I know he is a very nice person, who, at the height of his fame from The Office, stopped to help my wife when no-one else did.
    However, I made the mistake of reading his twitter timeline and noticed that only yesterday he coined the word “twongol”, then today said to Nicky “it seems even a brand new made up word with no history can cause offence.”
    He also said “Never dreamed that idiots still use that word aimed at people with Down’s Syndrome. Still find it hard to believe”, if so, why has he continued to use it for so long after he was told it was offensive.

  41. psychokosmic says:

    The irony here is that you refer to Ricky Gervais as a “twat”. Surely that word means female genitalia. Are you not in exactly the same position, in that you believe that the word has changed to mean ” an uncouth person”.

  42. You ARE a patsy, correct, and as a result the article was ruined. Only joking…kind of. There’s no way on fucking earth Gervais didn’t know how much ambiguity if not toxicity this word carries. Like “retard” it’s a word that was once used by bullies and thickheads to mock the mentally and even physically disabled, along with “spaz”, “flid” and “spacker”, among others. I never used to use those words, but after working with someone who used “retard” a lot, I began using it myself. After frequenting an online message board where “mong” was common, I also began writing it in my posts to mock other boardees. I knew it was wrong. Eventually I pretty much stopped. I say “pretty much” because I still have the occasional slip.
    I live in the USA, where “mong” isn’t properly recognised, and “spaz” means “someone who is overly organized”. It’s a different culture, and after the best part of 20 years here I sometimes feel disconnected from the British way of relating to words. For instance, the notion that a black person could be offended by someone affecting a Jamaican accent in front of them, seems a little odd, but when I snap back into English mode it makes sense again. How long has Gervais been in the US, about five minutes by my watch…
    At our holiday party last year, I told a Gervais joke in front of a couple hundred people. It was the one where the little girl tells her father that a man interfered with her at a local park, but stopped short of the act itself, and Gervais, playing the father, insists, “Well for fuck’s sake, make something up!” It is a funny joke. I was advised not to tell it, but I was drunk, so I did. There’s an ambiguity there though, and that’s nature’s way of telling you it isn’t funny. Anyone who likes attention and telling jokes and being a general jack-the-lad knows this, including Ricky Gervais.

  43. Michael Collins says:

    I’m not a blogger, and I don’t read blogs at all, but I read this after it was promoted on Ricky’s Twitter. I’m sure he’s greatful for your diplomatic analysis. It’s very well-versed. I guess everybody needs someone they can rely upon to tell them when they’re being a twat. That said, for someone who is a twat as much as Ricky can be, I imagine it might be hard for someone to make him see what’s in the mirror when he needs to the most, but as ignorant as Ricky may have been, I believe him when he said that his intentions were good.

    Perhaps it’s easy for me to say that, as I listen to all the podcasts that Ricky, Steve and Karl have created to date on repeat, so in a way they feel like family or close friends who always keep me smiling. Now I’m sure I’ve heard Ricky come out with similar, if not worse words or taboo references before now, even on his live shows, so I’ve come to expect him occasionally touching on sensitive issues, and the reason it’s funny is obviously because he’s being blaitantly direct and blunt and seemingly callous, but we know this isn’t the real Ricky. This is why I’m shocked that people have insinuated that he’s out to intentionally upset disabled people. We’re talking about a man who… well, I haven’t done the research but I imagine has given thousands to charities, if not more and works with people of different race, colour, religion, disability (pffff, same difference haha)… and Karl 🙂

    I’m massively confident when I say that I in no way believe that Ricky has done all this to buy some sort of immunity when using offensive slang words like ‘mong’. He’s not the first comedian to suffer this crap, and he wont be the last. He’s just had his turn. Maybe he should go on Jonathan Ross’s new show to smooth things over… (ooooh, imagine that, ha!).

    Bit annoyin that other celebrities use these instances to hog a bit of the spotlight and gain kudos (I am in no way referring to you, more that Herring lad and Shaun Lock, which was a bit disappointing), as they’re just recycling the same crap that every other buggar has already said, but from the safety of their iphones/pads. Brilliant. No, of course they won’t contact him personally with their critisisms, as not only do they lack the balls from probably feeling intimidated by him and his success (he is pretty sharp, for a Southerner – ooh, is that PC?), but they’d also gain nothing from it. Leeches!

    In hindsight, he should have claimed he was just talking about the bird… it worked for cock and cob (actually, no it didn’t, and although ‘mong’ isn’t the sinular term for mongoose, Karl thought it was, so they could have just pinned it on him, as he’d have got away with it because he has an innocence about him).

    • robinince says:

      to be fair to Richard Herring, this is not a bandwagon he’s jumped on, it is an issue he has spoken on before and something he feels strongly about. Herring did tweet Ricky and when Ricky RTed his followers sent hundreds of abusive tweets to Herring. when you are a world famous comedian you have to be aware that you may have some thuggish followers to do your bidding.

  44. Jo says:

    Fantastic blog post. Well-reasoned and eloquently put. There seems to be a growing tendency amongst some comedians and panel shows to say things that would never have been acceptable a few years ago. I find myself less and less comfortable with some of the jokes and language used. Often, although perhaps not always, these jokes seem to be made with nothing more sinister behind them than the opportunity to get a cheap laugh. We do need to be a bit careful though sometimes. A careless attitude and lack of empathy can make more sinister motives and attitudes appear less unacceptable over time. I’m not sure many people want to see a return to The Comedians through the back door. A horrifying prospect on many levels.

  45. Roderick S says:

    Even if the word mong is still used as a derogatory term for those with Downs Syndrome, avoiding using the word only heightens its potency. It’s not the words themselves that matter, it’s HOW they are used, and Ricky Gervais has never used this word with malicious intent.

    • robinince says:

      Lenny Bruce famously performed a routine about defusing words. I am not sure this occasion is quite the same thing

      • Philippa Goodwin says:

        Extrapolating on Rods point, it’s the same scenario with any slur where the cloud that hangs over the issue creates more of a problem than the issue itself. If we start vilifying such a word, there’s plenty of other words I can think of that should get the same treatment. If that was the case, there’s not much space for comedians to work with unless they all want to be Lee Evans. Until this whole fiasco, I hadn’t heard the slur since college and that was well over 10 years ago.

      • robinince says:

        use the words you want, but be aware of their meaning and how they are used. know they have ramifications. it seems to me to be better to upset and outrage with a purpose. This is not a great example of debating free speech because its little more than graffiti.

      • Roderick S says:

        I know you’re well intentioned on this but I’m afraid you’re really missing the point sadly. By continuing to add air to this storm in a teacup all you’re doing is allowing these taboo words to remain taboo. “know [words] have ramifications” you say, yet it’s people like your good self who maintain those ramifications.

    • Kim Ronketty says:

      I completely agree with this viewpoint. None of us know Ricky. But most think they do just because of his public persona, including his blogs and tweets. But just from an outsider’s perspective , it appears to me that Ricky’s schtick is to communicate without the “Oh no, what would other’s think?” filter most people have. Which is why is work is so hilarious! And why he may not want to back down from his innocent USE of a word. To back down or apologize may seem like an admission of guilt. And my opinion is that he meant nothing by it and doesn’t feel he should have to explain himself. He may want to reconsider the Tweet world though, if he wants some semblance of peace back.

    • robinince says:

      i think he did use it with the intention to wind people up, I don’t think he realised just how big the issue is and how much vicious bullying of the disabled there is

  46. Niki S says:

    So if it was a genuine error, from a position of ignorance and a belief that the term was archaic as an insult, will he be apologising? Having stirred up his legion of followers into tossing the word ‘mong’ at everyone who objected, and having caused real anguish to families of kids with disabilities (I am one of them) as they’ve watched laughing at the disabled be legitimised by a massively popular international star, will he now take a little time to repair the damage he’s done? Because, if not, then I’m not buying his excuses.

    He didn’t realise? Fine, then say so. And say sorry.

    Yeah. I didn’t think so.

  47. Dan says:

    Hi Robin,

    Really good article. I presume you’ve seen Stewart Lee talking about the massive benefits of political correctness and what it’s achieved and how it’s benefitted masses of people. Yes, it can be occasionally irritating, but it’s definitely a good thing. Before this all blew up, I was a huge Ricky Gervais fan. I loved most of what he’s done and he’s got a great body of work behind him. Having observed the way this row has unfolded recently, I have to say I’ve found RGs attitude pretty unpleasant, very arrogant with a real disregard for the very real trauma that alot of disabled people may go through. Was RG really that naive to think that his words would not be hurtful to so many? His initial response was disgusting. He has since been more contrite, but I don’t feel the same about him or his comedy now. I recall him saying that comedy is fine if it comes from a good place. I’m not sure his stuff on ‘mongs

  48. Dan says:

    Post cut short by accidentally pressing done. Was going to say that his stuff on ‘mongs’ was very ill thought out. In the clip from ‘Science’ where he talks about the word ‘mong’ , RG seems a little angry to me, like he’s imagining his critics getting riled and thus is being deliberately provocative. That, to me, seems selfish and arrogant. I was really moved listening to NC’s interview on Jeremy Vine, and felt anger towards RG for his thoughtless attitude and approach to the subject. I’m glad he contacted NC and I really hope he feels some sense of remorse. From a personal point of view, I’m not so sure I’ll find the guy so funny anymore.

  49. Matt Tom @matttom says:

    We are under no duty to use words wisely, elegantly or even advisedly. We act in bad faith by curtailing our expression for anything other than an adequate judgment of the likely consequences. I can say “mong”, but I should expect to be shouted at from all over the world if I say it on Twitter. And/or punched in the face, but it’s up to me to risk it.

  50. Hi Robin,

    What a great article. It’s helpful to know that Ricky Gervais genuinely didn’t understand why people took offense, and that he has listened to the voices to explain it. As someone who works with people with learning disabilities, I know how hurtful these words can be. And how they can lead to people being hurt.

    Thanks for saying this.

  51. Matt Tom @matttom says:

    PS I completely agree with the others complimenting you on this fine article.

  52. Robin, you do realise many women find the word “twat” offensive? Just sayin’

  53. Justin says:

    Great blog article.

    Whilst I agree with your points, it does somewhat irk the way language useage now evolves to pander to the most commonly offended rather than the accurate.

    Pakis is short for Pakistanis and Niggers is short for Negros. But nowadays these terms are unacceptable whilst we still have no issue calling rugby ‘rugger’ or Association football ‘soccer’.

    Poshness aside, I don’t know why but for some reason shortening an ethnic group’s name tends to become unacceptable. Perhaps it’s because the shortenned versions get hurled as abuse more readily.

    Kyke, comes from ‘cykler’ the Yiddish term for circle, which some illiterate Jewish immigrants to Staton Island preferred to sign forms with instead of a cross – Yid of course comes from Yiddish.

    Paris is no longer the gay Paris of old, but am not sure I can say that with gay abandonment.

    IMHO ‘mong’ is regardedd by the vast majority as having no association with downsyndrome.
    Similarly, technically, ‘morons’ and ‘idiot’ are specific classes of intelligence used when the IQ test was introduced.

    So, whilst I think I agree with Bertrand Russell’s quote, “the idiots are cocksure, the intelligent are full of doubt”…that is I’m almost relatively certain I do. No, definitely…yes..

    …nevertheless it’s too bad when many people don’t take the time to learn the etymology of words because we just don’t have the ents anymore izzit.

    • robinince says:

      a word like ‘Paki’ stopped being an abbreviation for Pakistani once racists daubed it on walls and used it to refer to pretty much anyone who was Asian.In Australia the word did not get used in the same vicious way so is not deemed particularly offensive (the same is true of the word wog – there was even a film called Wog Boy) .

  54. Jo says:

    Sorry, just a quick follow up. I suppose my problem with the use of words like “mong” is that whilst the person using this language may not themselves mean it as an insult to disabled people, it is still being used as a derogatory term by them. This can inadvertently appear to lend credence, acceptability and support to those who do still use or think of it in that wholly unacceptable and bullying way, as well as causing offence to those who have had and may continue to have it used against them in that context. I’m not saying you should never use derogatory terms at all, but if you use one that has been used as a discriminatory term at some point and you yourself do not want to be regarded as someone using it in that context then you’d better make sure you are educated about its current meaning and damned clear about the context in which you are using it. If you get it wrong, then apologise – and I don’t mean an apology in private to your friends who may point out your error. I mean an apology to those you have offended. If that means a public apology, then so be it.

  55. Just Rachel says:

    Interesting read; agree wholeheartedly about how wonderful our language is, the potential it holds because of the vast range of words and meanings at our disposal. We are indeed more fortunate than we realise, to have freedom of speech, what we say can be either crafted or just thrown thoughtlessly, but we must take responsibility for what comes out of our mouths, pens, phones etc. We cannot possibly cover all bases when it comes to predicting how our utterances will be received and understood, as this is affected by any number of physiological, social, experiential and mental factors but we can weigh it up on balance and make a judgement call, particularly if one’s material is scripted! This is where I feel RG got it wrong and unfortunately don’t buy that nonsense about the word changing meaning as a more than considerable number of his ‘supporters’ illustrated very ‘eloquently’. I believe he should hold his hands up to making a poor call; we all do it, just perhaps not so publicly. It is simply the difference now between being a little man or a big man.
    One last thing on controversial subject matter and judgement calls. If, after serious consideration and reflection, you consider that what you have to say is REALLY worth saying, despite the fact that some people may not get it at all, some may get it at a basic level, some may be offended by it and some may even totally misinterpret it and think you are ‘one of them’ (ref: RG’s idiots army) as long as you believe you are justified and that enough people will truly understand the what, why and how, then go ahead, if not go back to the drawing board. Controversy for the sake of controversy is just empty noise! For masterclasses on how to get it right Mr Gervais, see… Paul Abbott and Chris Morris. Geniuses!
    Apologies for any typos, lack of paragraphing and ill-constructed sentences; I couldn’t proof read as it wouldn’t scroll back up. Thanks

  56. Fiona says:

    Sadly, if your (very well intentioned and noble) defence really is to be believed Robin, I think it does begin to call into question the justification behind RG’s disability related humour generally; i.e. the assumption that we’re now all in an advanced enough place that we as an audience are capable of laughing along ironically, at our own discomfort, rather than at disability sufferers themselves.

    But if he needs to have this derogatory, bullying current usage of a disability slur spelled out to him at such length, is he really equipped to accurately gauge the wider social context into which his other material is being received, or why many of his fans are actually laughing? From what I’ve witnessed this week, too many of his supporters seem to have interpreted his stance as a cue and a welcome licence to act with open malice and cruelty, in the name of cheap amusement. It’s a pretty disappointing and disturbing response, and yet one which he doesn’t appear to be sufficiently concerned by to address for the time being. Maybe the siege mentality took over temporarily, I don’t know.

    For what little it’s worth, despite his semi-apology, I am not sure that I would really trust him to handle this type of material again any time soon, or even that he is sufficiently aware of his own motives in being so drawn to it time and time again. But I hope I’m proved wrong and your more generous assessment of the situation does not turn out to have been misplaced.

  57. for a moment I thought you said you ‘may be a pasty’. which would have been a very odd way to round off such an intelligent piece…

  58. Tell me robin why did you delete my post, love you as a stand up mate, but because my reply was not to your friends liking you’ve deleted it, very disappointed in you .

  59. Carol says:

    Wonderful blog. I read it thanks to Ricky Gervais’ tweet.

    I am an American who heard the word “Mong” for the first time in my life when Gervais said, “Susan Boyle looks like a Mong” in the midst of a series of jokes about her appearance. This is not a word that exists in any usage at all in the US. I had to look it up.

    I’ve had two issues with the use of the word. The first issue was entirely in relation to it being applied to Susan Boyle. This is a woman who has clearly stated repeatedly that the psychological scars of bullying are deep on her. She’s been tormented by such namecalling, according to her own statements, and told Piers Morgan that the most hurtful comment against her was when someone called her “a retard.”

    Second, I question the idea that because the word’s original usage has changed (allegedly), it is alright to use it. If the word has come to mean “idiot,” I ask you why the word “Mong” came to mean “idiot.” Could it be that the population decided that those with intellectual disabilities were idiots and therefore the word used to “describe” them was expanded to cover the entire population? This is similar to a campaign now in the US calling on teens to stop saying “stupid things” are “gay.”

    I also wonder if Gervais really meant to say – “Susan Boyle looks like an idiot” when he said she looked like a Mong. I don’t think so.

    I would say that, it’s no secret that the US has a heck of a lot of problems, but I was immensely proud to find that not one person around me knew what that word meant – and the one tv personality who used the term “a retard” years ago, was immediately fired with no discussion.

    Regardless, if this firestorm has led to understanding, that is a very positive development. And once again, thanks for the blog.

  60. Paul says:

    Great article Robin! I think you hit the nail on the head. A combination of his over-confidence in his own knowledge and an inability to apologize (esp when he considers there was no intent to hurt) seems to be the biggest contributing factors to the drama.

    There is one small aspect of the article I would like to question. You say (roughly in the middle of the article) “(It is important to remember that you should never follow an atheist unquestioningly)”. I agree with this statement and it is no secret Ricky is an atheist, but this statement seems out of place in this article. The article has no relation to atheism, god or religion (that I can see) and you could just have well said “It is important to remember that you should never follow a fat, pug-nosed celebrity unquestioningly” or “It is important to remember that you should never follow anyone unquestioningly”. Either one of these would also be true.

    I know some of Ricky’s supporters follow and defend him unquestioningly, almost as if he is the leader of a cult religion, and maybe that is your reason for this statement, but all celebrities attract fans who can see no wrong in them. Your statement suggests to me that you think it is his atheism that attracts such people. Am I misreading this? Is there some other significance to this statement I am missing?

    • robinince says:

      i think i just felt it ironic that a man who is very open and pugnacious in his atheism has some followers who think “the leader has spoken, we must obey”

      • LSOE says:

        The word “mong” certainly wouldn’t go down well with many religious types like the hated (by trendy Lefties anyway) Melanie Phillips (for example). I’ve long been a BIG Gervais fan and because of my “massive intelligence” I’m unsure what exactly I think about this business. I am interested in Ricky’s closeness with people he loves to bully. Karl “You Idiot” Pilkington seems to be his best friend now. You seemed to have an equality strange relationship with Ricky. I think he’s what they used to call a suitable case for treatment. Have you any thoughts you are prepared to reveal on this personality trait?

  61. Very good piece Robin, and interesting to have some insight from someone with personal knowledge of the central protagonists.

    One of the things I always quite like(d) about Ricky was/is that we never really ‘knew’ the extent to which he was a bit of a boorish twit. I have to say, I always thought he was not – but a slight suspicion always remained. The debacle that played out this week was unpleasant and as you allude to, the absolute certainty with which Ricky Tweeted was rather discomforting and arrogant – he seems to suffer from certainty.

    His Tweets with accompanying “mong” face and the assertion that the term is now not offensive rests on the assumption that “mong” has a different meaning now and that words and their meanings change” Has the meaning of “mong” already changed? His use of it of late doesn’t seem to have shifted its meaning. It’s totally reliant on the old “traditional” understanding of the term. I haven’t seen this transformation taking place and I cannot see how his approach helps said process along. It doesn’t mean something else simply because he says so, and as you also point out, judging by the responses of some of his Twitter followers, they’ve not read the memo, they’re just using it in the old way, as they would, cos it’s the same way he’s using it. At this stage – earlier in the week – I was getting frustrated with him, all he really needed to do was to clarify his position. I was then pleased and expectant yesterday [Thurs] when I heard that he had indeed decided to clarify. However his clarification was inadequate. He still relied on the “meanings change and now it simply means fool or idiot…it’s even in the urban dictionary” “Words change” is self evident, over time, with effort, and in many different ways, with a variety of different interest(ed) groups reframing terms & perhaps attempting to claim them. I still couldn’t see how his specific use of the term had changed its meaning in the slightest. The term “mong” with accompanying “Mong” face has not been subject to the same sort of linguistic and social rearticulation as for instance “queer”; People with a disability are still massively under-represented; Not many people take up the cause; If he is, as he claims, trying to re-imagine it and render it different he’s not really doing a good job by pulling “mong” faces. He’s in danger of becoming a sort of Al Murray figure whose audience flock to his shows now to hear the “unsayable” and to lap up the “Little Englander” mentality that was originally being satirised. OK, so he’s not necessarily responsible for his “army” of apostle like Twitter followers – nor is he responsible for his audience – who are now embarking on a mission to shout down opponents by calling them “mongs” …but it would’ve helped no end had he he clarified his position earlier….and, tragically, when he did seek to clarify, it turns out that he was incapable of admitting that he might have been in the wrong/misguided.

    Anyway, good piece Robin – a measured and thoughtful response.

  62. Gemma says:

    Well exactly – the faces he pulled showed he was aware of the ‘old’ (I think it is still the current meaning) meaning and was using it in the old way, if you get what I mean!

  63. Kenny powers. says:

    Very well put mr ince. This is the age of the internet and documented opinion. Had he said it on a podcast nobody would have cared at all. Because it went down in writing people assume the use of the word was contrived and it seems to have had more of an effect.

    That for me is the only interesting bit about this entire situation. He used the mong,which is different to the f word or any other swear word as it has a history,some folk got offended and an apology to parents of disabled kids was the right thing to do.

    The world turns.

  64. Karl Drobnic says:

    I don’t understand why serious comics even bother with “edgy” and “shock” comedy. I once heard Buddy Hackett say that he worked on a joke for a year or more before he put it in his act, and that he therefore wanted it to be timeless. He was a wordsmith, refining his jokes right down to exactly the right consonant to get the timing and facial expressions. If you listen to his jokes or Abbot and Costello, many of their jokes are still hilarious these decades later, whereas shock comedy, or comedy of attitude, doesn’t survive a year. I am very suspicious of the reasons people laugh at shock comedy. Johnathon Swift is still funny today because his works are excellently crafted, not because of the shock element of eating the children of Ireland. More craft would do the world of comedy a world of good.

  65. Barry Hercules says:

    “the general feeling was that Hollywood had gone to his head and anyone who disagreed with him was a ‘hater’ who must be crushed.”

    I think that feeling has more to do with this than people are letting on. Usually when twitter is ‘outraged’ it’s because twitter already didn’t like you and has found a legitimate excuse to unload (see also Matthew Wright, The News of the World, China). The feeling that Gervais has lost sight of himself has been around for a while now. He’s certainly regarded with a distaste usually reserved for Ben Elton in my house.

  66. Karl Johnson says:

    Disability-related pressure groups pressuring Ricky Gervais to stop using the word mong because they think he means to insult people with Down Syndrome, is like Danish pressure groups pressuring to stop printing Shakespeare, because they think he says Denmark is smelly.

    Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, was not intended to mean that Denmark is a stinky place. Ricky Gervais using the word mong was not intended in any way to insult people with Down Syndrome.

    People who hear mong and immediately think Down Syndrome are part biggot themselves. People that still want to be angry after it was explained that the word was not used in the way they thought it was, are just looking around, wanting, hoping, whishing to be insulted, so they can get nice and riled up, band together and pitchfork their newfound common enemy out of town.
    Well, at least it creates a form of community-bonding. Too bad it’s to extinguish any form of thought of speech that doesn’t completely agree with their own.

    • robinince says:

      quite the opposite of extinguishing any thought in speech. This whole debate has been about has been about understanding meaning and many possible definitions of words. if you actually read the blog you might understand it has nothing to with censorship, it is about the use of language and knowing its power.

  67. Kelly says:

    God, after all that, I’m traumatised. However, Macacques can swim underwater. Can bigots?

  68. The best thing about this post is that you were able to take a friend to task over a way in which you felt he was causing people hurt. That is very delicate, and kudos for doing it so well!

    I will point out one little thing that caught my eye: You wrote, “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.” Do you see how, in framing your audience thusly, you’re putting women, non-white people, and GBLT into the “other” category? It must be a bit lonely there in the ever-shrinking land of We. I say this with love. Many of my best friends are cocks. (What? It’s short for “Caucasians.”)

    Thank you for representing intelligence in comedy, sir!

    • robinince says:

      I chose the three most well-known groups who may have been oppressed. there are women who do not believe women suffer any oppression and feminism was a waste of time, racism is not just a white to black thing etc You don’t have to be straight white male to be in the group ‘we’

  69. Ade says:

    Sorry, but this isn’t a new issue with Mr Gervais and it doesn’t begin with Twitter. There was a furore about him using the term ‘mong’ in reference to Susan Boyle back in 2010, over a year before the lastest incidents. Given that a member of the Down’s Syndrome Association contacted him about it to complain back then, how can he possibly continue to pretend it was okay?

    Report: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/showbiz/celebrity-news/2010/05/23/ricky-gervais-sparks-outrage-after-down-s-insult-aimed-at-susan-boyle-86908-22279218/

  70. David Mills says:


    A very interesting post.

    I hate to say it, because I find Ricky’s ‘offensive persona’ very funny, but I think he’s being disingenuous here.

    He is a skilled user of language and social mores, and he knows within two decimal places what words mean when he uses them.

    People with learning difficulties are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They deserve more compassion from people like Ricky Gervais.

    As so often, Stewart Lee gets it right –
    “‘Mock the strong!’, that’s what I say. Have a bit of ambition. It’s what raises us above dogs.”

    I’d be very interested in hearing what Stewart Lee thinks on this – I have a feeling he wouldn’t give Ricky as much of the benefit of the doubt as you have

    Best wishes

  71. (only just now hearing about this whole kerfuffle)

    Thank you for this post. It touches on so many things that people forget. The most important being that people on all sides of this are just human beings and generally aren’t the pieces of crap that they can be generally painted as in a mob mentality.

    I think the other big point that I appreciate and spend a lot of time examining myself is the idea of privilege in this. A great deal of the ignorance borne from all of this is simply a product of that privilege. If people aren’t in situations where they are affected by something they generally don’t see its effect.

    I’ve spent the last four years teaching some pretty severely disabled kids in a special needs school. I spend a lot of time bringing these children out into the community and I have really been shocked at how people can react to them. But then I remember that most of the people in this world simply aren’t that familiar with this other world that exists next to it. They get glimpses of it but are never in a place where the issues that face people with disabilities affect them very much. I love Nicky Clark and applaud her calling all of that to the carpet.

    I guess for me, the litmus test happens when one is confronted with the effects of their privilege. How they react to that is very telling. Hopefully Ricky Gervaise will gain some understanding. From what you’ve written about your conversations, I have hope for him. Either way, thanks for pointing it out.

  72. Can someone explain to me what is wrong with a Down’s Syndrome human being? Nice article Robin.

  73. Interesting discussion resulting from a thoughtful piece of writing. This was my first visit to your site, but no doubt I will return again.

    Brainie from Stubblejumpers Cafe

  74. “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.”—————I wondered the same thing when a middle-aged man I was talking to kept insisting on his right to call his dog a “black n****” because he had freedom of speech and he wasn’t trying to harass a black person. I was appalled. Why would anyone want to use a word that was created to inflict pain and shame on a person?? Just because we have the right to freedom of speech doesn’t mean we should use words that are atrocious.

  75. Pingback: Law and Media Round Up – 24 October 2011 « Inforrm's Blog

  76. Rob B says:

    Robin Ince wrote, “He really believed mong was just a playground taunt, he didn’t know that sadly something he, and hopefully most of us, would consider archaic, was still in hurtful use.”

    RG “You can’t say mong! You can, even mongs can say it, it’s one of the easiest words to say.”
    then does his impression.

    Uploaded by RG on 21st December 2010.

  77. David says:

    Sorry if I end up echoing any of the previous comments, but this whole thing made me think about the fluid nature of language. Apologies in advance if any of the words I use here offend, but hopefully it’s clear from the context I’m not intending to do so.

    I do quite a bit of work with schoolkids, and I’ve noticed that “spaz” is very popular again. But when I speak to them about it, they don’t know where the word comes from. it’s just a general word for someone who is a bit stupid. The whole concept of spasticity has passed them by.

    This reminded me of “flid”. When I was at school (in the 80s), it was also a common term to use for someone who was behaving stupidly. Yet I didn’t know until my 20s that it derived from an offensive term for thalidomide victims. Obviously I wasn’t still using the word, I dropped it by the age of 10. But I was mortified when I first found out.

    The words “moron” and “cretin” are freely used now (I’d bet good money someone has applied them to Ricky Gervais in this debate), yet moron technically refers to a specific level of mental retardation, and cretinism is a word for hyperthryodism. So they are both words that are derogatory about people with disabilities, yet have entered common use with a different meaning. We could throw “lunatic” in there too.

    When talking to a friend about this, I learned an even better example. “Nitty-gritty”.
    This friend was on “diversity training”, and was told the phrase “let’s get down to the nitty gritty” shouldn’t be used, because it was originally a phrase white slaveowners used, to describe having sex with their black slaves. When I looked into this, there’s some doubt over that, and it may also have meant the debris from the holds of slave ships (including dead slaves).

    Now, whether that’s true or not, what worries me there is the effort required to restore the offence to a word or phrase that has lost any sense of such atrocities. Language evolves, and words change meaning. It’s fluid, not fixed. that’s the beauty of the spoken word.

    So words like “mong” will probably remain in use, but hopefully will lose their power to shock as the original usage slips from the public consciousness. Obviously this issue has shown that we’re not there yet. But it strikes me that continued use robs words of their power to shock and offend. In the same way swear words are devalued, so it goes for this sort of terminology.

    I hope that’s not too vaguely expressed. Apologies if I missed any typos too.

  78. Hi. I’m disabled, physically disabled, and my dog does therapy work with people who are very severely handicapped, physically and often mentally. I’m just glad to know that there are able-bodied people out there who are prepared to get offended on the behalf of disabled people because, well, we’re all like hopeless children, really.

    I personally refer to myself as a cripple. It does make people uncomfortable, I guess. I think they’re worried if they use the word that they might catch it. I think they’d prefer I used some sort of flowery euphemism. It would make them feel much more comfortable…I guess I’m insensitive. I mostly hear the word ‘mong’ used by, well, by people who call themselves mongs, or spazzes, or even mindas (which is a South Australian term), in a self-deprecating gallows-y sort of way. I know, it’s odd, isn’t it, to think that a disabled person could have a sense of humour…

    But thanks again. To be honest, the places I visit with my dog don’t get a lot of visitors, and they’re poorly funded, and a lot of the people who get stuck in those sorts of homes were from fairly poor backgrounds to start with, so nobody much cares about them. It’s great to see that there are people out there, able-bodied and well-educated, ready to help out the disabled by calling other people bigots for using words they don’t like (all in the name of tolerance, of course).

    I think we can all agree that Ricky Gervais presented a real and genuine threat to disabled people everywhere, and that his use of ‘that word’ could have had all sorts of ramifications and caused untold psychic damage if you hadn’t put on your little moral entrepreneur hats and gotten to work. Because being called a silly name is the absolute worst thing that can happen to someone with a disability. You can’t imagine how much of a difference your efforts have made.

    • robinince says:

      hey Chris, as you are so pleased with your work you have sent it at least twice, I better approve it. it must be the best thing you’ve done. well done you. I am sorry that you couldn’t understand the blog i wrote, but well done for trying.

      • Yes, I was concerned as it seemed to have been floating in moderation limbo for a few days and I wasn’t terribly confident it was going to appear at all.

    • Annoying says:

      I love this reply – it really puts the whole farce into context!

      It has always amazed me at how there are a group of moral activists who are willing to take offence by proxy. They might be white, university educated and working in a comfortable profession, while living in an equally comfortable part of a metropolitan suburb – but they know how to empathy with others pain.

      When it comes to laughing at minorities (which by its very nature, effects everyone, including working white middle aged men) it does surprise me that while its wrong to call some people mongs, its perfectly OK to suggest fat unemployed white people called Kevin, Daz, Shez, or Kyletta should be killed in some terribly clever, ideally post ironic way.

      How’s that saying go? Sticks and stones etc!

      • robinince says:

        interesting presumption frequently made that only the middle class “do-gooders” are ever the ones who say anything. I am not sure what the killing fat unemployed white people has to do with anything, I’ve obviously missed that routine.

      • Disability is a taboo subject. People don’t like to hear about it, flat out. There’s a monumental hypocrisy here…disability is like a video recorder someone never learned to program so they put it in the back of the cupboard. If someone pulls it out and pokes a few buttons they get yelled at.

        If Ricky Gervais says someone looks like a mong, he’s not trying to offend the person. He’s saying what people are thinking but know that saying it breaks a taboo. What’s wrong with looking like a mong? Isn’t that the whole fucking point?

        But nice people don’t want to think about nasty things like that, so they scapegoat anyone who brings it up. That’s not sensitivity, that’s swollen testicles hypocrisy.

      • robinince says:

        i can only think you haven’t read the blog. where’s the hypocrisy? So someone with disabled children who experiences people having a go at them or someone with cerebral palsy who has had mong shouted at them is being a hypocrite for questioning Ricky? And Ricky is now a fool for regretting using the word now he knows about the amount of bullying of disabled people? and what of the mass that went around repeatedly attacking people who criticised Ricky?

      • I would recommend you do a little bit of reading about the topics of moral panics and folk devils and how social deviancy is defined by moral crusaders like yourself. A good place to start would be Howard S. Becker’s Outsiders or Stanley Cohen’s Moral Panics and Folk Devils. To answer your question about why it’s always middle-class do-gooders is that these sorts of discussions have been identified by sociologists as a means by which privileged groups maintain their social dominance.

        I understand your blog perfectly well. If you don’t see the hypocrisy well, to start with, you’re not disabled. If you walked a mile in my shoes…well, that’s not going to happen. Maybe consider old Ian Dury and the furor around Spastic Autisticus. Maybe it’s better that disabled people are not turned into pawns in class conflicts and instead be allowed to be treated like normal fucking people. I understand that you think you’re doing a good thing but you’re not – you’re just making people want to avoid the topic altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing, which *doesn’t fucking help*.

      • robinince says:

        this is not a moral panic. a question has been raised about the use of language. this is not a class conflict. Now you haven’t answered me on this – the friend of mine with cerebral palsy who was pissed off with Ricky’s blase “I know how words are used and what they mean” attitude – the one who has had mong shouted at her in the street – how much of an opinion is she allowed to have? The mum who is worried about the abuse her disabled kids sometimes get and people’s attitude to them – is she allowed an opinion? Both of them voiced their opinion and got a barrage of abuse. The blog, and you really haven’t understood it by the way, says you can use any words you want, just be aware of what they mean and get ready for a discussion, punch whatever. so you see this as people thinking “Oh dear, I don’t think I can say mong, therefore there can be no way I can have a discussion” .

      • Well, if we look back a little bit you were fairly dismissive of my concerns. And again, if this is not a moral panic, how does it differ from a moral panic? How does it fail to fit the description? I think it’s pretty much a textbook moral panic. Was he yelling ‘mong’ at a disabled person in the street? You’ll be using the camel’s nose argument in a minute…that if we let him do it everyone’ll start.

      • robinince says:

        i presume you don’t realise how many sarcastic comments I got? therefore your piece just seemed like another sarcastic blog comment and i presumed you were just another fool winding people up

      • How does anyone deal with abuse shouted at them in the street? They ignore it or whatever…at what point do you decide to be the valiant knight and step in? In your head you’d already decided that disabled people were not capable of speaking for themselves or defending themselves. Like children. There’s no dignity in being infantilised. There’s more important things than dignity, of course, but being offended is not one of those things.

      • robinince says:

        I don’t disagree that it’s a taboo subject though, in fact, what might come out of this is more of us knowing just how much bullying goes on and how it is normally unreported

  79. Ana says:

    RG still doesn’t get that part of the problem was/is his reaction to critics. He tweeted this last night (10/23): “Have you noticed how all these perfect people without sin, haven’t run out of stones yet. Bet we find they live in glass houses.” Apparently, he contacted the DS Association to explain “I never use the word in association with ANY disability, wouldn’t use it again, sorry, all OK.” His apologies have been completely inadequate, in large part because he seems intent on narrowing the scope of the debate to which his (and his followers’) behavior has given rise. People will continue to criticize unless/until they get a sense that he understands what they’re upset about.

  80. What a good boy!
    Many people seem to agree with your post but I’m afraid I just don’t understand.
    I don’t think people, typically, are genuinely offended by words. I’ve never been in my life, so maybe I just can’t relate. I will concede that maybe I don’t understand the real pain caused by a label or term. But people seem to LOVE to have a right to be offended. People who say the most prejudice things in private jump at the opportunity to scold others in a public setting. It’s basic mob mentality. And I think that’s truly more dangerous than any “offensive” word.

    Being PC actually does eventually inhibit free speech. The Witch-hunt mentality is a powerful tool for those who would abuse it. Mobs are easily stirred up. If a small group has genuinely good (perhaps controversial) ideas, opposed parties can cry “racist” for a surefire take-down.

    Things that are offensive are funny. We laugh at things BECAUSE they are at the expense of others. David Brent. Karl Pilkington. Robin Ince. Gervais’ entire genius and career revolves around his ability to make fun of people, or offend people, even himself. Ricky reminds me of my funniest friends…..they are the life of the party. You can’t imagine how someone could be so funny. Your mouth hurts from laughing. But after a while, it starts to hurt inside, too – joke after joke is at your expense. Gervais makes you cringe. He’s king of awkward. I admit I started to think he was too Hollywood. I wasn’t interested for a couple years. But even THAT, ironically, has put him back in the awkward and comically hated zone. He’s even funnier when he’s disliked, or the loser, or fat….he almost seems to know it. He pisses everyone off. He’s punk rock. He makes us question our biases and pushes us to conversations about this sort of thing. And that’s why he’s one of the greatest comedians of all time.

    My brother and I used to laugh our asses off in church as kids. Any slightly funny thing would be amplified by the fact that we knew we shouldn’t laugh, and that we were being little assholes, and we would pay big time for it. Whether or not anyone with Down’s Syndrome was actually personally offended by Gervais’ tweets (doubtful?), being PC just isn’t funny. Offensive, wrong, awful, awkward stuff is FUCKING funny. Especially when there are nerds around to get mad about it.

  81. Lisa says:

    Oh, give me a fucking break. Goes to show much of America is just too stupid and constipated to have a sense of humor. The PC police are everywhere. I’m American. I have NEVER heard the word “mong” even used til I listened to Ricky’s old podcasts. Maybe when I was ten years old, they referred to Down’s syndrome kids as mongoloid but that was 40 years ago. It is archaic now. It does not mean handicapped, no more than retarded does, but say that and you will be shot down, too. People are just looking for shit to whine about and that’s typical of what goes on over here, most probably because any reference to “stupid” is something 9/10 of the population takes personally for a reason, because it applies to them. Ricky is a comedian. He is funny. Leave him the hell alone. If you don’t like him, go watch Oprah drool over everyone.

    • robinince says:

      even when there is a common language its meaning changes depending on where you live – fag, rubber, paki, wog etc all have different meanings in different parts of the world, some benign some not. Don’t worry too much about Ricky here, he’s survived.

  82. mraemiller says:

    Okay, I’m not a fan of Mr Gervais but I’m going to be devil’s advocate. Clearly those who have relatives with Down’s Syndrome are going to be hurt by the word “Mong” with its sinister racial undertones …but …I do feel, and I say this as someone who used to be nextdoor neighbours with Joe Decon, that sometimes this we-can-never-joke-about-the disability thing has gone too far. When I was a child spastics (sorry, sufferers of cerebal palsy) were just part of the community. Well, actually they were behind the walls until Joey wrote his book then they started letting them out. They’d wander down the end of our road, realise it was a cul-de-sac, stare at the fence and after twenty minutes walk back …or alternatively they’d go to the Clearance Centre and buy old spoons. Some of the more normal onces who just had more physical disabilities and had become institutionalised by accident did actually integrate back under Mrs Thatcher’s care in the community programs …but many sadly were left to wander the streets …but anyway they were around They were part of Caterham and we didn’t ignore them or not talk about them. Even if the limit of our childhood understanding was calling each other “Joey” we did know that Joey was a person.
    But the reality was that if you went inside that hospital there were some sad sights and not because anyone was cruel to these people but just in its extreme forms spasticity is horrible – fortunately many of those extreme cases would just not be born today because of abortion … I know that sounds deeply callous and it’s a whole other ethical debate aborting the disabled but if you’d seen some of what I had behind those walls you might begin to at least entertain those thoughts too. But I dont know. It’s difficult But anyway…. it does annoy me when the words are never spoken because I feel as if it is an airbrushing of all the reality in as sure a way as when St Lawrence’s graveyard was cleared. Okay no one was going to tend the graves but you still felt the lives of these people were being wiped from history. So while what Mr G said cannot be defended I do think there is a mustn’t mention it culture that is actually damaging.

    And sometimes I wonder where not mentioning mental health issues or the fact that maybe they actually should restrict the kind of jobs people apply for actually ends. Sometimes it’s absurd.
    When my previous MP Andrew Pelling had a mental breakdown (long story have not time to tell) and left the whole of Croydon Central without an MP for well over a year he had the brilliant idea of convincing all leaders of the main political parties and their front benchers to sign an all party compact on not mentioning mental health issues of parliamentary candidates during the next election campaign. So now we’re supposed to elect people who literally may be bonkers and if anyone says anything about it in any of the main parties that would be wrong. On top of this Mr Pelling frequently uses his own past mental health issues as party propaganda against his previous party at the general election. Top top it all Gavin Barwell our current MP actually encouraged and defended a self confessed autistic woman to stand as a Conservative candidate for the local Council on the grounds that “everyone has something to contribute”. Now I’m not saying such people cant make a contribution to society …but would you actually vote for them to have actual political power? and dont you think we should at lest be able to discuss it not be told that the politicians have sorted out a compact to “protect” themselves from that kind of thing… I think there is a line somewhere. I mean I like Robert White as an act but I wouldn’t encourage him to stand for parliament. There are enough people with mental health problems in there already. I think so anyway but of course we wouldn’t know because they’ve all signed a compact with MIND to pretend to us all that none of them can possibly be bonkers (I think bonkers is the PC word)…? Anyway the point I’m driving at is that I think not mentioning these things at all can go too far. After all they are disabilities and while it’s trendy to pretend that they dont stop you doing things that’s just rubbish. Of course Mong is a nasty word. But there just aren’t nice words for genetic diseases or mental health problems in my experience. That’s why St Lawrence’s hospital became the Lifecare Trust became the Oakhurst trust. Every new word becomes tainted and the new words are selected to not be understood.

    So I guess I’m now going to be shot but at least while this may not be the most politically correct post it does contain some real life observations…

  83. K says:

    Pseudo-intellectual cunt.

  84. Davis says:

    It seems to me that this is not an argument about whether Ricky was trying to offend people with disabilities, as clearly this is not the case. I think this is the age old argument about whether certain words should be banned for whatever reason. I don’t agree with the view Robin seems to have that Ricky was being ignorant, because of his lack of knowledge of the history and current use of the word, because unless your an etymologist pretty much everyone is. For instance the word ”wimp” is rumored to have come from a group of people who were kicked out of France and also England. This word clearly has a derogatory meaning toward this group of people but is still used in every day life and is accepted (I’m by no means comparing two groups just an example). Thus, I think you can’t really condemn someone for the use of words based on there lack of knowledge about them. What we can all agree on is that it is perfectly acceptable to question the meaning or intention a person has for the words they use, this is what we should care about. The big problem with banning the use of certain words is that it gives these words more force and shock, and people who have bad intentions can mask there intentions with the use of taboo words.



  85. Greendude says:

    Interesting article but I don’t agree with much of it.

    Aside from being impossible to censor language or thought, censorship in this instance is wrong. Perhaps even harmful. Censoring racism on tv doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist, it’s just not talked about as openly. Which is harmful if this isn’t understood. England is no less racist now than it was at any point in my lifetime. Just because we don’t hear racist comments as publicly as in the past doesn’t mean society isn’t thinking them or saying them amongst friends. The same goes for the word mong.

    Why should Ricky Gervais be singled out for using a term that doesn’t really offend, except those associated with down’s syndrome, which by the way, is the one instance when this term wouldn’t be used by anyone with a conscience. Should we stop calling male friends or nasty people, “cunts” because it’s misogynistic? I’m sure most derogatory terms can be traced to some unfortunate group of people, should we just censor insults altogether? Actually that would be nice but impossible.

    Lastly, you end your article with the virtues of freedom of speech but suggest we self-censor our free speech. Why have freedom of speech at all in that case. In my opinion, it’s all about context and intent. Was Ricky Gervais calling a down’s syndrome person a mong? No. Did he mean it with any real spite, regardless of the literal meaning? No. Has he stopped using the word privately? I’d wager not considering the amount of time he seems to spend with Karl Pilkington. So what has this media-storm achieved? Nothing.

    • robinince says:

      sorry, you seem to have misunderstood the point. This was more about Ricky declaring that he knew how ‘mong’ was used and no one used it as a term of abuse for anyone who was disabled anymore. This was wrong. Use whatever language you wish, but be aware of its power and meaning. Say the words you want to use, just make sure you know what they mean or can mean, and as long as you are happy with that, go ahead. many people are aware that in different groups we use different words. They might call their friend “a stupid cunt” but not so many would call their granny a stupid cunt because the relationship and perceived meaning by the recipient is different. This has nothing to do with self censorship, it has to do with trying to know what words mean and your relationship with who you are communicating with. It is very different speaking to friends who know you and communicating with an audience of millions.

  86. Pickled Beets says:

    I notice you didn’t even attempt to acknowledge misandry as being a problematic prejudice, which seems to indicate that you yourself are guilty of the exact same ignorance that you’re accusing Gervais of. You haven’t suffered sexism and probably haven’t experienced racism towards you, so you assume – wrongly – that they don’t happen to white men. I can assure you from my own personal experience that they do. You appear to abide by the sad, tiresome myth of ‘white man bad, black lesbian good,’ which immediately calls your judgement into question.

    If someone with Down Syndrome or their family wants to complain that they found it upsetting or insensitive then that’s up to them, but I have no time for people who jump on peoples’ backs for “bullying” others when they’re not even directly targeting them just because they want to show off how pseudo-progressive they are. In fact, I actually find it deeply disgusting that they themselves are exploiting the vulnerable as a means to establish a level of self-satisfied sanctimony over people they find distasteful.

    People who choose to be offended to make themselves feel superior deserve no recourse. They are on the lowest rung of intellectual debate.

  87. Louis Hessey-Antell says:

    By the way, is the word midget offensive? Because dwarves think it is, yet there are (hilarious) clips of Ricky saying that, along with every other comic liberals call great. The distaste for the M word is fairly mainstream; much more than ‘mong’; I’d never heard the word until Karl Dilkington thought it meant the plural of Mongoose. People usually choose to be offended. If a disabled person is being abused, are we seriously saying that the choice of words is the main issue? If your boss calls you a nigger, it isn’t the transcript that dictates whether he’s a racist; it’s the intent. Now, we all agree that Ricky wasn’t intentionally bullying disabled people, so who cares if some easily led fan boys misunderstood the cerebral part of Gervais’ persona. You are in danger of being those people who blamed Judas Priest for those teenage suicides.
    Words are just sounds; they can be beautiful and deserve to be admired for that reason, but they are not weapons- unless blasted onto a nearby lobe at 3, 000 decibels.
    Having said that, you do know Ricky so I have to bow to superior knowledge- but, then again, Diana knew Mother Theresa!

  88. Zed says:

    It’s just an example of publicity seeking media stirring bollocks that twitter does best. I’d like to give praise to Robin for this article, and the work he has done replying to the comments. Interesting and thought provoking, good job.

  89. noego says:

    I find this fascinating, it seems to me that part of what Ricky Gervais does in general is highlight the intolerant nature of our societies by addressing taboo subjects, and in this case he used some language which had previously been swept under the carpet, whether genius or just screeching for attention he is showing is all up for what we are.

  90. robinince says:

    I think you have read far more into why he used it. I think he was dicking about and one thing led to another.

  91. noego says:

    Well I agree, I wasn’t really trying to say he used the word with any great intent, but isn’t it with his dicking about and bullishness that he exposes the intolerant nature of us rather than incite it.

  92. robinince says:

    i think it is a mixture. some fans also showed far greater intolerance and bullishness, complex thing this mass communication, but I think some good of it came out of it

  93. Chris G says:

    Able-bodied people discussing the plight of the disabled is a kind of moral masturbation: a crude simulation of the genuine act, utterly incapable of producing anything of value but offering much the same visceral pleasure. We understand that those of lower status are to be treated kindly and not ridiculed, and by defending them we raise our own status and somewhat mollify any attendant feelings of guilt attached to benefitting from the situation. These discussions, resembling the mythical circle jerks that the posh boys in boarding schools were claimed to indulge in, exclude the disabled entirely, since the discussions are not so much about the experiences of disabled people but about how the able-bodied cope with the discomfort the disabled engender by their presence. The notion that, somehow, these discussions are of benefit to anyone outside of the normative group, is fundamentally ridiculous. Attempts to engage with these issues in a direct manner are treated with hostility and are dismissed off-hand; that these attempts are typically made by those with disabilities or those with a genuine interest in confronting the status quo is an irony lost.

  94. Phil says:

    Dear Robin,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article.

    Just my opinion….

    I think that most people who accept the use of offensive words to put labels on people have never experienced that situation of being a minority where language has been used against them. It’s outside their realm of experience to accept that these words are commonly used to bully denigrate and control others in all kinds of ugly situations, so it becomes easy to trivialize these words. It’s hard for these people to accept other people’s very real suffering when these words are used.

    Words are not just words. Words are symbols which human beings are genetically hardwired to use, and understand. We carry words around with us constantly. Words are concepts – which can at times feel very real because they are emotive. Human beings are hardwired to invest emotionally in concepts whether we want this to happen to us or not. Think pavlov’s dogs. If a word has continually been repeated and used in oppressive situations (perhaps a situation where you felt physically threatened by people who really wanted to hurt you) then over a period of time, that word will be remembered in that original context. The meaning of the word becomes imprinted. This is true, whether you choose to remember it in that way or not. The word will continually bring up the same emotion of fear (no matter in what new context it is used – either intentionally or unintentionally).

    I’m not for banning free speech but I am one for comedians and other people in tv media, and filmmakers, themselves to look deeper into these matters and to show more thought in the way they use specific terms of language. In reality celebrities wield a frightening power in today’s interconnected world.

    I don’t think a more thoughtful approach would be backward step in comedy – I think it would be a forward step – look how beautifully “the office” was done. Then look at how ugly and tiresome the Frankie Boyle routines get. The “I’m so clever and brave poking fun at minorities” sketches.

    Good luck with your career and taking time out to write your article.


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