20 October 2011

Ricky Gervais and the politics of Mong

I've just realised how long it is since I last blogged. I knew I'd been ill for a while but I didn't realise it'd been nearly 6 months.

You know that feeling when you've eaten a huge, huge, meal (e.g. on Xmas day): You feel exhausted because all your blood has rushed to your stomach leaving no energy for the rest of your body to do anything. But at the same time you can't sleep because your digestive system is working so hard. And of course you can't force any food down because you already feel like you're going to explode. Normally the sensation only lasts a couple of hours until your system has made good progress of dealing with the oversized meal.

I've felt like that since the beginning of June. I've spent much of the summer depending on meal replacement drinks because I couldn't force any food down. I've had no energy to do anything (e.g. blog) because my digestive system has been being so irrational and I've also not been sleeping because of the digestive mania which has been increasing the sensation of exhaustion.

Despite the fact that I'd much rather be lazing, watching telly and eating Cadbury's Deadheads (because they're the only thing I've managed to eat today without ending up bent barfing over the bog within 60 seconds) I felt I had to quickly comment about this week's Ricky Gervais mong twitstorm. Everyone else is blogging about it and I just love a bandwagon.

It seems a lot of people don't know the origin of the word, so in a nutshell: It's an impairment-specific insult and refers to people with Down's Syndrome. In the 1860s Dr John Langdon Down decided to classify people with learning difficulties by "which country they looked like they came from" (really!) and he thought people with an extra 21st chromosome looked like they came from Mongolia so named the condition 'Mongolism'. (Later renamed after Dr Down because the Mongolians took offense.) So 'mong' isn't really associated solely with people with DS, it's also a slightly racist term with regards to citizens of Mongolia.

Gervais apparently thinks he has some kind of "right" to reclaim the word "mong"; despite the fact that - as far as I'm aware - he does not have Mongolian citizenship. He maintains that the definition of mong has moved on and it's no longer anything to do with Down's. Though that argument loses credence when you realise that 4 hours later he posted a tweet using the word "twongols", clearly derived from the term "mongols" further establishing the link between "mong" and the outdated diagnosis of mongolism.

It's been quite big news with most papers and radio shows discussing whether or not "mong" is offensive to people with Down's. I've seen quotes from Nicky Clark, Richard Herring and Christina Martin on the offensiveness debate. Odd thing is: They're all non-disabled. Don't get me wrong, they're all great disability rights activists and I value their contributions to making the world a slightly better place. I'm constantly pointing out how much we need non-disabled people to give a crap about disability issues. So I'm gonna repeat it and italicise it this time to really drive home my point: they're all great disability rights activists and I value their contributions. And I have no issue with them giving their opinions on these issues when asked for them.

But it's odd that when the subject is "is mong offensive to people with Down's Syndrome?" That the only people being asked for their opinion on the subject are non-disabled disability rights activists. Radio presenters would never ask "is using 'gay' as a pejorative offensive to homosexuals or has the meaning of the word changed?" Without including LGBT folk in the debate. So why aren't people with Down's Syndrome invited onto the radio to discuss how they feel about Gervais's words? Why is it only non-disabled people who are being asked for their opinion? That's the bit that bothers me; not that non-disabled people are giving their opinions, but that people with Down's are not being asked.

Not only is the exclusion of people with Down's from a debate about Down's almost as problematic as Gervais's original tweets, it also seems like a circular discussion that we'll never reach the end of. People without Down's can express their opinions but until we ask people with Down's Syndome "does mong offend you?" We'll never have a definitive answer to the question "is mong offensive to people with Down's Syndrome?" AOL can run polls asking the general populace their opinion but until people with an extra 21st chromosome are included in the debate it's all very abstract and inconclusive.

I'd be particularly interested to hear the opinion of actor Russell Ramsay who was in an episode of Extras so having worked with Gervais probably has an insight into both sides of the debate. (Random fact: When I was a child my parents would drag me kicking and screaming to church every week. I went to Sunday School with Russell. Haven't seen him in at least 20 years though.)

Despite the fact that we haven't yet got a conclusive answer as to whether or not people with Down's find "mong" offensive today (because they haven't been asked) the history of the word is clearer: It's historically a term of abuse and a form of hate speech. Disablist hate crime is on the up due in no small part to the bullshit rhetoric being peddled by the government and press in attempt to whip up support for welfare reform. People are getting called a "scrounging cunt" in the street or being followed down the road by someone shouting "fucking DLA stick" at them. That Gervais is using an historically abusive term so liberally and encouraging his fans to use it is pouring fuel on the already raging fires of hate. Ironically Gervais is calling people who disagree with him "haters" and stipulating that they only disagree with him because they're jealous of his success. If being successful means that you feel superior to members of oppressed minorities and have a licence to use abusive language then I'd rather remain unsuccessful but a decent human being.