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.


  1. Agreed.
    People with LD and DS need a voice.
    The fact that they are talked *about* and never talked *to* is a problem and proof that they do not yet have an equal stake in society.
    Mencap and Scope tirelessly campaign for disability equality and yet nothing much ever seems to change.
    A real shame given that we live in the 21st frigging century!

  2. I've also noticed the absence of people with Down Syndrome from all this, although I imagine part of why they haven't been asked, is to avoid exposing them to a rich and famous bully, given the way his other critics have been treated.

    I think that's what's so disturbing about this - not that the man said an offensive word (which I've certainly never heard in any other context) - but that he and his supporters behaved so hatefully towards people who spoke up. Nobody tried to censor Gervais, but he very effectively censored others by making it harder to express any objection. Our very powerlessness has become a source of amusement.

  3. Tracey Gillibrand2:55 pm

    As a disabled person & member of a local Disability Forum, who are active in making ours & other disabled people's lives better, I understand exactly where you are coming from on these issues. Although people are entitled to their own opinions how can one truly understand what it's like to be disabled if one isn't themselves? Yes we need non-disabled people to fight for us at times, but many disabled people need to find their own voices too if they wish to be heard & understood. It's good to be able to laugh at yourself & your own disability but some of these so-called comedians go too far & are encouraging Disability Hate Crime by their thoughtless actions. I've also noticed how many times people affected by disability, race or gender discrimination are often never even asked about their views on issues that concern them, which is ridiculous. In order to get a full picture of something, you need to include all those who are particularly affected, not just the onlookers who can only try to imagine what it's like. Ignorance & misinformation cause fear, which in turn leads to jealousy, violence & hate. Society need educating on the misconceptions surrounding all disability if we are to make some leeway with the Hate Crime campaigns.

  4. Anonymous3:26 pm

    Good blog ... well made argument

    I'm reposting and hope you get lotsa feedback ... I'm a standup and have very mixed feelings on the whole issue, as I don't believe in censorship but I do believe that Gervais is only seeking publicity for his new series and should be shunned and ignored like some twattish, school playground bully ... rather than given the exposure he desires

    But ... I'm not the one being offended here, so I wanna hear other opinions

    And I do respect what you've said


  5. Anonymous5:26 pm

    John Down didn't label anyone a mongol. In fact if you read his paper "On the ethnic classification of idiots" - remembering that in that time 'idiot' was a bone fide medical term - you can see he was essentially arguing against slavery and for the essential unity of mankind (OK so women are there too and he also argued for education for women as a separate issue).

    John Down was an amazing man and well loved by the people he helped. He held entertainments (people with learning disabilities were performers, stage hands or audience and the local gentry attended too) regularly, taught people to read and write and think in terms of getting jobs. The wheel turned with Galton and his wretched eugenics theories.

    Please don't villify him or indeed comment without going back and reading his original papers and indeed his book. You can get them on interlibrary loans. He was an astute observer and realised that there were a number of factors which might lead to a learning disability. Apart from Down's Syndrome he recognised fetal alcohol syndrome for instance - all before modern scientific techniques arrived.

  6. Anonymous7:35 pm

    Idiot was also a term used to describe people with learning difficulties in the past. Along with moron and imbecile. Pretty much everyone I know uses idiot in day to day conversation without stopping to think for a moment that it might be hate speech and offensive to people with learning difficulties. Whether it is or not I don't know. I work for people with learning difficulties and have not heard them comment on either "mong" or "idiot" but Iwill ask.

    Perhaps "idiot" is so historical that Gervais's agruement holds true for it? Where as I am oldenough to remember people being called mongols.

    At the root of this though is that everyone (even people withlearning difficulties themselves in my experience) think that being of less tha "average intelligence" is a "bad thing". It's notlike being black or gay, something to be proud of. Whatever words we use they will become terms of abuse eventually until people are proud of their difference.

    Cathy Wintersgill

  7. @Anonymous:

    I didn't vilify anyone. I gave a one paragraph precis of the origin of the term "mong". I also never claimed he called anyone a "mongol," I just pointed out that "mongol" is shortened from "mongolism", and "mong" is an even shorter form of the word.

  8. @Stu:

    The thing about the absence of censorship is that you've got no-ones door to lay blame at: You have to accept responsibility for whatever comes out of your own mouth.

    I'm a big fan of politically correct comedy. I used to be a stand-up before I became too ill to carry on. But long before I started performing I formed the opinion that I think "comedy" that bullies people from oppressed groups is unfunny. If one can't make jokes without prejudice then one needs to consider whether one is actually funny enough to be doing comedy.

    I used to love it when I'd done a set and then someone else would go on after me, do a disablist gag, and get greeted by nothing but blank faces from the crowd. I just knew that if I hadn't been there the audience would've laughed and it made me feel great to know I'd made a difference to how those audience members see disabled people, no matter how small that difference was.

  9. Anonymous1:29 pm

    You said "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'"

    I pointed out that in fact he didn't. He did not name the condition "mongolism" or call people "mongols". People (doctors) in his own time and a bit later picked up on his writings and did that themselves - probably thought it was a snappy label. Somewhere I have some research that pinpoints the chap who started it but I can't recall his name from memory.

    Incidentally my daughter, who has Down's Syndrome, is very proud of who she is and we spent last Monday with a bunch of medical students and she gave them a half an hour speech which included how great she is among other stuff ... and then I told them how it has been for us from a mother's perspective of medics during her life - including one GP who said when she was 3 years old "She's a mongol isn't she? She seems quite bright - have you considered plastic surgery?"

    We do this training every 6-8 weeks with new students and one of the things I push them for is to be active in the pursuit of discrimination - in their surgeries and in the street - since being bullied and hurt by others is a very unhealthy thing and their duty of care extends beyond their consulting room ...