Why some people find the “mong” joke funny (and some don’t)

Ricky Gervais on stage in 2007, doing an impression of an ME suffererThis past week, Ricky Gervais offended an awful lot of people with a joke about a “mong face” on Twitter. “Mong”, for those who still don’t know, originally meant someone with Down’s syndrome, back when the term for the condition was “Mongolism”, which people from Mongolia took some umbrage to (or perhaps people realised that it kept getting shortened to “mong” which came to be used as a general term of abuse, particularly for any disabled people). He was taken to task about this by a number of people, notably Richard Herring who eventually wrote this blog article after receiving hundreds of hateful tweets from Gervais’s fans; disability rights campaigner Nicky Clark wrote this piece for the Guardian, and eventually had an exchange of tweets with Gervais himself, recorded on her blog here, in which Ricky seems to have wised up to the fact that he got it wrong (having previously claimed that those who were against him were just envious of his success). I’m not sure how convinced I am by his apology, because he has done this in the past.

A lot of people on the disability web have written about the controversy: Sarah Ismail of Same Difference linked four responses by Christina Martin, Kaliya “Bendy Girl” Franklin, Nicky Clark and Tim Rushby Smith. I also found two other pieces, by Lisa Egan (LisyBabe) and Stephen Baxter on the New Statesman website. Of these, the two articles that interest me most are the first and the last. Christina Martin writes from the perspective of someone whose brother has a disability, and who was the target of taunts including pulled faces exactly like the one displayed by Ricky Gervais, accompanied by words like “spastic”, “mong” and “retard”:

I remember coming to class once, and everyone was waiting for me. The floor had been cleared to make way for two girls, one sitting in the teacher’s swivel chair, the other pushing her along, like she was in a wheelchair. As she was pushed along the girl in the chair did the whole ‘spaz’ act; stuck her tongue out, twisted her limbs up, made noises, drooled. All in my honour. Then everyone laughed at me. Like I was the one worthy of being mocked in that scenario!

She also observed that some of those who approved of Gervais’s use of the term, and abused Richard Herring by repeatedly calling him a mong, were not “reclaiming” the word at all, but taking it at face value. Meanwhile, Stephen Baxter remembered going to see a Bernard Manning show which he opened with a joke about getting lost in Tooting, which is “full of fucking Pakis”, whereupon “you could sense the relief and joy in the room. Yes, we were going to get our racist jokes. All was going to be right with the world. Here we were, in a safe place from nascent political correctness, which was already going mad”. What have they and the goons defending Gervais by calling his critics “mongs” got in common? They are those who identify with those in powerful positions, even if small-scale ones, because they have never had the experience of being powerless or on the receiving end.

One thing they simply do not understand is that hearing this kind of material is not only hurtful to many people, it is actually threatening: people may well have had this language used on them, or a friend or close relative, in conjunction with harassment or even violence. While I do not remember the word “mong” being used at my school, there were other disability-related words used as derogatory terms for someone who was weak or had poor physical co-ordination — “flid” (from thalidomide) being the favourite. It was the so-called flids who were expected to tolerate persistent verbal jibes from groups of other boys, often escalating to physical prodding and eventually violence. The same is true for disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities and those who give that impression (e.g. some people with cerebral palsy), in the streets and on public transport up and down this country today. Comedy like this normalises the climate in which those with disabilities are harassed and even attacked in the street, and the appeals to “lighten up” and “take a joke” are the same thing victims are told by both police as adults, and by teachers as children: just ignore it. The authorities do not take their responsibility to protect people from this kind of harassment at all seriously.

I spoke on BBC London’s late night show last year, in response to an earlier controversy over Down’s syndrome jokes (I did not hear that the word “mong” was used) involving Frankie Boyle, in which a member of his audience complained. I also mentioned an earlier incident in which Ricky Gervais mocked people with a disability, in that incident ME. Admittedly, that was before the trial of Kay Gilderdale made severe ME front-page news in early 2010, but other stories involving it had been in the news by that time, notably the death of Sophia Mirza, and there had been various stories over the years about children with ME being inappropriately detained and even abused in hospitals in the UK, such as Ean Proctor in the late 1980s. On that occasion, in 2007, there was an ME sufferer, Ciara Maclaverty, in the auidence, along with her boyfriend who wrote to Gervais to put him right. Ms Maclaverty accepted his apology, but the jokes are still out there on DVD (with a half-hearted qualification that ME is “physiological”), interspersed with various otherwise offensive, stereotypical jokes. So, don’t be charmed by his display of contrition to Nicky Clark, because just like a school bully, he’ll apologise again and again and be back to the same, or very similar, tricks within a very short time.

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