What's In A Word?

10/19/2011 08:33:00 am BenefitScroungingScum 37 Comments

Cunt. Nigger. Dyke. Retard. Paki. Jew. Mong. All powerful examples of what can be in a word; power, oppression, prejudice, hatred, bullying, extermination, alienation. But, ultimately all just words. So what's the fuss about?

Context is everything, languages are fluid, constantly developing and the meaning of words can be subtle and nuanced. Sometimes humourous, sometimes insulting, it's the background and intention of use which matters not the word itself. Jokes can go wrong and humour fall flat, but that doesn't mean anyone should stop making jokes just because one isn't funny...although it might be time to add a Gervais exemption clause to that.

Ricky Gervais has recently joined twitter and typically for twitter it's the latest storm in a teacup. In short, Gervais made a joke that was frankly quite a lot shit and not at all funny. That's ok, we still (just about) have something approaching free speech and if a middle aged, overweight, acne scarred loser wants to make jokes that's perfectly acceptable. See, I just attempted a funny and it was almost, but not quite as crap and unfunny as Gervais. Next stop the Oscars for me.

So, what's all the fuss about? Gervais was making jokes about 'mongs'. Had he had the class to shrug his shoulders, admit that the joke wasn't funny in the way he intended it to be and accept that for many 'mong' is a word associated with hate and fear that would have been the end of it. But he didn't. Gervais moved on to whip up his twitter followers to 'prove' that the word mong totally, doesn't like mean anything to do with disability and is just, y'know all about monging around. Well yeah, sometimes it can mean that, but Gervais then went on to post photos on twitter pulling contorted 'mong' faces to prove his point that it absolutely definitely did not have any connection to learning disability and couldn't possibly be offensive.

Other comedians stepped up support those disabled people already pointing out that for many people mong was a hateful term, still used commonly in an abusive fashion. And that's when it got really nasty. Gervais was inciting his followers to 'prove' that mong was fine and his followers were dutifully following suit. One tweet I saw directed at Richard Herring made comments about how stupid it was to think that mong had any connection with anything...and ended by calling him a 'fucking mongoloid' for being stupid enough to think it did. Gervais insisted in a whiny way that 'it was all about jealousy of his success' and continued to insist he was funny.

In what must obviously be the same kind of coincidence as Gervais's forthcoming series, last night's episode of Shameless featured people with learning disabilities in a drama group as the community service 'punishment' for the character Mickey. Unlike Gervais's jokes, this episode of Shameless was beautifully written. The words may have been the same, but the intention and effect was entirely different. I howled with laughter when Mickey expressed dismay at being sent to a learning disability drama group and was firmly told that was what he got for calling the magistrate a fucking mong. I loved the way Mickey tried to hide his spliff until one of the young people offered him his, the confident and aggressive sexuality of one of the young women and the beautiful moment when, while still on her knees she looks at Mickey blustering as to why he doesn't want her to suck him off, shrugs and says...oh, you're gay. A scene which for me set up the biggest laugh of the episode, when they open the toilet door, the rest of the drama group are huddled outside eavesdropping and Mickey asks them not to tell anyone he's gay. A young woman in total deadpan fashion assures him that of course they won't...just as long as Mickey promises not to tell anyone she's got down's syndrome.

I could ramble on for a long time about how bloody brilliantly Shameless addressed the humour of disability, using the same words as Gervais, but unlike Gervais managing to make it hilariously funny all the way through. It boils down to just one crucial point though - at no point in last night's episode of Shameless were disabled people seen as weak, powerless, unintelligent or the butt of jokes. The language used went much further than Gervais as did the concepts, young women with learning disabilities in control of their own sexuality, or young autistic men using cannabis to assist their condition is not an image of disability seen in the mainstream media and it was frankly fucking fantastic to behold.

Banning individual words makes the liberal in me shudder in the same way burning books might, but reworking language is definitely to be encouraged. So, I'd urge you all to start using the latest insult for when someone's being an arrogant, unfunny, bullying prick ..... and start calling them a 'Gervais'


Ceeej said...

I howled laughing at that toilet scene and laughed my way through most of the episode. I've never howled laughing at anything Gervais has done.

Lots of preconceptions and prejudices challenged in a brilliant episode.

I assume you saw this?


Jason Tipple said...

Brilliantly written.

Jason Tipple said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike N said...

Haven't we had this discussion?

I have no patience for people using this sort of language. "Retard" especially gets to me.

The problem is that the groups of people that migth fall into these categories (if it were possible to use them in a non-insulting, purely descriptive way) believe they have the right to use those words themselves, whilst denying others that right.

You do this with "spaz" and "crip". These words are no less emotionally charged than "mong" and "retard". It's no different from Hollywood bombarding us with the likes of Will Smith and (the very unfunny) Chris Rock calling each other "Nigger". Of course this teaches kids that those words are OK to use, and if it's OK with the kids, then you've just extended use of the word for another generation at least!

If you want others to stop using words like this, then lead the charge - stop using them yourself!

Ceeej: Thanks! I'd seen it but forgotten the name to google :)

MikeN: We have. and you're still wrong and I'm still right so yah boo sucks ;)
In all seriousness though - I think most people understand that it's not acceptable to use these kind of words unless you have ownership of them, like Chris Rock or the way I do with crip and spaz. I think not using a word at all perpetuates the power of it whereas changing the meaning won't always be easy or trouble free but ultimately it's the best way longer term.

Bernard Manning managed to make a career out of picking on ethnic minorities, right up till the 70's he could be seen regularly on prime time TV making those jokes, he would appear on chat shows making the jokes while the audience and host howled with laughter. 30 year on when he died he was not mourned by the majority, he was by then seen as all that had been wrong in society, he was seen for what he was, a nasty racist.

Ricky Gerveis has made a career out of mocking those who are perceived as weak, those who are generally mocked by people, the geek, the guy who's a bit awkward, the peolple who find socialising difficult and now the disabled. People still guffaw with laughter at him however, many are now beginging to step back, many are now questioning his humour, many are now saying he just a bully. In 30 or 40 years time when he dies will people view him as they did Bernard Manning at his death.

{sings} "...let the pun-ish-ment fit the crime, the pun-ish-ment fit the crime!"

Mike N said...

Haven't you learned? I'm never wrong :)

Seriously though, how do you use these words when you have "ownership"? (A fact I dispute - nobody has ownership of a word!)

As far as I can see, you use them in a humerous context. Presumably in order to remove some of the negative connotations, and thereby some of the power to hurt that those words have.

Does that not then mean that comedians should have free range? Perhaps Ricky G is doing you a favour by using them this way and making people feel uncomfortable? Maybe they will be more likely to stop using these words themselves?

How do you even define who does have ownership? You can call yourself a "spaz" apparantly. Presumably another "spaz" is also allowed to do that? In this context it would presumably be a term of affection. Does that mean it's OK for me to call you a "spaz" if it's meant affectionately? (Something I wouldn't do, since I hate the word!) Could you call a complete stranger that was disabled a "spaz"?

Plus, I distinctly remember you using the word "spaz" long before you became disabled and found out what the problem was, so presumably BendyGirlToday would be somewhat disgusted with BendyGirl1995? But what, really, is the difference?

You want to disempower the word, but there is no rhyme nor reason to the way you are going about it, and it seems to me it's simply a poor excuse to continue using a word because you think it's amusing when you do it, but would deny others the right to use it the same way?

Better surely to teach people that the word is hurtful, and maybe they will stop using it, or at least incur the wrath of the majority for doing so.

Difficult while you're still bandying it around! (If my kids pick it up from you, they will start to use it, I can tell you that much, and how do you explain to a 4 and 5 year old that it's OK for you to do it because you "own" the word? Even they could pick holes in that logic!)

MikeN: Haha, yeah, in almost 20 years of friendship you're yet to be right m'dear!

I don't think there's any simple answer to this one - opinions differ and that's a good thing.

Having said that, I don't remember us using the word 'spaz' as an insult circa 1995, and given my mother's obsessive policing about such words & who we spent alot of time babysitting I think you must be mistaken with that particular term. I certainly don't remember myself, Amy or anyone else using spaz as an insult. But..yes, my views of disability have naturally changed a great deal over the years, as have yours about lots of things, parenthood for example. So no, I wouldn't be disgusted with my 19 year old self any more than I'm disgusted with Gervais.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying what I couldn't. I've always hated the way people use some words but especially words which attack the disabled, myself included.

Mike N said...

Shhh ... don't say 20 years, people will realise we're old!

I can say that you and "the girls" used language like that quite a lot when we met, and it made me uncomfortable then, but I perhaps wasn't socially strong enough to tell people off for it.

You didn't answer my question btw. How would you feel if I referred to you as a "spaz". I obviously don't own the word, but you have not given any rules for what is acceptable usage and what is not!

(Oh, and if Vincent starts saying it, you can explain why it's OK for you to do it and not for him. I wish you luck in that discussion! I may even video it for posterity :) )

Inbetween Girl said...

RG needs to learn the difference between "laugh with" and "laugh at". Oh, and some basic netiquette would be nice, too.

MikeN: Fortunately many of my attitudes/behaviours have changed over the past 20 years...for instance I no longer make a habit of dating men who's heads I have to shove out of the car so they can vomit into the gutter ;) I genuinely don't remember us using the word spaz but I do clearly remember having an appalling attitude to disability access when I was at uni. And no, I have no problem with you or my other friends calling me spaz in an affectionate way - loads of them already do. I wouldn't use it in front of the kids though for the reasons you've laid out.

Spoonydoc said...

Excellent post. Thank you for it.

Just watched the episode of Shameless and loved every minute. Favourite part for me was a perplexed Mickey asking "so what do they call you then?" Answer: "Terry".

Difference was that for most of the episode the disabled people were laughing at Mickey and his prejudices rather than the other way round. The language used was shown to be bad and unnecessary.

As regards the discussion about "reclaiming" words, unfortunately it is something I disagree about with a lot of disabled people I would call "friends" whom I have met online. While I would not presume to forbid someone referring to themselves as such, it does make me uncomfortable. And I object to anyone talking about a group of people as spazzes or crips, as it might and often has included myself.

I do not wish to be referred to as such as I hold the view that if it is unacceptable for one person to use the term, then it is unacceptable for anyone to use it. I am very much against having one rule for one person and one rule for another even though I do understand the reasoning behind it.

Apologies for the length of this comment. This is a topic I find particularly interesting!

Mike N said...

I don't remember that. Maybe. :)

But if you wouldn't do it in front of the kids because you can't explain it, then how can you justify it?

(I've actually found that it's a good litmus test - if you feel OK explaining your actions to a 5 year old, then they're probably fine :) )

Don't mean to be awkward ... wait, no, that's a lie ... I don't mean to be disrespectful. I just haven't seen a real justification for the fact that you think it's OK to use these words.

(BTW, I wouldn't worry about using different language 20 years ago. Everybody grows up, it no longer means anything. I only threw it in to illustrate that your personal attitude changed with your circumstances).

I would never suggest banning a word, but if nobody uses it then it will fall out of fashion. If you and other "owners" use it, it never will.

Julian Yon said...

A number of us have decided to reclaim the word gervais:

« One who inflicts suffering on others for personal gain through willful ignorance or deliberate bullying. After Ricky Gervais, a comedian who sought to bring back the abusive disablist term "mong" in order to boost his career. »

Also see Duncan Edwards' post "gervais – a dirty ugly word".

Ron Graves said...

@Julian Yon - former comedian, perhaps?

Judging by the egregious TV series An Idiot Abroad, which reveals the depths to which Gervais is willing to sink in humiliating some poor deluded putz in search of a cheap laugh.

And that guy is, apparently, a friend, so I suspect there is little hope that Gervais will ever be willing to even consider that the way he refers to people can ever be in any way wrong.

Primarily because he's a cretin.

Oh - almost forgot - great post!

LoopyS: I totally understand where you're coming from too. Ultimately I don't think there's any one easy answer to this, but I do think that having this discussion in such a constructive manner is really important

It's been suggested on twitter via @jstrakerj that to really make the term Gervais catch on we should shorten it to 'Gerv' as in..'you total Gerv'

Ceeej said...

*sits back, reaches for popcorn and watches Mike N and BendyGirl*

Ceeej With 20 years practice it'll be on for longer than The Stand ;)

Mike N said...

Hehe, I'm sure we must have agreed on something at least once! :)

DavidG said...

That's a really good piece, it doesn't just take Gervais to task, it shows he isn't even succeeding as a comedian when he does this.

WRT reclaiming 'crip' and 'spaz' and the like, it's difficult to get right if you don't know how people will react in advance. Some are fine with non-disabled friends using them, others (I'm one) prefer to keep them as an in-group thing, on the basis that we understand the social context, but non-disabled friends may not, and others just don't want anyone using them, all three reactions are valid. The one use that isn't ever valid is someone outside the group using it for his own advantage, and to then turn around and attack those objecting as 'haters and mentals' strips his real attitudes all too bare.

As for people having used disablist terms in the past, society is overwhelmingly disablist, it's only when you become disabled yourself, or acquainted with someone disabled, that you realise the extent to which disablism permeates society and the language and that it's wrong. The question then is whether you change your behaviour, or continue blithely on, not caring about the offense you cause.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me Bendy that you're okay with chucking the insults if you're a member of the disabled club. That can't be right.

We should all respect each other. Disabled people wanting to be treated in equitable fashion must observe the norms as everybody else.

By the way, how are you getting on with Ed? Is he a special friend?

Anonymous said...

Why is "Jew" in the list? Jews are certainly verbally abused and insulted, but there's nothing wrong with the word Jew. Shouldn't the equivalent word in your list be kike?

cogidubnus said...

Gervais isn't funny...I've never found him so...not in the least...a bit like a somewhat embarassing relative you have to apologise for...this latest outburst of his is just typical...

Frankly I even found a racist like Bernard Manning far more amusing when he wasn't being offensive...and to be fair sometimes even when he was...on a good day I daresay even Herman Goering was more amusing...

Jeez...it wasn't much of a target to beat was it Ricky? Epic fail!

Anon 11am: Oh yes - he & Justine have invited me round for tea & cake ;)

Anon 1124pm Yes, possibly. Although I remember being called a dirty Jew by other children when I was about 10...so that's probably how it subconsciously ended up on the list.

Anonymous said...

Keep it real girl. You are a representative and should be humble. Ed is a politician. He probably doesn't like you but he has to pretend.

Get over yourself.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and your little diagrams are an insult to the intelligence of disabled people.

I can't walk but my mind works pretty well.

Otherwise disabled said...

"Yes, and your little diagrams are an insult to the intelligence of disabled people.

I can't walk but my mind works pretty well."

Had it occurred to you that some people who have learning difficulties or acquired brain injuries find it difficult to absorb information solely from words and find it helpful to have visual prompts?

Putting it bluntly, your mind might work pretty well, but not everyone's does. From what I've seen of Kaliya's work here and elsewhere, it's not just those with physical impairments that she stands up for.

That's why, for example, when she posts a video, she posts a transcript, because most of the people on here can say that their hearing works pretty well, but not all disabled people can.

Indigo Jo said...

"Jew" doesn't belong in the list of insulting words you opened your article with -- Jews call themselves that. There are lots of nasty words for Jew though, such as kike and Yid (when used in English -- some Jews still speak Yiddish and in that language, it's the normal word for Jew).

IndigoJo: I'm a bit of a shit Jew, having a Jewish mother is about as close as I get but Jew made it onto the list simply because it was an insult I remember having hurled at me as a child, "you dirty Jew" in a playground by other children - and I thought it was quite a good example of a word which can be made to be insulting but also is a proper name.

Anonymous said...

Moralist have trouble reclaiming words that have passed through linguistic evolution; they are forced to accept that the word no longer portrays what it once meant.
if a word is used to portray the term "idiot", then that is what the words means.
i wish Moralists would take the lead so brilliantly presented by social groups who have faced genuine oppression.
i like the way the gay community has reclaimed the word "queer"; no longer can that word offend them, because they have desensitised themselves to its former derogatory connotation by using it to describe themselves.
Young Black Americans have successfully integrated the word "nigger" into their own language and by doing so they have made themselves largely immune to word's former vile potency.
Perhaps if the people that are offended by the derogatory terms used by Ricky Gervais were to reclaim the words for their own community, they would be less prone to hurt and Gervais would be scurrying around desperately attempting to concoct some new material.

Hi. This was one of the best posts I've read on words that slam people with disabilities. I'm mom to a kid with cerebral palsy and I've spoken out against the use of the word "retard." It is astounding how people dig in their heels and insist that it's a perfectly acceptable word to use. Comedians, in particular, cling to it.

What people don't seem to understand is that terms like "mong" and "retard" pain me because they perpetuate the idea of my son as being a lesser person, or stupid. Damned if I'm going to let people demean my son that way. That show, however, sounds brilliant; I am going to see if I can find the episode you mentioned.

Thanks again for a really smart, well-said post.

Otherwise disabled said...

Thelonius - queer and nigger are good analogies but not in the way you suggest, because the people they are directed at have reclaimed them, but it is still regarded as unacceptable for others outside the group to use them. For example, if a Black man calls himself a nigger, that is currently acceptable, although more, I think, to young people than to old people, but if a White person calls a Black person a nigger, it's a whole different kettle of fish. Ditto queer.

So if a person with learning difficulties wants to call themselves a mong or a retard, that's very different from someone else doing it.

Again, to use your analogy with queer and nigger, I don't believe it's generally regarded acceptable use of English to use either of these terms as an insult for people not falling within their ambit. If you used nigger as an insult to a White or Asian person, it wouldn't have become acceptable just because some Black people call themselves niggers. Ditto queer with straight people.

So if you want an example of a word to compare mong with that is an insulting word that is acceptable to use as an insult because it has been reclaimed by the people it refers to, you'll have to find another one.