Calling a spade a spade is fine if that's what it wants to be called
RICKY GERVAIS is currently suffering – or, more likely, enjoying – a spell of internet notoriety. Returning to something called Twitter, the creator of The Officebegan making copious use of the word “mong”.
For anybody who was raised in a kinder, gentler playground, the term is generally thought to be an abbreviation of “mongoloid”. Gervais has not, we should stress, been using the epithet to refer to people with Down syndrome. He’s directed it towards himself, his collaborators and, as the scandal brewed, more than a few Twitter users. As the week drew on, the controversy crept its way into proper, grown-up media outlets.
I (genuinely) don’t think Gervais is engineering a publicity campaign, but, given his upcoming projects, the teacup typhoon does suit him quite nicely. Next month, working with co-writer Stephen Merchant and actor Warwick Davis, he launches a new comedy series entitled Life’s Too Short. Davis plays a version of himself: a showbusiness dwarf who endures patronising comments daily. In the very funny trailer, we see Helena Bonham Carter, while appearing in a scene with Davis, complaining: “It’s very hard to work with this, given the way it looks.” There will be complaints.
We don’t know how Life’s Too Shortwill turn out. But, given the show is conceived and co-written by Davis, it will prove difficult to make any accusations of sizeism stick.
The “mong” controversy is a very different matter. We can, surely, dismiss Gervais’s feeble defence that, after being absorbed into everyday banter, the word is simply a harmless synonym for “idiot”. Gervais is cleverer than that. It’s not as if the term has obscure origins in ancient Anglo-Saxon. The coinage is sufficiently recent that echoes of its derivation will cause many decent people to shudder. “Spastic” is no longer a formal term for a person with cerebral palsy. But it’s probably best to avoid using it when bellowing at the van driver who’s just reversed into your rose garden.
The question is how prescriptive we should be when considering terms that some people find offensive. Gervais quoted Stephen Fry in his defence: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that’, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine . . . Well, so f**king what?” (Feel free to ponder the irony of our inserting asterisks to avoid causing “offence”.)
Fry is absolutely correct. A kind of weedy liberal Puritanism has crept into modern discourse. A few years ago, while participating in a panel discussion about extreme cinema, I referred to one film character as being “a prostitute”. A speaker from the floor – citing “offence” – demanded that I use the term “sex worker”. Here is a case where the new lexicon stifles clarity. “Sex worker” could refer to an actor in the pornography industry, a phone-sex operative or somebody who straddles poles for the entertainment of lobotomised businessmen. Until another, tamer word for “prostitute” emerges then I will, in this area at least, continue to cause offence. The fact some group is offended by a term is not, in itself, reason to stop using it.
And yet, Fry himself knows that, even when imposing inverted commas, certain words should be handled with surgical gloves and long tweezers. In his current series Planet Word, while dryly discussing the word “nigger” with Stephen K Amos, a black comedian, he allowed the comic to breathe the epithet. Stephen himself chose to use that coy construction, “n-word”.
A blanket ban on all racial, sexual and disability-based epithets is not as attractive a prospect as it might sound. The reclamation of offensive terms (you know them, so we won’t repeat any) by the black and gay communities allows delicious subversion. The uneasy comedy of the venerable TV show Till Death Us Do Part– featuring arch-bigot Alf Garnett – worked to reveal the blank ignorance at the heart of much bigotry.
Yes, there are dangers. Johnny Speight, the impeccably left-wing creator of Garnett, always admitted many viewers laughed with rather than at his immortal creation. Too many young white people, juiced up by hip-hop, think its okay to brandish the word that Stephen Fry can’t bring himself to say. But writers and performers, sure in their thinking, should not feel inhibited by potential misinterpretations of raving idiots.
So where does that leave us? Confused, I fear. The abiding principles must, surely, be those of civility, consideration and empathy. We should, where reasonable, call people what they want to be called. But if writers, artists and tweeters want to risk offence, they should be allowed to do so. No liberal-minded person would want to legally prohibit Gervais from wielding that epithet for a person with Down syndrome.
His friends should, however, point out that, while saying it once comes across as edgy, repeating the offence begins to make you look like an ill-mannered jerk. With apologies to the jerk community.