It is okay Ofcom says to use the word ‘mong’

Posted at January 24, 2012 | By : | Categories : Disability | 0 Comment

A dangerous ruling on discriminatory language.

This blog has contained lots of descriptions of how language changes over time. The word Gay is a classic example of just that from the élan of Evelyn Waugh’s use of the phrase to the civil rights marches of the 1960s through to the use of the term as a pejorative today. The same might be said for the word ‘coloured’ as Mr Alan Hansen recently discovered. So what of the word ‘mong’ ?

It was clearly in former years a word used in an offensive and pejorative manner of those with Down’s Syndrome so when the comedian Ricky Gervais used the word in a tirade against the singer Susan Boyle he was much criticised.

Now the TV watchdog Ofcom has rejected complaints that Gervais’s use of the word ‘mong’ during a stand-up show was offensive. The Office star and controversial comedian claimed that Britain’s Got Talent singer Susan Boyle looked like a ‘mong’ during his ‘Science’ live show on Channel 4 last year.

During a tirade about the Scots singer in October, Gervais said: ‘She would not be where she is today if it wasn’t for the fact that she looked like such a f*****g mong.’

‘When she first came on the telly, I went, “Is that a mong?” You all did.’

The jibes saw charity bosses write to Gervais to demand he stop using the word, which they saw is a cruel nickname for Down’s Syndrome sufferers.

Ofcom has ruled that although Gervais’s comments could cause ‘considerable offence’, they were justified in the context of a late night comedy show.

The decision seems to us as highly confused. On the one hand there is an acceptance that the word is not neutral and that it can cause offence – i.e. the Gervais argument that language changes and that now it is no longer offensive is an empty one. On the other hand timing and context is king. Is the regulator really saying that if it is late enough and if it is in the context of comedy that any term, any word is acceptable? We would suggest therein lies a very, very dangerous precedent. But they said that Gervais was ‘justified in the context of provocative comedy’

Ofcom said that in the name of freedom of expression, no word was banned after the TV watershed. However, there must be a good reason for using language many people find offensive.

The regulator’s own research found that many people did not know of ‘mong’ came from the term ‘mongoloid’ – an offensive term for people with Down’s syndrome – but it ‘could cause considerable offence to those who are aware of the association’. Might we suggest that they didn’t ask people who were likely to be the object of such discrimination? If they had they would have heard the word is still hugely unacceptable.

In its ruling, Ofcom said: ‘We noted that the programme began at 22:35, more than an hour and a half after the watershed, and that therefore most viewers of the programme would have been expecting stronger and more challenging content.

Although Gervais claims ‘mong’ is no longer a derogatory term, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) still classifies it as offensive:

Its entry states:

‘Mongol: A person with Down’s syndrome. Now generally regarded as offensive.’

The use of the word harks back to the implied similarity in appearance of those with Down’s syndrome and the Mongol race of East Asia – who established an empire in much of Eurasia during the 13th century.

Gervais has been criticised by the Down Syndrome’s Association for his repeated use of the word.

The award-winning comedian and writer landed himself in hot water for a second time with his use of the word by repeatedly using the word ‘mong’ on his Twitter account and blog.

After using the word on the micro-blogging site, Gervais was eventually questioned by Nicola Clark, a disability campaigner and mother of two disabled girls. Mrs Clark broke down in tears while discussing the row on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 show last October.

Mrs Clark had wept while discussing the abuse directed at her daughters by people on the street using words like ‘mong’. Multi-millionaire Gervais went on to describe his use of ‘mong’ as ‘naive’ in an online conversation with Mrs Clark.

Gervais then contacted Mrs Clark on Twitter to offer ‘a very public thank you’ for her ‘kind, rational and understanding words in private’ since the issue broke.

Words do hurt, they damage and they take people to the edge. We all need to be more sensitive than Ofcom’s fairly inadequate research. If words are about building a communication with the other – why use a word which could cause offence even if you the user are not offended?

Dr Donald Macaskill

Source: The Mail and others.
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Related reads:

Is the word coloured racist?

Disability terminology and language.

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