Monday 10th October 2011
Today I felt a bit like I had gone 12 rounds with a super strong but tiny boxing champion who had only been able to hit me in the legs. I admired him for not hitting me in the balls. It wasn't quite the debilitating pain I had felt after doing the Marathon, when walking downstairs gave me a terrifying glimpse of the decrepitude of old age, but it still hurt. And even though I probably had ten hours sleep I was tired and confused for most of the day, forgetting entirely that I was meant to be meeting an old pal from University tonight and struggling my way through a couple of interviews for future Objective shows.
Still show 2 is about disability, so it gave me some sense of empathy that my own ability to move was impeded (if only temporarily). One of the thing that astounds me about the general population's attitude towards disability (whether it's fear, disdain or just the attempt to pretend there's no such thing) is that ultimately it is going to be the fate of us all (except those lucky enough to be mown down in an accident at a young age). A few years ago I was discussing with a disabled person how I should refer to people who weren't disabled - "non-disabled" seems like a double negative, "abled" sounds daft and does not feel like a fair description of most people (I don't feel particularly able). She replied that the term she used was "the not yet disabled" which is funny, but also incredibly revealing. It was a bit of a "mote falling from the eyes" moment for me I remember. If we don't die suddenly we are all going to gradually become more and more disabled, so you'd think that self interest would make us all anxious to fight for equality for those with disabilities or at least improve disabled access and increase the numbers of disabled toilets. But just because we are unable or unwilling to envision our own gradual demise we pretend it's someone else's problem. Just pretend you're going to be young and mobile forever and that there's no danger of you being in an accident or getting a disease - as long as the money had been freed up to ensure you get your bins collected every week then all is cool with the world (though aren't you able to dispose of your own rubbish? What's wrong with you? That's the kind of lazy service that all those people you imagine are claiming disability allowance would need isn't it?). Does something actually have to happen to us before we can start thinking of the world from another's perspective? I guess it does.
But go and run 13 miles and then tomorrow you will have a little taster of what life could be. And even then your legs will still be working.
In one of the interviews today I also discussed disablist language, something that I think many comics are guilty of using as convenient and humourless punchlines. I don't think any of them would do the same with the word "nigger" or "paki" but they're happy to use "mong" or "retard" as a means of getting a laugh. And audiences will laugh at those words too and rarely even complain about them. But I think they do equate with those racial and homophobic epithets that are rarely heard these days. They do confirm the stereotype of disabled people and contribute to their further isolation in a world that already tries to pretend they don't exist. Ricky Gervais is new to Twitter and seems to have spent the first couple of weeks mainly posting pictures of himself pulling the kind of faces that school children pull to parody the disabled and calling people "mongs". Obviously some people picked him up on it as he tweeted "Just to clarify for uptight people stuck in the past. The word Mong means Downs syndrome about as much as the word Gay means happy." He didn't care to clarify what it does now mean and the accompanying pictures made it easy to assume that it had been broadened out to mean any disabled person. He added "ie I never use the word Mong to mean anything to do with Downs Syndrome. Just like I never use the word cunt to female genitalia." So I guess he means that the word "mong" has just become short hand for idiot. I must have missed that meeting. I agree that when people say "cunt" they more often than not are not thinking of female genitalia at all, so would agree that that word has changed. But when I hear the word "mong" it always makes me think of people mocking disabled people, usually with an accompanying gurn. Like you might argue that the word "Paki" no longer means "Pakistani", it refers to anyone from the Indian sub-continent or any of the places where people have a vaguely similar skin tone. My interview guest, the brilliant Christina Martin (you may have seen her letters in Viz), argued that whilst enough progress has been made in feminist and gay causes for people to be able to use the old offensive words with some sense of irony, the same is not true for the disabled. Many comics do refuse to acknowledge that the disabled insults are in any way similar to the racist ones (and if they use any of these words in an interesting or thought-provoking way then that's all well and good), but as Christina said today it's just hard to see why so many people want to hold on to the right to carry on using these words, like some massive right is being taken away from them. What would they really lose if they stopped casually saying "mong" and "retard" and what would be gained if they did? I can understand Gervais' impulse to dig his heels in and say the words even more, like he's standing up to some kind of politically correct backlash. But if the words are upsetting some people and perpetuating a stereotype, isn't it more noble and thoughtful to just admit you might have made a mistake and stop? It's like the golliwog stuff in a lot of ways. Is this doll so important that it's worth defending or is it just something we can move away from now out of a sense of politeness?
As with all subjects there is stuff to joke about and satirise in disability and our attitudes to it and even the fact that as kids we would use the word mong and pull stupid faces because we were too stupid or fearful to understand the issues. Gervais has done this with some wit in some of his TV work, so I find his attitude a bit strange on this one. And it makes me start to wonder whether some of the other stuff he is doing is laughing with or laughing at.
None of us are perfect on any of this stuff and when you're playing with controversial topics you are bound to hit some bumps and you have to make your own decisions about what it right and what is wrong, but in this case there seems to be more kneejerk than consideration from Gervais and I'd be interested to find out what he thinks "mong" now means.
I can see already this is going to be another tricky show to write, but hopefully I can rise to the challenge.
There's a taster clip of the forthcoming Christ on a Bike release. You can preorder if now from Go Faster Stripe, the only place you can get the bonus third disc which includes an exclusive Collings and Herring video podcast and the 1999 documentary "Richard Herring in Fiji" and much, much more. The DVD will be out at the end of the month, though if you're impatient you can pay an extra pound and the 3rd disc will be sent out to you straight away!
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