Thursday, October 20, 2011

Heated debates: mongs, spastics and housewives

The comedian Ricky Gervais has attracted criticism from a range of quarters for his use of the word mong in recent comments on Twitter. According to Radio 1 Newsbeat and  The Sun, Gervais's "jokes" have included  references to himself as being monged-up when pulling a face, welcoming his followers with good monging and many more hilarious quips that demonstrate his mastery of sophisticated wordplay.

Gervais claims that the word isn't offensive and has no connection to people who suffer from Down Syndrome (who back in my school days used to - cruelly - be called mongoloids, mongols or mongs, apparently because of the facial resemblance between sufferers and Mongolian people), but he's old enough and clever enough  to know that it is offensive for many many people. His argument - that language changes, get over it - is superficially attractive but ultimately disingenuous.

He knows that the word still carries connotations of abuse and is used to belittle and hurt, so why does he use it? Why not use twit, idiot or fool? And there are plenty of other ones to choose from too.

The Angry Mob blog runs a good feature on the story here and the comedian Richard Herring does a thoughtful post* about the language used to mock disabled people here:

I don't think any of them would do the same with the n-word  or "p*ki" 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.

The argument over offensive words has previously included references the golfer Tiger Woods made about playing "like a spazz" - derived from the word spastic, another term that's been used offensively in playground abuse - terms like retard (a word that landed the Black-Eyed Peas in trouble, when really they should be in jail for their utterly appalling ear pollution, rather than linguistic crimes) and the long debate over the the n-word and its reclamation.

And of course, more recently we've had a big debate over the use of the word slut as part of the slutwalk movement and a revival of arguments over the word chav and its meanings.

Even apparently inoffensive terms like housewife have come in for criticism recently, with a Mothercare survey revealing that two thirds of mothers find the term insulting. In a response to this survey, Lucy Mangan of The Guardian** looks at (not very serious) alternatives to housewife, such as milch cow and baby wrangler, but serious alternatives have been considered in the past, as this story about the Women's Institute back from 2006 shows.

So, is Gervais the victim of the old PC brigade? Are the feminazi and do-gooding liberal elite stormtroopers of the Political Correctness massive swinging into action. Has, for probably the millionth time (if you read the Daily Mail), PC really gone too far this time?

Well, what is PC? Part of the problem with the whole debate around Political Correctness is that the term itself is troublesome and contested by different groups. PC was initially connected to the women's rights movements of the 1970s and sought to draw attention to the inequalities in language that seemed to exist between men and women, changing the language to avoid discrimination and offence. It later grew to take in terms connected to race, sexuality and disability.

Words like chairman were challenged, and uses of language that seemed to exclude or marginalise women and minority groups were discussed, and alternatives proposed. Many caught on in popular usage and have not been problematic since, but others proved more contentious. So when it was noted that a sentence like "Each student must bring his notes to class" might be perceived as sexist, the alternatives "their notes", or even invented gender-neutral pronouns like "hesh", attracted ridicule or grammatical pedantry ("How can their refer to one person when it it is a plural pronoun?" they asked).

As Deborah Cameron points out in her book on language intervention, Verbal Hygiene, the term Politically Correct was initially an ironic, self-mocking label applied by some feminists to poke gentle fun at their own "right-on-ness", but within the space of a few years opponents of PC - those who opposed changing some labels which might be considered offensive or insensitive, and who were often politically right wing and reactionary -  were using it as a term of abuse. In essence what the anti-PCers were arguing against was any attempt to reform the language, because they saw it as part of a radical political agenda with which they disagreed.

If the term PC is used now it's used very much as a term with negative associations. If you're PC you're humourless, probably militant and unbending in your views and more than likely want to ban Christmas and turn it into Winterval to avoid upsetting disabled lesbian Muslims. But regardless, arguments over sensitive and derogatory language usage still rage, and whether we call it PC or just linguistic sensitivity, people will still get upset about certain words and what they can mean, while others argue for their right to say anything they like.

So for this month's heated debate, where do you stand?

Can we control or influence which words are used in society?
Is it a positive step to challenge uses of words like mong and spastic?
Alternatively, is PC just a means of clamping down on freedom of expression?
Does changing language have any effect on wider social issues like racism and sexism?

Over to you...

* Thanks to @SFXEnglish for the link 
** and thanks to Jon Dolton for this one

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