My daughter is mentally handicapped, Mr Gervais. Would you think it was funny to call HER a 'mong'
Ricky Gervais may often act like a ten-year-old, but he’s lucky he isn’t one. If he were, there’s no way he would have escaped punishment for calling someone a ‘mong’ — the word he used to describe Susan Boyle on a late-night, one-off comedy show on Channel 4 last October.
He would have been forced to apologise, his parents would have been called into school and his name would have been added to an official education authority list along with other children deemed to have used racist, homophobic or other offensive words to describe classmates. The incident would have remained on file for the rest of his time at school.
Schools are under a statutory duty to report all incidents thought to be racist, and are encouraged to record and report all cases of bullying — as a result of which 40,000 children a year are being placed on education authority registers for making fun of other pupils on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other grounds.
Insensetive: Comedian Ricky Gervais (pictured left, at last week's Golden Globe awards), branded Susan Boyle (right) a 'mong' during a Channel 4 comedy show last October
But, of course, Mr Gervais is not at primary school. He is a comedian frequently employed by TV stations including Channel 4, the BBC and Sky, as a result of which he is what broadcasters like to call a ‘national treasure’. Consequently, different rules apply. On Monday, broadcast regulator Ofcom dismissed complaints about his use of the word ‘mong’ — which, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a clear reference to mental retardation derived from Mongol, an archaic term for someone with Down’s Syndrome — by claiming that he was merely ‘exploring the contemporary use of the word in a comedic context’.
'Some fans will now think it's OK to joke about the disabled'
As the father of a mentally handicapped 14-year-old girl — who has severe learning difficulties and the mind of a five-year-old child — I do dread the effect his comments, and Ofcom’s utter failure to condemn them, will have on public attitudes.
For some of his fans, sadly, his performance will have legitimised targeting the mentally handicapped for cruel jokes.
Ofcom’s ruling is a load of mealy-mouthed claptrap. Gervais knows full well that gratuitous offence is lapped up by drunken Friday night TV audiences. It is far from the first time he has used the word ‘mong’.
It’s not just Gervais who has got away with denigrating the mentally handicapped either. Such handicaps seem to be considered fair game among the crass generation of comics who dominate TV channels.
In November, Jimmy Carr was similarly let off after using the line: ‘Why are they called Sunshine Variety Coaches when all the children on them look the same’
Crass: Comedian Jimmy Carr has also been criticised for his jokes about mentally-handicapped children
It says something about the triumph of offence over wit in modern comedy that Carr can deliver over and over again a joke which, besides being crass, is fatally flawed in the logic department.
It should be obvious to anyone who has seen a Variety Club Sunshine coach that children with learning difficulties often display a degree of dysmorphia that makes them especially varied in their size, shape and appearance.
But then that misses the point about comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr: for them the offence is the ‘humour’, full stop.
Their device is to get men and women, usually inebriated, to giggle at words which, in any other context, have been banned by the political correctness police.
Offensive Yes. Apart from anything else, I am offended by the fact that I have been forced to fund this pair’s frequent appearances on the BBC through my licence fee.
But what offends common sense even more is that primary school children — many of them too young to know what racism and homophobia mean — are being hounded for making politically incorrect remarks while comedians are allowed to build careers on them.
Take ten-year-old Harrison Wiener from Oldham, whose name will be on an offenders’ register for the rest of his school life after he called a fellow pupil a ‘chocolate brownie’. There was no right-on regulator, in his case, to excuse his behaviour on the grounds he was ‘exploring the contemporary use’ of the words.
In fact, the authorities who passed his name on to Lancashire’s education department seemed oblivious to the fact the child whom he had offended was not brown or black. He was a white boy by the name of Brown, who had taunted Harrison by calling him a ‘sausage boy’ in reference to his Teutonic surname.
There was no sense of proportion, either, when ten-year-old Peter Drury of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, was put on an education register after calling a fellow pupil ‘gay’.
Of course, it is right that schools tackle racist and homophobic bullying, and that might include reprimanding children calling each other ‘gay’, even when they are using the word as a general insult — against another boy who might, for example, be wearing unfashionable trainers or have just missed an open goal in a playground soccer match — not as a reference to their sexuality.
Offensive: The comedian insisted the meaning of the word 'mong' has changed over time
But compiling Stalinist registers of offenders whose behaviour is then monitored throughout their school careers is just madness. Tens of thousands of children a year are being entered on these registers — which education authorities were first obliged to maintain under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, and which were later extended to cover allegedly homophobic and sexist incidents. Some of the children are as young as four.
'If Channel 4 cared about such cruelty it would ban him'
The irony is that in my experience, today’s primary school children are considerably more mature in their attitudes towards the mentally handicapped than are Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr. When it comes to offensive language, children and TV comedians seemed to have swapped places.
When I was at school 30 years ago, ‘spastic’ was a routine insult, as was ‘flid’ — a term originally referring to a child born deformed as a result of the morning sickness pill Thalidomide. It was horribly cruel language, and something which no TV producer would have contemplated allowing on TV, before or after the 9pm watershed.
I appreciate it is not every parent’s experience, but when my daughter attended the local primary before going on to a special school, I recall her encountering only kindness from the other children.
Channel 4 and Ofcom, on the other hand, seem to be pretty relaxed about casual derogatory remarks against the disabled.
Go to Channel 4’s website and you will read the usual platitudes about ‘diversity’. But if the channel — which, as a public-owned corporation ought to have a particularly strong sense of responsibility —really cared about cruelty towards minorities, it wouldn’t allow Ricky Gervais on its airwaves again.
Torment: Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her mentally-handicapped daughter after years of abuse
The station’s producers should know where casual denigration of the mentally handicapped on TV leads. Most viewers will just treat it as a piece of tasteless TV, but a few will interpret it as giving them permission to engage in making fun of the disabled, too.
Before long, you end up with families being subjected to the kind of torment that four years ago drove Fiona Pilkington to set her car alight, killing herself and her handicapped daughter, after a decade-long campaign of harassment in Barwell, Leicestershire.
For all the excesses of political correctness, Britain has become a kinder place towards minorities since racist, sexist and homophobic material started to disappear from TV, and since schools began to tackle genuinely demeaning playground language.
No one talks of a ‘barmy’ drive to ban the N-word, because it is obvious looking back to a culture in which black people were too often verbally abused.
But it serves no one any good when schoolchildren are subjected to an over-reaction by the machinery of the state for making what to them are innocent remarks, while TV comedians are let off the hook for crass jokes at the expense of the mentally handicapped.
Ricky Gervais’s remarks were a disgrace, but they have been compounded by an Ofcom ruling that seems to imply he should be above the rules that apply to everyone else.
The parents of any child hauled before their head teacher for using the word ‘mong’ will have good reason to feel deeply aggrieved.