Thursday, October 20, 2011

Outer Mong-don't-go-there

Okay, so my arm was twisted by an alert reader, I'll enter the fray.

Apparently, twitter has been a-flutter after Ricky Gervais tweeted a series of jokes in which he plays with the word "mong." Previously, we dealt with profoundly mean-spirited, nasty, spiteful jokes about disability (Ofcom and About A Boy), but this has a different quality to it.

As I'm sure you all know, "mong" is a term of derision for people with mental retardation, especially people with Down Syndrome. The "stigmata" of Down Syndrome can include macroglossia (a big tongue, hence elegant impersonations that involve putting your tongue under your lower lip and going "nhhhuhhhh"), the rather more imaginatively-named "simian crease" ("get your simian crease off of me, you damned dirty ape"), and, of course, prominent epicanthal folds, which spurred the popularisation of the term "mongoloid", cleverly contracted to "mong". There is nothing affectionate or endearing about the word "mong"; it's a crass and pejorative diminutive of a weirdly racist characterisation of a feature associated with a number of conditions associated with mental retardation. A whole history of dismissive, contemptuous, belittling, and arrogantly misconstrued cruelty is captured in that term.

But then isn't there something affectionate and endearing to be found when we recall the foibles and stupidities and cruelties of childhood? We might call it "sentimentality" when it is handled crassly, but when it is handled well - think Mark Twain - something human can be extracted from those foibles, stupidities, and cruelties; to call it "innocence" is just lazy moralising; instead, we might look back at how we moved through the world blinking and opening and closing our eyes, and, in the retrospective impermanence that lacquers the permanence of youth as something antique and precious, we might realise that because we were wrong and wrong-headed and yet still loved the world and wanted more of it, there is the possibility of forgiveness. Or, to put it another way (which I must do, because my readership is largely limited to simpletons and cretins): forgiveness is possible because we forgive ourselves for acting badly, but the impulse for forgiveness needs to find purchase in the love and liveliness that was bound up in the foibles, stupidities and cruelties, allowing us to surpass those foibles, stupidities and cruelties.

So there is, in Ricky Gervais tweets about mongs, something archaic, intentionally old-fashioned, and even nostalgic; he's playing with a term that has (for very good reason) gone out of fashion. He's not approaching it with sentimentality, for which we can be very grateful; he's not approaching it with sensitivity, and, again, for that we can be grateful. It's like a sore in the cultural mouth that he is tonguing, probing, he's seeing what sort of jets of pain he can generate and locate, and it's not unpleasurable, and it's a way of being alive in the moment; that's an important type of comedy.

That would be my defence. And, even recognising what is being packaged in that term, I would stand by it. I would argue it further if I had to. I would not say that it somehow vindicates or expunges the history of dismissive, contemptuous, belittling, and arrogantly misconstrued cruelty captured in that term, but also that the comedy is not a simple extension and revivification of that history, that it does something more complicated, and valuable.

Unfortunately, I could not call Gervais up as a witness in support of my defence. Rather, Gervais seems to be taking a truly boring, quasi-empiricist stance in response to the furore. He apparently thinks that the word no longer has the historical significance that actually gives his jokes any frisson, and in fact, he tweets quite the opposite, saying that he has been using a different contemporary meaning of the word, as if he brushed his teeth with a magic toothbrush and scoured away any historical residue in the words coming out of his mouth. He tweeted:

Well done everyone who pointed out that Mong USED to be a derogatory term for DS Gay USED to mean happy. Words change. Get over it.

Richard Herring responds:

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.


Others have hopped on the "politically correct" bandwagon. I won't tire you, or myself, with a diatribe against the concept of "political correctness", except that there's this tiresome line of thinking that supposes the purpose of comedy is to put some sand in the political vaseline, that it's okay to be mean-spirited because it's an affront to certain political sensibilities, and yadda yadda (see, for example, this, in the Tonedeafegraph, which actually includes Stewart Lee's definitive response to any lingering question of "political correctness"). Gervais fuels the popping and fizzing embers of the great PC conflagration, moaning:

The humourless PC brigade have been out in force trying to influence the vote with ill informed negative comments... thanks for the support as others wilfully misunderstand to justify their point.

It's not just the clodding, lumbering swipe at the "humourless PC brigade" but the lipglossy gratitude for support, because, um, "others wilfully misunderstand to justify their point." Yes, but actually comedy could be defined as wilfully misunderstanding life in order to justify a point. That's what comedy is. It's a wild, witty compaction of misunderstandings about life that communicate something vivid, the way a caricature misunderstands a face in order to justify a characteristic, the way jokes misunderstand social and cognitive complexities in order to justify a point about a way of being in the world. And so on. But, going back to "political correctness", we should remember how Stewart Lee, in his magnificent piece quotes Stephen Merchant at length about this topic; it is worth re-quoting at length:

Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais, says: "We're endlessly cited as being non-PC, and yet we sit and agonise for ages over what we put into the scripts, and over whether our choices can be defended, both morally and intellectually," he says. "We may push things, but we're always motivated by satirical imperatives." But the duo's scripts do use non-PC language? "Yes," explains Merchant, clearly slotting back into a tramline he has had to follow many times before. "But we deal in taboos and hot areas by appearing to approach them from a non-PC standpoint, but as soon as you even introduce topics that PC has declared off limits, people assume you are trying to be dangerous and politically incorrect. Often we're all unsure of what to say, for example, in the company of someone who is disabled. These are areas ripe for comedy because of social anxiety, not because the subject itself is intrinsically funny. A joke about race, and about how we react to race, is not necessarily a racist joke. That is fundamental. Political correctness has made the world better for those who might otherwise have been unfairly marginalised, but there is the problem of the idea that you cannot discuss different areas for fear of being politically incorrect."

Gervais is caught up in the roiling snippets of twitter, and is responding with tweets: there have been a great many brilliant, funny tweets, but compare his responses to Merchant's and you begin to see the limitations of the form. Comedy is all about reflexes, but beware reflexive responses to comedy. Especially in tweet form.

Now, one of the things I love about Merchant's quote is its concession to confusion; another is how he is committed to the integrity of comedy. One Gervais tweet is "Two mongs don't make a right". Is there, as Merchant puts it, a satirical imperative? Can we agonise over this to see whether it is morally and intellectually justified? Actually, yes and yes. The satirical imperative is precisely how two mongs can make a right, that the current use of "mong" and its defunct-but-alive meaning, two mongs, make a satirical right: the right to throb for a moment with a regretted memory, accompanied by the flush of pleasure that comes from recalling transgressions. And can we not agonise over the connections being forged here, "connections" that are not so much links as unformed nuggets of shared meaning: the relationship between derogatory terms and rights, a weird relationship where the right not to be called a derogatory name becomes established at which point that derogatory name becomes permissible again (think "gay" - precisely the word Gervais comes up in his denunciation of this line of reasoning); the relationship between people and rights, where rights develop out of coalescing people into groups, so that while, arguably, rights are inherent to the individual, to one person, they obtain to that person because that person is perceived as belonging to a mass; and so on. There is little in this offhand pun to guide our subsequent agonies, it's a tossed-off joke, but it's not nothing.

It can hardly be a coincidence that this evening I've been humming Morrissey's most humanistic foray into the grotesque. That the video ends before the climax has its own resonance with the above debate:


Daniel said...

Brilliant and - as Steve says - definitive piece.

I don't think you mentioned Gervais apparently sincere and uncharacteristically pompous assertion that all criticism of this line was motivated by envy.

Or his strange blog assertion that no comedian should ever apologize for an offensive joke, because if it merited an apology it shouldn't have been told in the first place. Fine. But what if the comic gets it wrong? Where does that leave him? I guess we've just found out.

Heston said...

But does Ricky Gervais tweet as "himself" or as "Ricky Gervais" - ie a bit of a cunt?

sw said...

Thanks for your comments - I intend to post more explicitly (again) about comedians apologising.

Heston raises a great point: am I treating one voice (the joking voice) differently than another (the "himself" voice), when in fact these might be one and the same?

I don't see how it would change my analysis, but I appreciate the relevance of the point and accept its caution.