God bless Ricky Gervais. No, really.
Derogatory language targeting disability and the disabled is the last bastion of true invective.
It’s part of an entrenched stigma attatched to low ‘ability’, both physical and mental. Witness that ‘thinking’ jobs are ever held in higher esteem and better paid than ‘doing’ ones. Those requiring support from society, whether ‘slower-developing’ children, single mothers claiming childcare allowance or an elderly person needing medical care are oft- regarded as a burden by many who are able to ‘stand on their own two feet’; and those supplying said support – teachers, medical staff, benefits agencies – are equally derided, and poorly paid to boot. The stigma of being dependent or ‘unintelligent’ and the sting of the words attached to such conditions will only lessen when we are able to confront and overcome our dysfunctional attitudes and where we start is in the words we use and how we use them.
Detractors of Hip-Hop, R’n’B and sub genres thereof will no doubt miss the point that n****r (or more properly, n***a) has become an infinitely richer and more nuanced word since being freed from the shackles of separatist oppression. Listen to much black music with an open mind and ears and you’ll hear it used affectionately, aggressively and various shades in between. Love it or hate it – and the jury’s out on that one both within black circles and without – it’s become, or at least is on its way to becoming, a full and legitimate word.
Likewise, it’s remarkable that terms like ‘poof’ and ‘fag-hag’ can now be routinely heard without hint of malice. Racism and homophobia haven’t gone away, of course but they’re no longer our supposedly civilised society’s dirty little secret and language is evolving along with attitutes. Some people’s attitudes, anyway. That’s down to hard work and commitment on the part of Gay Rights lobbyists like Peter Tatchell, shouting terms like ‘gay’ and ‘poof’ with pride; not whispering them with ill-disguised contempt.
There are those still bemoaning the fact that ‘you can’t say “gay” anymore’ (even though you clearly can). It would anyway require a once extraordinary degree of idiocy to infer homosexuality in most contexts where one was referring to happiness. Come to think of it, ‘Idiot’ used to be recognised medical terminology (for a mental retardation or low intelligence) as recently as the early twentieth century. Likewise Gervais wasn’t being derogatory by referring to his fans as ‘Mongs’ any more than Dr Dre was by referring to DJ Muggs as ‘my n***a’ (and if you can remember that song and the album it was on then you maybe remember the bad old days when racism was barely talked about in public at all). It must be equally clear to most that Mel Gibson is, incontrovertibly bigoted. Hopefully, we’ll reach a point where n***a will become common currency among all, regardless of ethnicity (or not, simply based on it’s value and popularity as a word) because either way, we’ll know that race has ceased to be the big divide it used to, and too often still is.
The point is that words and their meanings are not set in stone; they only become that way when we clasp them to our breast in fear. We need to share them; fight over them; play with them; pull them apart and stick them back together in new and imaginative ways. What is wonderful about our age is that the debate about what means what and to who is happening live before our very eyes (and ears).
We’re clearly not comfortable with disability. Let’s talk about that.
That’s why people like Gervais are important: they confront our expectations; they make us squirm with discomfort, and then what can you do? You just have to laugh.