By Jason Menard
How many mongs does it take to make it right? For some, it may never be the case, and it brings up the question of where does intent fit when using words that some find offensive?
It didn’t take long for Ricky Gervais to court controversy upon his return to Twitter following his self-imposed exile. He’s peppered his Twitter feed (and other forms of communications) with the term mong (sometimes accompanied by a picture of him contorting his face into various examples of the term slack-jawed oaf.
Apparently, on that side of the Atlantic, mong has also been used as a term to describe people with Down’s Syndrome – and not a flattering one at that. People are offended; Gervais said they shouldn’t be. He’s repeatedly stated that he’s never used the term to refer to people with Down’s, and that words change over time. Gervais has written in a post addressed to “uptight people stuck in the past,” that “[t]he word mong means Down’s Syndome about as much as the word gay means happy.”
He’s right. And I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this. Of course, I find Gervais absolutely hilarious and I have a high tolerance for offensive material. His argument is that the dictionary definition of mong has long been in reference to an idiot or a moron – words that the general public takes little issue with, unless, of course, they’re directed at you.
However, there are also those who take sincere offence to the world. And I also agree with them. After all, how can you not? It’s easy to sit back – especially as a 30-something white male – and say, “relax, they’re just words.” But our sensitivities tend to increase or decrease in direct proportion to our personal experience.
It’s easy to toss out words like “retard” or “fag” and not mean them in a hurtful way. I have a number of gay friends and family members whom I hold quite dear, but I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never laughed at a gay joke or perpetuated a stereotype. I know I’m not racist, sexist, or homophobic, but how can I justify the use of these terms to someone who does take offense to them?
Political correctness is the buzz term used to define reaction to these situations. There are those who veritably spit out the words in disgust, saying how “you can’t say anything these days without offending someone.” And then there are those to whom political correctness isn’t a matter of taste, but rather a sign of respect for their very being.
I don’t profess to be politically correct, but I do try to be correct. I don’t see the need to continue to use words that are hurtful just to stand on a principle. Just because it’s legally OK for me to use a term doesn’t make it morally or ethically right.
Does that mean speech has to be devoid of all controversy? Not at all. But if someone takes offence to a comment and has a legitimate reason to do so (not just because they disagree), then as a responsible human I need to take his or her feelings into consideration.
And that’s where we come back to the mongs. While Gervais asserts that he doesn’t use it in a negative way and never considered it, the fact is there apparently is still a sizeable segment of the population who still has issues with the word.
I think it’s great that Gervais and many others don’t associate mong with Down’s. That says a lot about them in a positive way. So too do I feel there are many people who don’t realize what certain terms mean to various people – take, for example, the many who didn’t get the racial implications of the John Labatt Centre banana incident. That’s a wonderful statement about where we’ve come to as a society.
But ignorance is only an excuse for so long. Once you’ve been made aware of the issue, then you have to make a choice. Do you stick to your guns and assert your rights to the word, or do you acknowledge that what you’re saying may be hurtful to someone else?
It’s not about political correctness; it’s about respecting other people’s point of view. And while it’s easy for us to stand in judgment about how other’s should feel – or say, “that’s not how I meant it” – we simply can’t discount the feelings of someone who has first-hand experience with the negative.
Only issue I have is that people are tongue tied around people like me, who have a disability. They would rather avoid me than risk offending me. I would rather have the chance to talk to them, and if necessary correct them in a kind and non judgmental way, assuming they had no ill intent.
That’s what I love about kids. They’re direct — they ask questions out of curiosity. Unfortunately, we tend to discourage that behaviour later in life. You’re right, it’s better to ask and engage instead of avoid and ostracise.