Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The power of words
There's been something of a twitter-storm going on over the last couple of days. It started when the comedian Ricky Gervais posted a series of tweets using the word 'mong' as an insult, usually accompanied by a picture of Gervais pulling a gurning face. When a large number of people pointed out that this was offensive, hurtful and not in the least bit funny, Gervais complained that the humourless PC brigade were out to censor his right to free speech. He encouraged his followers to post more of the offensive material and a lot of it has been sent directly to anyone who had complained about the original posts.
So what is going on here?
Contrary to some people's belief, there are limits to what you can say online. You can be charged with a criminal offence for inciting hatred, violence - as several would-be rioters found to their cost when they posted their plans to riot on Facebook. Does Gervais step over the line of legality in this case? I am not a lawyer, but I would say no, although some of his followers are treading a lot closer in their use of threatening language.
So, what are his justifications for using the word? He says that he is reclaiming the word in the same way as other hateful words have been reclaimed. However in this case, he is not a member of the minority being offended, so this doesn't really stand up.
A more valid defence is that the usage is making a serious point through humour. I strongly believe in the value of offensive comedy as a powerful tool to puncture the pomposity of the powerful. When we hear something shocking, it can force us to re-evaluate something that we had taken for granted or simply not considered. On this occasion, Gervais is operating on the juvenile level of a school yard bully, picking on the weak and vulnerable. It's not big, it's not clever and it's certainly not funny.
The final line that has been spun is that the complaints are mere 'political correctness'. To this I would say that if people tell you that a word is hurtful, then it is simply polite to apologise and stop using it.