Wednesday 19 October 2011

Attack of the Flying Monkeys

I've just had a flying monkey call me 'a spineless cunt'.

Yes, really, though I should point out that these aren't the pro-Wicked Witch flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz fame. Flying Monkeys are what Nicola Clark (@MrsNickyClark on Twitter, and one of the good guys of the disability rights movement) calls the rabid fans who attack her on-line when she criticizes their heroes for using disablist language.

The latest celebrity she has challenged is Ricky Gervais (@RickyGervais), who has set out to single-handedly repopularise the use of 'mong', a word disability groups have spent a long time trying to eradicate from the language of abuse. In many ways 'mong' is Britain's 'retard', the disablist insult that's an all purpose term of abuse for disabled and able-bodied alike. But at the heart of it, the source of its power, is the implication that to be a 'mong', to be born with Downs Syndrome, is to be reduced to some kind of sub-human village idiot, worthy of nothing but being the butt of jokes, a figure of fun, and hate.

Gervais tries to claim that 'mong' no longer has this meaning, but its sole power comes from the abuse of disabled people, and that abuse continues to this day, with many, many disabled people having faced it on the streets for no reason other than their disability. I actually haven't, 'scrounger' seems to be the term of choice when complete strangers confront me for daring to be disabled in public, but that's close enough to tell me how deeply that assault on your identity, your equality, your basic membership of the human  race, cuts, and to teach me how easily those words can turn into physical assault. So when I hear that someone isn't just using the term, but is encouraging others to use it, and that man is someone with 400,000 followers on Twitter, then I understand exactly why @MrsNickyClark needed to challenge him.

Nicola Clark can make her argument better than I can, and she does it eloquently in her Guardian article, but Gervais's response hasn't been to sit back, think about the issue, and admit that he was being unwise. No, instead he's upped his use of the term, complete with gurning pictures that make his real intent very clear, and urged his followers to rally against (and I quote) 'the haters and mentals' - by their words shall you know them....

Earlier this evening I saw one of his followers post a tweet "Let's try to get 'mong' trending" - for the non-Twitterati, this means having a notably high number of occurrences in current tweets and it can draw a lot of attention beyond those who follow the original poster. Not wanting that kind of post to go unchallenged I put up a counter-tweet, pointing out that he was calling for an attack on disabled people. It rapidly became obvious that hadn't even occurred to him, and that illustrates the danger of what Gervais is trying to do. By popularising the use of the word, he makes it socially acceptable, which means firstly that disabled people are being regularly demeaned by people who don't even know they're doing it when they use it against non-disabled targets, and secondly it gives aid and succor to those who do use it as disablist abuse by robbing their crime of any social sanction. Disabled people lose on all fronts, Gervais laughs all the way to the bank.

I'd barely managed to convince the first poster that what he was calling for was wrong, when a flying monkey arrived and, as flying monkeys are wont to, demonstrated his outrage with a display of faeces-flinging, amongst which was the choice accusation I opened with, that I'm a 'spineless cunt' for wanting people not to abuse disabled people - which apparently also makes me 'an aggressive bully'. Not being one to shrink from an argument, I tried to give as good as I got without resorting to faeces-flinging. I think the thing that came through most (and this went on most of the evening, ending with him swearing he's not done with me) was the sheer inability to empathize with someone with a disability. Challenged for protesting on-line, not in person, I pointed out that on-line campaigning is the only kind of activism open to me, only to be repeatedly taunted that real activists are out in the streets, the implication seemingly that those who can only take issue on-line are some kind of dilettantes without any real right to protest.

That's actually worrying beyond the Gervais issue because it suggests there are a lot of people out there who don't value anyone whose disability restricts them to non-traditional roles (not really a surprise, but it's not nice to have it confirmed to your face), but it's specifically worrying over the Gervais issue because it demonstrates just how dangerous the ability of celebrities to manipulate their fans can be, and that's why Gervais can't be allowed to go unchallenged. So kudos to Nicola Clark for having the resilience to go head to head with people like him, knowing full well that the flying monkeys are out there and ready to unleash a shit-storm of hate.

If you aren't already one of @MrsNickyClark's followers, I thoroughly recommend her for sensible comments on disability rights. If, on the other hand, you're a follower of @RickyGervais, why are you siding with the person who wants to make the lives of disabled people worse?

Returning to the opening faeces-flinging of 'spineless cunt' to close, if that's the cost of challenging disablist language then I'm happy to embrace being spineless (not to mention that it would likely mean being in a lot less pain!), but when it comes to being a cunt, sorry, I just haven't got the right equipment for that one.

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