This week Ricky Gervais found himself in trouble for using the word ‘mong’ on his Twitter feed, and for posting pictures of himself pulling ‘mong’ faces. He’s been taken to task on this by various Twitter big-hitters such as Richard Herring and Grace Dent, and the story has even made national news.
In response, Gervais has trotted the same old tired arguments about semantic shift (“Gay doesn’t mean happy anymore” etc) which don’t really wash: Gervais, a man who grew up in the 1970s, knows full-well what mong meant then and what it means now. It isn’t a nice word to use publically or privately, and coupled with his daft faces it’s hateful. What’s more, disability groups have condemned his actions, with one Mencap representative claiming such language can “perpetuate discriminatory attitudes”.
The whole thing echoes last month’s Twitter spat between comedian Jimmy Carr and Rav Wilding from Get Your Own Back over a 9/11 joke. The difference between that and Gervais is that Carr at least displayed some wit, and not the ugly, prodding playground behaviour of Gervais.
(Although, in saying that, perhaps the multi-millionaire, world-famous, successful, physically able Ricky Gervais is simply reclaiming the word on behalf of Down Syndrome people the world over. Nice one, pal!)
Some of Gervais’ tweets (“Those people aren’t really offended by what I say – they are offended by my success”) can be brushed off as laughable at best; the beginning of a paranoid breakdown at worst. But perhaps the most disturbing problem is the army of Twitter followers Gervais has amassed and the way in which they have responded to the criticism.
On October 9th, the sage Gervais tweeted: “You must never concern yourself with critics. That’s what they wish for – to make you as unhappy as they are. The best revenge is living well”. It turned out Ricky was referring to an article by Rachel Roberts in the Guardian, criticising his ‘mong faces’. Gervais – never concerned with the critics – later tweeted: “Please let this critic know what you think”, later adding “She’s desperate for your feedback”.
From there, the Gervais army stuck up for their leader en-masse, the general consensus being that journalists, sorry, ‘journalists’ (Why do people do this? Are they disputing the writer’s actual employment? Are they suggesting Rachel Roberts broke into the Guardian offices to publish her article under the cover of night while all the real journalists were at home finishing off ‘Top 10 Minorities Mocked in Extras’ pieces or something?) only criticise Gervais to get traffic to their sites – traffic orchestrated mainly by Gervais himself on his feed. How insecure must a multi-award-winning millionaire comedian be that he gets his ‘army’ of followers to attack anyone who dares tarnish his name?
The problem with famous people on Twitter is that people will invariably think they can do no wrong, and subsequently mimic their behaviour. Ricky Gervais has hundreds of thousands of followers because people like him, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be wrong. In this instance he is wrong – the ‘mong’ stuff, the incitement towards critics – but try telling that to his fans.
Gervais can have the last word. Today he told his followers: “Hi Guys I REALLY appreciate the support But please don’t engage and “return the hate”. I’m getting the blame for that too! Cheers”
For those interested, Neil Kennedy has written a much more accomplished and brilliantly in-depth article about all this. Ricky Gervais: Comedy Punching Down can be found here.