From Guardian.co.uk ‘Comment is free', 1 June 2010 (by Christina Martin).
Nobody cried censorship when a Big Brother contestant was evicted for using the n-word. Is joking about ‘retards' different?
Last week, Ofcom overturned a decision it had made in regard to the use of the word “retard” on a Channel 4 show. Like Nicola Clark, I too was watching Big Brother's Big Mouth when Vinnie Jones and Davina McCall joked about her “walking like a retard”, complete with full comedy demonstration of what a “retard” may walk like.
I was fairly shocked. Not because of Jones – this is a man who, among other things, made a recklessly violent tackle that left a fellow football player with a career-shortening injury. He's not going to be a particularly high-minded individual. However, McCall, as the host, had not only failed to steer him away from this dodgy ground, but had actively joined in.
At this point, I caught myself hoping that if not her, then surely someone in the control room would have spotted this massive faux pas. So I sat there expecting a brief apology after the first break – nothing huge, just a quick “sorry for the colourful language”. But no. The second break then? OK, perhaps the third? Nothing.
Surely if I was to complain to Channel 4 direct, they would apologise? Nope. They informed me, in so many words, that it was just a bit of fun. Well, as the sister of someone with a learning disability, and somebody who has seen disablist bullying first hand, I disagreed. Several weeks later an apology has eventually been extracted. I doubt it would have taken that long to elicit an apology for racist language.
As well as seeking an apology from Channel 4, Clark and Mencap also approached Ofcom, whose initial and rather baffling ruling was that the word wasn't offensive because it wasn't being specifically aimed at a disabled person. The fact that it was being used as a term of derision and a form of mockery seemed to go over their heads. The campaigning continued, and Ofcom eventually overturned the ruling as well, concluding that the use of the word was not justified by the context.
The back story out of the way, I'm more interested in discussing the reactions to the ruling. Keep in mind this is one ruling about one use of the word. This is not a general ruling about the word itself, or a call for a blanket ban. Broadcasting standards are always judged on context.
I was quite surprised, and quite wearied, to see some people cry “censorship” – such an over-used and often misplaced term. To my mind, it only truly applies when genuinely edgy, meaningful and defensible forms of expression are being unreasonably stifled. Bill Hicks being cut from David Letterman, for example. Not Jones doing a “retard” walk on a reality TV spin-off show. If something is offensive, but can be fully defended in context – Jimmy and Timmy, for example, the disabled characters from South Park – then it won't end up being censored, because it would stand up under scrutiny.
Think of it as a crap filter. We don't lose anything that was worth having.
We've been through this sea change before, and it didn't bring about the end of free speech. In fact, we're better for it. We're all collectively happy to see the back of racist language. Accordingly, nobody cried censorship when a contestant was removed from Channel 4's Big Brother house for saying the n-word. And quite rightly so. It wasn't censorship, it was the natural consequence of socially unacceptable behaviour.
It would be nice to get to a similar place with disablist language. These words are only used as insults and slurs. They have no worth and serve only to cause unnecessary upset to disabled people and their families. Worse still, they fuel bullying and hate crimes.
We have the privilege of free speech. We denigrate that privilege every time we use it without taking account of the rights that come with responsibilities. Just because you can say something, it doesn't mean you should.