18 Jan 2015

Don’t use the N-word or ‘faggots’ but ‘retards’ is fine

First off let me preface this by declaring an interest – I am the father of an autistic boy.

Last night I was ringside for a performance of “Bull” at London’s Young Vic theatre. Literally so, since the set is a boxing ring.

Aptly enough for a 50-odd minute tight, taut, vicious, nasty and bleak bout of bullying-in-suits as playwright Mike Bartlett blasts into watercooler office politics as social Darwinism, where the weak will be mercilessly bullied to oblivion because the strong must prevail.

It is thoughtful stuff albeit delivered with all the deliberate unsubtlety of a DM steel-toe in the face.

But the real discomfort of the play lies in an area which may well be quite unintended by Bartlett but which says much about our easy tolerance – still – of bullying the weak.

It comes from one of the officer tormentors – Isobel – who routinely ridicules her target, Thomas, with a persistent line of disability abuse.

She calls her colleague a “retard”. She likens him as he stands there cowering to an “autistic penguin”. She says he behaves like a “spaz in a sweetshop”.

Of course the intended effect is for us to be further horrified by this pencil-skirt-and-stilettoed monster.

Except it spectacularly failed.

Because each of the above insults caused loud laughs from the audience. A typical London theatre audience: white, young and at least two of them actually reading The Guardian.

If our grotesque office bully had called her hapless, hopeless target a “faggot” had he been gay – any guffaws at that? I think not.

Did Bartlett just chicken out of that one I wonder?

What if he’d made Thomas black and Isobel icily called him the N-word or made monkey noises? Funny? I doubt it somehow. Or, god forbid, he was Muslim or Jewish. Did Bartlett simply  bottle it too with all those artistic possibilities?

But a string of disability insults? Well that’s just fine and our usual, tolerant, liberal, right-on London theatre audience is perfectly content to laugh along at “autistic penguin” and “spaz in a sweetshop” because quite plainly they think it’s funny.

Could be Bartlett is making a clever point rather brilliantly here, inviting the audience to fall into the trap by pulling a cheap laugh because disability discrimination is still basically ok whereas racism or homophobia is not ok. Suddenly we are all complicit, exposed.

But it didn’t feel that way for laugh at the bully’s jokes and you buy the bully’s agenda. And how they laughed…

It could also be that it’s just a cowardly play and falls itself straight into the trap of depicting nastiness by pandering to a form of discrimination that’s still acceptable to so many.

I know only this – a hell of a lot of people from the most liberal and tolerant section of our society laughed, and are laughing, at this stuff because they just think it’s funny.

And that message is far bleaker than anything the play itself has to say.

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17 reader comments

  1. C Muirhead says:

    Well said, Tomo. And i do hope some of those laughing will read your blog and feel ashamed.

  2. Jan says:

    And it says it all that there are no comments on this article. Society does not understand about disability and equality yet.

  3. david kirwan says:

    I am afraid the ridicule of people with autism is just the start, of a whole more serious set of consequences that laughter at that autism penguin joke leads to and to stay with the penguin theme. It’s genuinely the tip of the iceberg!

    For that ridicule & that acceptance of that sort of language becomes much darker and much more painful than some parents of autistic’s can imagine; This parent of kids with autism has seen and felt those consequences; which has left me in tear’s at the culmination of 6 yrs. of fighting for his autistic kids and despairs at the future for them, for it feels that the nightmare that this world is for them won’t ever change as long as the laughter at their differences continue.

    The same Guardian readers are the teacher’s, social workers, police officers, probation officers, lawyers, court staff and local government professionals that a person with autism who has found themselves in difficulties is meant to turn to for understanding support & help, my god Help. Help from people that will roll in the isles of a theatre at the poisonous hateful joke’s about autism and disabilities are the same people who we autistic’s are meant to turn to for help for ourselves & for our kids who have autism. Can you believe that?
    We are meant to feel confidence in all you happy lot who enjoy your secret indulgence in abuse of the disabled and Autistic’s; would you expect a black man to get a fair deal in his dealings with a paid up member of the British national front, who was helping him with his housing application?

    Well do i need to answer that for you? Of course not, but no doubt you will say it’s just harmless fun. Everyone really understands how hard it is for people with autism, we wouldn’t let that interfere with our professionalism; you would be treated with respect we are really nice people we care we do job’s that help people, we are the good guy’s; are you really, if you are can just to clarify how wrong you are, may I ask you one question?

    If someone who you needed help from ridiculed you laughed at you, found you and your difficulties hilarious, would you go to them for help? Would you expect the best from them on your behalf?

    For we suffer for your laughter that fuels the ignorance of our need’s the offhand manner we are treated the jokes made about us harm us and harm how we are treated, for you cannot treat someone’s problems seriously if you do not take them seriously.
    If you think this is rubbish then you should consider how many with autism’s suffer at the hands of you professionals, is there an autism policy in your work place? Have you had good autism training? Do you know enough to truly support an autistic? The answer for most of you is NO, NO & NO!

    For if it mattered you would be asking for that training for that knowledge, but across dept.’s across that isn’t happening and when someone like me, a mere autistic man of autistic kids fighting in his inevitable autistic way for rights for people with autism, challenges these failing with the people who make policy decisions, who schedules the training and decide what staff are trained in, well they don’t listen from the head of services, to lawyers to police they don’t listen to the heads of council’s to judge’s to politician’s they you all of you don’t listen & the cost to us is massive and painful & as I near the end of this piece of writing, stinging tears well up in my eyes, not tears of laughter at those hateful terms you so merrily laughed at.
    But tears of despair for me and for my kids and all the others with autism that through & because of your ignorant laughter you will fail us all…..

  4. Jamcc says:

    Well said. As a parent also to a beloved boy with autism, I hope one day that vile words like those you mention will be as unacceptable as are racist words.

  5. Philip says:

    For no doubt lots of good evolutionary reasons, we humans appear to be unable to accept that all of us are people and that we should treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves. The spectrum goes from ISIS murdering Yazidis unless they convert to their version of Islam to t**** bullying or laughing at people with autism. Two of my nephews are autistic and my wife worked in a special needs school for 20 years. From the people I’ve met with autism or other “learning disabilities”. I’ve realised that all have their own special value as individual people. Because my quirks are closer to what society currently regards as the norm, I’m considered normal. I suspect that in the middle ages I would’ve been regarded as a weirdo and either bullied or put in the stocks or whatever.
    All those who laughed should read “Why does Sammy do that?” by Melanie Janz and Ezra Allen, a short book available on Amazon. Perhaps it might teach them how to rejoin the human race.

  6. Emma says:

    Thank you Alex Thomson for your perceptive review. As long as “the other” is not explicitly off limits iir’s good for cheap laughs. Sophisticated and cool? I think not.

  7. Philip Edwards says:


    About time someone highlighted this muck for the cultural cowardice it is, but doubtless Bartlett would claim he has done the “artist’s job” of “making people think.”

    All I can say is if that is the best Bartlett can do then he needs to take a very long, very serious look at himself.

    Sadly, this is typical of the way our national culture has been slowly corrupted over the last generation or so. One of the main roots was John Speight’s creation, “Alf Garnett,” a figure now all too commonplace in London. Instead of laughing AT the sheer evil of the character (as Speight originally intended) it became de rigeur for racists and other weak people to laugh WITH him. Subsequently Speight took advantage of this and so did the BBC – and all for cheap ratings.

    Since then the tendency has spread to almost everything else where it is described as “banter.” This is particularly true of so-called stand up comedy sets where it has become routine to jeer at any vulnerable group or easy target while the “comedian” slops beer and hate all over the stage. Needless to say, cowards in the audience lap it up. After all, if they’re laughing at somebody else it means nobody’s laughing at them. It’s altogether cheap and disgusting.

    Jean Anouilh had it right in his play “Becket” when he has the leading character say, “One always hates what one wrongs. You have wronged Saxons. So naturally you hate….Saxons.”

    There’s no question British culture has become ugly as well as selfish and paranoid along the lines of the USA model. Bartlett’s modular “work” is a logical conclusion of that tendency.

    In these circumstances, Alex, I suggest you give your son at least two extra hugs each day. That’s a sight better than any number of Bartlett “plays,” as is this blog.

    Decency has never been in shorter supply in this sad nation of ours. We need to preserve it where we find it.

  8. Steve Wood says:

    Hi Alex,

    I too am the father of a grown up autistic son and I must admit that jokes and comments about people with disabilities grates on me too. A recent Ross Noble event had me wanting to leave at half-time when he made coarse comments about the class-room helpers sitting a group on the front row of his warm up act in Reading who were working at a school with severe learning difficulties.

    However, if we truly believe in Je suis Charlie, shouldn’t we swallow the pain it gives us inside, or should we forsake JsC and make it socially unacceptable to make fun of people with disabilities? None of us are ‘ordinary’, we are all different to each other. My rule is that you can laugh with me at the silly things I might do or say, but laugh at me and I might feel humiliated and want to lash out.

    It is a tough one and I often wonder how do we enjoy humour at other people’s expense without dragging ourselves into a PC world where everyone gets tied up in knots over what can and can’t be said. On Saturday morning I heard a mother of a boy with special needs complain on Radio 4 that a contributor said a ‘special needs boy’ should be changed to ‘a boy with special needs’. Oh Please!

    1. Kings morrison says:

      Oh well said, yes a great deal of humour is at someone else’s expense and I have told racist jokes to black friends, Jewish jokes to Jewish friends and gay jokes to gay friends, gov cannot legislate the way we think and humour is better than violence. However when humour deeply hurts someone then perhaps we should draw the line!

  9. Adrian Wolfe says:

    Thank You Alex for again raising this issue, I believe that as a whole we are still in a state of disconnect from the people around us. My personal view is that underneath the PC ‘non-N-word-user’ is exactly the same lack of connection that laughing at disabilities exposes. In reality until I as an individual really understand my own vulnerability and how I am only a step or two away from exclusion from the ‘mainstream’ I will hold on to the cultural ‘norm’ of secretly despising the ‘other’, will ignore my utter interconnectedness to everything (including the climate, poverty, the Koran, etc..), and lack the gumption to take a stand when others do laugh at ‘spaz’, ‘retard’ and more. Thanks again for taking a stand. AW

  10. Laura says:

    One of our local school teachers thought it was appropriate to call her p7 class a bunch of retards! And shamefully she still has a job??? I think that says it all a complete disgrace!!!!!

  11. joe strummer says:

    Very strange that you’re commenting on this issue, Alex, but remaining silent on the Celtc footballer Alexander Tonev’s seven match ban for racism.

  12. Kings morrison says:

    Coloured people and gay people can retaliate, either physically or verbally to taunts, the disabled, especially the mentally disabled, often don’t have the language ability or aggression to fight back and even crueller, often are unaware of the cruel comments being aimed at them. Ironically those very people who would be horrified at racist or homophobic comments are laughing because they; like sheep follow what the rest of the crowd do…basically gutless wonders!

    1. Ad Absurdem says:

      So your ability to articulate is limited because you’re in a wheelchair? Or blind? Or have any of a multitude of disabilities? Hmmm….

  13. Trevor says:

    Thank you Alex for this excellent and very relevant article.
    Mental Health is the last bastion of discrimination that needs to be conquered and eradicated.
    I have quoted your article to my MP and other support groups to show how mental health and associated disabilities are still treated today in our society.

  14. Mike says:

    Very disappointing that the Channel 4 tv show Babylon made jokes about someone on the “spectrum” being a “retard”.

    I really expected better from channel 4.

  15. Paul Richards says:

    thank you for this and have linked your article to this post we’ve just published about use of word ‘spaz’ http://stayuplate.org/spaz-album-descendents/

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