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We Tolerate Mockery at our Peril

My teenage kid, a bright, generous, and thoughtful lad, asked me yesterday what I and my school mates called thick kids at school. I offered words like 'twat', 'idiot', 'clot', 'prat' etc. But what he said next froze me to the core. "We call them Downs". I could not stay calm. "Do you know what a Downs person is? How dare you show disrespect to people, especially children with disabilities. Can't you see how hurtful this would be to parents and siblings of Downs sufferers? How would you feel if you heard it being used as an insult if your own brother was a Downs child?"... and so on. But instead of my normally respectful intelligent son apologising and mumbling that he wasn't thinking and would never do it again, he angrily defended his attitude and those of 'his generation'. "You live in the past. Things are different today" - probably much like I would have argued with my own parents. Is he right? Or have we dropped our guard too far? Have comics like Frankie Boyle, Ricky Gervais and the likes of Jeremy Clarkson overstepped a morally dangerous mark by condoning the mocking of race, nationality or, reprehensibly, infirmity and affliction? Now I would normally exclude creed from this list on the basis that people who choose to believe in fantasies shouldn't be protected from derision. They choose that distinction, at least when they become adults, all the other categories are involuntary. However, as I develop the point that pack derision leads to discrimination, subjugation, segregation, persecution and ultimately, in the extreme, to internecine conflicts and eventually to genocide, I will accept that using a creed as an insult would also constitute an unacceptable taunt - not for the popular and PC idea that blasphemy offends - I really don't care if the holders of daft ideas are offended - but because the people who make those taunts do not believe the followers of those creeds are equal to themselves. In some way, they consider them to be inferior and potentially problematic for their culture, nation or society. The issue I have is with the mindset of the taunters, not the offended, however unpleasant it nonetheless might be for them.

I asked my son if he thought Downs people should be allowed to vote. He struggled to answer. In his heart he knew the answer was yes. Of course they need to be represented and their rights are the equal to everyone else's. But because he was supported by all his mates at school in believing that there must be something 'less', something not equal about being Downs - to justify using the term as an insult - then how can such people be allowed to have equality in determining who governs us?

The issue is simple to state. To the taunters, mockery is trivial harmless fun. To the taunted it's threatening, belittling and divisive. When taunters' attitudes become cultural norms, divisions in society widen and conflict can ensue.

So can it be stopped? On the one hand we must fight against the 'nanny state'. Dictating what we do, what we say and (taking it to its logical conclusion) what we think, other than if by doing saying or perhaps even thinking, we mean harm to others, are all losses of civil liberties that our ancestors have fought for us to enjoy and which we need to preserve as rightful freedoms. But there comes a point when sentiment gathers sufficient groundswell for it to become sanctioned as part of a culture. Take antisemitism for example. If someone is being mean with money, he (more likely a he) might, at my son's school anyway, be called a Jew. Sometimes the nose is stroked as well. It's intended as a derogatory term, but meant in jest. "Lighten up" will be the response to any objectors. Clearly meanness is an unattractive personality trait - ergo being a Jew can't be a good thing. Taken to its extreme, Jews are classed as people with character flaws for whom there was a terrible solution meted out by many nations throughout the centuries who claimed high ideals and farsighted aspirations for their non-Jewish populations. Had WW2 turned on that sixpence and resulted in a different outcome, their actions would have been written into history books (if indeed history books had been allowed to record the events) as tough but necessary to eradicate a problem that every school kid knew was a 'bad thing'.

And that's the point. If school kids are allowed to believe, unchallenged, that Jews are mean, Downs kids, the Irish, and dumb people are thick, spastics are stupid, slow and weak, gays are feeble, perverted and sick etc, then we imprint on them, for life perhaps, that these people are not worthy of our full respect. And since there's a collective strength of numbers, none of the kids think they're doing anything wrong. In fact they face similar or even worse abuse from the mob if they try to side with the kid being taunted. It's much safer, and more fun, to laugh with the mob. None of the taunters, we would hope, would use these taunts if the object of their mockery was actually suffering from Downs, or whatever. Now that would be bullying. So mockery is not usually considered sufficiently problematic for schools, and society in general, to consider that action needs to be taken to prevent it. Indeed I would be one of the first to shout 'nanny state' if laws were passed to restrict our right to mock. Indeed many people deserve to be taken down a peg or two, and mockery is a useful tool. The problem seems to be which terms we use to mock. By using terms related to minorities in a derogatory manner, we are indirectly insulting another person or group, and creating discriminatory attitudes amongst the mob who witness and support our taunts. I suppose this is, in effect, a form of incitement to racial (and others) hatred - for which we do have laws to protect us? Are the kids simply breaking this law? Perhaps, but woe betide anyone who tries to use the law as a way to prevent or discourage it.

So what can we do about this? In the past, if I'd shown disrespect for a minority group, my dad (hopefully) would have given me a thick ear or perhaps a strong telling off. Being Jewish ourselves, we knew what it felt like to hear someone being called a Jew as an insult. It reminded us that 'our kind' were not liked - even though the people who were doing the mocking, more often than not, did not know we were Jews and probably would have been mortified they had offended us. Of course Jews themselves have many derogatory terms for non-Jews - which we in turn, privately, would use as a means of strengthening our unity with a non-aggressive form of self-defence. But although I was no expert in these terms, I doubt they used people's afflictions as a form of insult. By the way, for the record, I'm not so much a Jew, more Jew-ish.

Calling a miserly person a Jew while stroking your nose probably goes back thousands of years. Court jesters and clowns behaved like the mentally retarded in order to gain easy clowning laughs. Victorians would use viewing galleries in mental institutions as a formalised form of entertainment. Indeed the institutions themselves were partially funded by this. Laughing at infirmity was a business. I am sure mankind has used divisive taunts since we first came down from the trees (and probably while we were up them). But surely we are progressing, perhaps more slowly than we should, into a global community where fairness and equality are upheld as high ideals.

So to answer my question "how do we stop it?", my suggestion is that we provide schools with the arguments which get through to kids who otherwise see this as a generational problem in lightening up.

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