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Liz Main

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Liz is Australian, though grew up in India. A journalism career led to TV presenting and PR, which led to a five year spell of depression. Following this, Liz resumed her career working on government policy on mental health and social exclusion.

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Pyjama Girl and the national outcry

1st November 2006

Perhaps being voted a country's "most hated identity" sets a standard you have to live up to, because it seems a panelist on the reality TV talent show Australian Idol did exactly that when he derided contestant Bobby Flynn as a "full mong" while rating his performance.
The judge in question, radio DJ Kyle Sandilands, outraged the nation by digging up a derogatory term that the majority of people laid to rest 20 years ago, topping Australian Zoo Magazine's line-up of their 50 most loathed in the process - ahead of Osama Bin Laden and the stingray that killed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.

Politicians and disability groups called for Sandilands to publicly apologise, and the outcry was even greater than two weeks earlier, when he instructed 17-year-old Idol finalist Jessica Mauboy to "lose the jelly belly", prompting accusations of encouraging eating disorders.

The fray was led by nightly tabloid TV show "A Current Affair", which isn't exactly known for being politically correct, but its up-in-arms reporter sensed a story and incited a level of hysteria rarely seen in relation to disability.

The newspapers caught on, followed by more politicians, one of whom went as far as demanding that Sandilands make an appearance at the closing ceremony of the Gold Coast's October 2006 Special Olympics to publicly apologise for his ill-thought-out comments.

For those a bit confused about the brouhaha, the term "mong" refers to "mongoloids", a label used in the past for people with Down's syndrome. But you wouldn't be alone if you didn't know that. Even Mal Brough, Australia's Community Services Minister (the equivalent of our Ruth Kelly), was ignorant of the term, saying the comment may not have been intentionally offensive.

Brough's view seemed to summarise a debate that sprung up on an Australian TV fan site, where one user wrote:

"I had no idea that it was a derogatory term until I heard about the "A Current Affair" segment. I actually thought Kyle just made up the word."

Another poster agrees, stating: "I'm not that much younger than Kyle and I have a disabled sister, but I didn't know what 'mong' meant. It's pretty obvious now, but I use words like 'bugger' and 'mental' all the time without thinking that I could be being offensive, although I might not be dumb enough to say them on TV."

I have to confess that "mong" was an everyday insult in my school playground, and I used it quite merrily. It was right up there with "spastic", another term that you'd think would spark an outrage, but apparently doesn't. As adolescent schoolgirls, we found a presumably homeless puppy, and smuggled it into our boarding school in a covert rescue mission. After it won our hearts with its lopsided walk and bewildered playfulness, we named it Spastic. It seems all of us had lovingly force fed the poor pup, and we were found out when it puked a tell-tale wobbly line across the courtyard. We got into trouble, but not because of the name we'd chosen.

So how can I get on my high horse and start complaining about other people using those terms? Well, I think it's because I grew up and stopped using them. And because most other people did too, nowadays people under a certain age don't know what they mean or why the term is derogatory.

On the other hand, someone who is of an age to remember the connotations of twenty years ago is former newsreader Kirsty Young, now the presenter of Desert Island Discs. As noted on the Ouch messageboards, Kirsty recently announced that she is driven 'absolutely spastic' by gangsta rap's imagery of women. "I hate the thought that we all have to be terribly politically correct and say that it's ghetto culture expressing itself. It is hugely offensive to me and gets right up my nose." While no one could accuse her own vocabulary of being politically correct, unlike Sandilands, her use of such a term didn't get sufficiently far up anyone's nose to cause the same kind of national outcry.

I wonder whether anyone would even have noticed if, like the messageboard posters, Sandilands had used the words "psycho", "mental" or "nutter" instead. And we should note that A Current Affair - the programme that started the debate raging - has used them itself on many an occasion.

I'm left wondering why psycho and spastic are OK while mong isn't. Who is the hypocrite in all this? I give up.

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