Was it a surprise to see Jacob Rees-Mogg using a word like “cretinous” (or “completely cretinous”, to be precise) to describe the post-Brexit customs plans put forward by his leader Theresa May?
Sadly, no. To my mind, Rees-Mogg is one of the nastiest politicians to have emerged from these islands.
He might be impeccably groomed, with a nice line in the sort of haberdashery Saville Row turned out for the well-bred gentleman of a century and a half ago, but he’s also living proof that being the scion of a fancy family is no guarantee of class.
What’s really troubling about this affair is not so much the depths plumbed by this man – who, remember, is still seen by many as a future leader of the Tory Party – but how little reaction his use of the term has provoked.
My esteemed colleague John Rentoul was an exception in being good enough to call out his lack of class on Twitter last night, while highlighting the etymology. To quote: “Late 18th century: from French crétin from Swiss French crestin ‘Christian’ (from Latin Christianus), here used to mean ‘human being’, apparently as a reminder that, though deformed, cretins were human and not beasts.”
The attitudes that led to it being adopted, and then adapted, as a means of insulting one’s opponents are enough to make you shudder.
The trouble is that they haven’t disappeared. They are alive and well in modern Britain, and it doesn’t take much for them to bubble up from under the surface.
Disabled people are still viewed in many quarters as less than human, burdens on the state, the objects of either pity or derision.
Hate crimes are depressingly common, the bullying by a brutal government bureaucracy a regular occurrence, casual discrimination a daily one.
I get the frustration people have with the interminable debates over the “correct” use of language. Fighting for equality, for an end to the abuse of minorities and the discrimination they face, is a far more worthwhile exercise.
I also believe that when mistakes are made, and recognised as such, that should be the end of the matter.
I’m thinking here of the fuss when Benedict Cumberbatch unfortunately used the word “coloured” while he was actually arguing for more opportunities for non-white actors.
But this does not appear to have been a mistake. It certainly hasn’t been called as such.
The problem with it is that the casual use of abusive terms like “cretinous”, like “spazz” or “retard”, helps to facilitate and normalise the mistreatment I have referred to.
When you are seen as suitable for such terms of abuse then people will abuse you. Take it from this “cripple” who has been on the receiving end.
I had to put up with a man performing an impromptu impression of my jerky and uncoordinated movements in the middle of a tube carriage while the rest of the passengers studiously looked at their phones. I have plenty of friends who have told me similar stories, and worse.
My criticism of this man is thus not an appeal for a “safe space” or an attack on free speech or an attempt to impose censorship. Ditto the media’s indulgence of it (beyond John’s there has been nary a mention of the problem with Rees-Mogg’s crass insult other than in the context of the Tory party’s internal wrangling).
It is informed by the unpleasant reality that I and others face. It is an attack on someone who has indulged in the sort of behaviour that ought not to be acceptable in polite company, or impolite company, much less public life.