Opinion: Bernard Tomic 'retard' comment unacceptable

By Julian Schiller

Bernard Tomic of Australia returns to Fernando Verdasco of Spain during their men's singles match on day three of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Photo / AP.
Bernard Tomic of Australia returns to Fernando Verdasco of Spain during their men's singles match on day three of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Photo / AP.

My brother Nicholas was 11 months older than me.

We were born in the same calendar year, which I'm told makes us "Irish twins".

He didn't breathe for 5-6 minutes after birth, which permanently damaged his brain and left him with the mental ability of a two-year-old.

He couldn't communicate with words, but he loved to laugh, especially while taking our cat outside on cold days. He would constantly hug you for no reason. Nicholas died when he was 19, and our family feels his loss every day.

So when Bernard Tomic used the "retard" word I winced more than most.

It's completed a dubious double fault for tennis with Lleyton Hewitt once having called an umpire a "spastic".

Usually I'm reticent to join the so called "outrage machine".

Mainly because having worked in comedy and broadcasting I'm acutely aware I've offended people myself. I know this because sometimes I receive their tweets or emails.

That's one of the defining features of our online age, giving people a voice that previously didn't exist. And sometimes when those voices grow loud enough, real mainstream debates begin and change can occur.

We've seen that happen recently with discussions around casual racism and sexism in sport. But when intellectually disabled people are mocked, the online noise is a lot quieter. That's because mentally handicapped people usually don't have Twitter handles, Facebook accounts or blogs, so they can't hit back. So I've decided to write my first ever opinion piece. Because for me (best Arnie voice now) this is personal.

Now I'm not writing about a family tragedy to crank up the hate meter and launch at Tomic and everyone who has ever used the word "retard". But I will speak on my late brother's behalf, because he never could.

When I hear people use the "R" word I like to think they're not consciously mocking mentally disabled people, they're just doing it without thinking. But it's becoming more and more common, so I think it's time to speak up.

First calling someone a "mong", "spastic" or "retard" doesn't really make sense. It's used to denote someone being stupid or feeling stupid. As Tomic said: "I was standing there like a retard." To be stupid implies you have your full intellectual capabilities, you're just not using them. Hence the phrase, "How could you be so stupid?"

People who are mentally handicapped have limited intellectual capabilities and are usually accessing as much as they can. So they're not stupid, they're just working from a huge disadvantage.

And why use those words at all? It's not as if we're short of wonderfully creative invective to describe stupidity: idiot, moron, drongo, dill, dipstick and, of course, the wonderfully Australian "dickhead". And they're just the ones I'm allowed to print.

For true creativity you just have to look at the words used to describe Trump when he was in Scotland: "Bloviating Flesh-Bag", "Clueless Numpty", "Mangled Apricot Headed Hellbeast" and "Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Sh*t-Gibbon".

There's so many wonderful Australian sayings for idiocy, like the classic Barry Humphrey-ism, "He wouldn't know a tram was up him until the bell started to ring."

So I'm not trying to call in the fun police here, quite the opposite. Comedy is great banter. It's fun to insult Trump, because as we know, he gives as good as he gets. And it's very Australian to have a dig at our mates and those who are the most powerful, puffed up and privileged in our society.

But when we start to make fun of the most vulnerable, those who can't retort, it just feels cowardly, lazy and devoid of class. Not many of us would ever mock a mentally disabled person to their face, so why do it behind their backs?

I was always frustrated with my inability to communicate with my brother. I liked watching him while he was asleep, listening to him breathe, because at that moment we were no different. But now when I hear his laughter, I realise it was a laughter full of joy and mischief and completely devoid of cruelty. And that's a difference we can all learn from.

Julian Schiller is a comic broadcaster and sportsfan who appears on Fox Sports and Triple M

-News.com.au

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