‘Ugly’ is offensive and facist, and should be banned

I have been greatly saddened this week to see a word which I consider to be so offensive that it should be consigned to the dustbin of history, ‘ugly’, being used in two mainstream contexts.

First, repeating the howler it had first committed in 2011, the TV company Betty, has persuaded BBC3 to broadcast a documentary about disability hate crime with the nauseating title of The Ugly Face Of Disability Hate Crime.

The show as featured on the BBC Three website

The show as featured on the BBC Three website

It may be a very good programme – we will see tonight. Changing Faces has certainly contributed significantly to make it so. But with Adam Pearson, one of our Face Equality champions as the lead – a man with a condition known as neurofibromatosis – its title is guaranteed to perpetuate the stereotype that it’s okay to refer, albeit obliquely, to Adam’s face – and that of anyone with outstanding and distinctive facial features – as ugly.

It’s not the first time this company has used this tacky title trick either. Four years ago, we protested to no avail when Channel 4 agreed to run a series called ‘Beauty and the Beast: the Ugly Face of Prejudice’ again fronted by Adam – which exposed facial prejudice in many parts of British society.

The company and Channel 4 claimed then that having a prime time TV programme pointing out this prejudice would be helpful and help to eliminate it. So by 2015, say, there’d be no more facist – that’s facist, not fascist – discrimination? [NB: I’ve just added facist to my Microsoft Word dictionary.]

I doubted that logic then – see this blog – and I doubt it even more so today. It is very disappointing that BBC3 has fallen into the same trap.

Second, I was sent a notification of one of my favourite portrait exhibitions of the year, the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery. But the notification I received – I’m sure not deliberately – featured a picture of Robert Hoge whom I only know about and have never met – a man who has helped to put facial disfigurement on the Australian radar.

The artist has captured Robert very well, I suspect, in a serious, thoughtful pose – but, yes, he’s named it ‘Ugly – Portrait of Robert Hoge’. Here’s what I was sent.

Both of these instances are doubly distressing in my view because the use of the word ‘ugly’ has clearly received the tacit or perhaps even explicit acceptance of Adam and Robert, two men who should not have to belittle themselves in such a demeaning way to get ‘on the programme’ or ‘in the picture’.

Ugly is an adjective which connotes unattractive and displeasing to the eye. Nothing about a human face should be considered like that. Faces are what they are: a human being’s canvas for the world to see – and our respect for that person should override any aesthetic judgement.

My view is that it is time for those of us who wish to see a society which truly respects face equality (like race equality) to define ugly as an offensive word which is not to be condoned any longer, and we should begin to insert asterisks to demonstrate its unpleasantness: the ‘n-word’ is rightly considered beyond the pale and accepted as racist, u**y is facist and it’s time it was no longer used to describe human beings.

Let’s outlaw it.

  • The U**y Face of Disability Hate Crime; BBC Three, 2100 on Thursday 23 July
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9 thoughts on “‘Ugly’ is offensive and facist, and should be banned

  1. Whilst I support changing faces and your general aims, I would have to disagree with you here.

    On the specific point about these television shows using the word ‘ugly’, they’re clearly using it to highlight the ugliness of prejudice and not specific people.

    “The Ugly Face Of Disability Hate Crime”

    The noun described by the adjective is hate crime and not the subject of the documentary.

    “‘Beauty and the Beast: the Ugly Face of Prejudice’”

    Again, the noun described as ugly is prejudice and not anyone in the television programme.

    There are puns intended to describe as ugly not people but hated or prejudice towards people. You really have to consider the word as it is used in context.

    On the broader point regarding the word ‘ugly’ itself, do you have an alternative word for that which is not pleasing to the eye? Is a massacre suddenly just a ‘non-beautiful’ event? ‘Ugly’ is really only offensive if used in harassment.

    No one likes being called ugly but I do find it ironic that you call it fascist when in fact you are the one proposing to legislate against expressions you don’t like.

    The answer to defeating discrimination doesn’t lie in legislation, people will just find another word to use. The answer is the longer process of changing attitudes towards looks, which takes education, not legislation.

    Sorry if this is an ugly retort.

    • Hello David

      Thank you for your comment and contribution to the debate.

      Of course, ‘ugly’ is used in a variety of contexts. It’s the use of that word to refer to someone’s face to which I object. The title of the show may well be referring to the ‘ugliness’ of the hate crime – but that nuance will be lost on many people when the word appears next to a photograph of Adam.

      Oh, and I didn’t say fascist – the word I’ve used is facist (like racist, but based on facial prejudice).

      ~ James

  2. Thanks, David, for your stimulating comments… and a few further points from me:

    First, I completely agree with your view that ‘defeating discrimination doesn’t lie in legislation’ – on its own, legislation (like the Equality Act 2010) cannot force the changes we want to see – but anti-discrimination law does set a base line and ensures that there is redress available. Public attitude change is bound to be a long haul – but getting effective legislation in place can shorten that, I think. And we do not believe that the current Act which protects people with disfigurements ‘as if they had a disability’ is good enough.

    Second, I am sorry if I misled you – and maybe others – into thinking that my wish to ‘outlaw’ the u**y word was a desire for legal banning. No, that’s not my view. I want u**y if used to describe someone face to become socially unacceptable just as the n-word is. Which will require concerted effort.

    Third, I want to make clear in case you – or anyone else – wonder that I have great respect for what Adam Pearson and Robert Hoge are doing. My point is that I think both of them have a right to expect a more respectful attitude from their employer or their painter. I am disappointed that this was not the case – and I intend to raise Changing Faces’ efforts to convey this responsibility and moral obligation to businesses.

    As I heard Susan Scott-Parker, the CEO of the Business Disability Forum* say at its event to mark 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act was enacted, “businesses that want to be respected demonstrate respectfulness in all they do”.

    I hope this helps!

    * You can find out more here: http://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/about-us/news/state-of-the-nation-report-retaining-and-developing-employees-with-disabilities/

    • I wonder, though, James whether we might have to concede to free expression when it comes to the word ‘ugly’.

      I am someone who is not comfortable with my looks. I do not have a facial disfigurement and I understand there are those who suffer a worse outward look – at least as interpreted by others. But I refuse to resort to schadenfreude and argue to myself, “well, I should feel better because I am not disfigured.” I refuse to do that out of respect for those who are. I might be ‘better’ than them in some shallow aesthetic sense but there’s no evidence I’m truly better than them at all.

      I have been called ugly in the past, whether they genuinely meant it or just wanted to hurt me – I can’t read others’ minds. But I do know that it hurts and I do understand that people with disfigurement will be subjected to this hurt even more when out-and-about.

      I’d like it if no one used the word. I’m sure you would too. But freedom of expression is a very important value.

      Does it give people the right to verbally hurt others? I think we need to draw a distinction between a comment and harassment. If someone continually confronts another with intention to psychologically harm – this is entirely unacceptable.

      But if someone thinks and says that I, or you, or anyone is ‘ugly’, can we stop them saying it? I fear we might have to allow them their liberty.

      There will always be people who make inappropriate comments. Children, immature adults, stupid people, they are out there on the streets, in shops, and throughout the community. No amount of effort to stop them making comments will work. They are impervious to persuasion by reason of depleted faculty.

      We might just have to work on accepting that rude people exist. It is their unfortunate human nature and our effort might be better spent in working on how we deal with comments. How do we stop it ruining our day? How do we keep our head high, no matter our looks, and feel content within ourselves?

      That pursuit of self-worth in the face ignorance might just bring us the peace we all want.

  3. “My point is that I think both of them have a right to expect a more respectful attitude from their employer or their painter. I am disappointed that this was not the case….”

    I’m Nick Stathopoulos, and I’m the artist responsible for the “Ugly” portrait of Robert Hoge, currently exhibited in the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

    Creating a portrait carries an element of risk for both the artist and the sitter. I might fail to capture a likeness, the sitter might not like the way I’ve depicted them and anybody who views the finished painting has an opinion; good or bad. My work often elicits unpredictable responses, but frankly I’m taken aback by your comments because I would have thought you of all people would have appreciated the irony and intent of calling a painting “Ugly”.

    There’s a legal adage that ‘you take your victim as you find them’– meaning in this instance that one must assume responsibility for a person’s reaction no matter what their predisposition. If you react to my painting…no… actually to the title of my painting…in such a manner that you believe I have been disrespectful to my sitter, then I must accept that.

    I take your argument, but in the case of the painting you proceed from a very false assumption. Contextually there is nothing ugly in my painting or its title. Robert has embraced the word ‘ugly’, and wears it as a kind of badge of honour. In fact, he titled his best-selling 2013 memoir “Ugly”. If Robert is comfortable with the word, then that certainly grants me license to title my portrait of him the same way. It’s clearly used for effect and calculated to provoke a response.

    I spent three months working on the painting. It garnered significant media attention here in Australia. It is rendered to the best of my ability, and as accurately as humanly possible. To do any less would definitely be disrespectful to Robert – to all the operations he has endured, to all the skill his surgeons have employed, to all the love and sacrifice his family have shared.

    Robert trusted me enough to sit for me, and in return painted the most beautiful portrait in my capacity. In doing so, I couldn’t have been more respectful.

    For more insight into Robert’s world, and his reaction to my portrait, please view his short TED talk given recently.

    http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Own-your-face-%7C-Robert-Hoge-%7C-T

    • Oh…I forgot to add: my moral obligation is to my art. And nothing anyone says or does or believes will ever change that.

  4. Hi there,
    I despise the word ‘ugly’ myself, because I grew up with people’s unfortunate opinions of my appearance. The truth is, I don’t think we can change people’s opinion of what they have decided is “pleasing to the eye” because it’s so engrained in the mind and heart. It is true that “Nothing about a human face should be considered like that [displeasing to the eye]. Faces are what they are: a human being’s canvas for the world to see – and our respect for that person should override any aesthetic judgement.” But, I wonder if people realise how much of what we deem attractive is actually learned, or in fact pushed on us from society especially by media. I believe that we can decide what is attractive and can therefore undecide what we feel is unattractive. We are so surrounded by images of what is considered beautiful these days, and people who’s looks deviate from this in a noticeable way, are sadly often demeaned. How can we begin to accept different kinds of faces if we don’t see them…Ever? The media really needs to change with regards to this. Unfortunately it’s influence is too powerful and it needs to be infiltrated with people that represent ALL forms of beauty. I’m not sure yet about banning the word ‘ugly’, I’m more for a change in representing what is considered beautiful. If we start there, perhaps THAT word, would cease to exist.

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