Trigger warnings: discussion of discrimination, use of adult language, use of slurs
I gather from Damon Hill’s Twitter feed that you called Charlie Whiting a "mongol". This is considered an ableist slur, your use of which offended some people. I’m not going to comment on who was right in you vs the stewards; I’m not a race official and that’s not my area of expertise. With love, though, I want to weigh in on your response to their decision.
You’re not alone in motorsport in using slurs. I’ve been watching motorsport social media closely enough this year to be doing a research paper on the themes that have emerged, and I’ve seen some wild shit go down. There is a lot of slurring, name-calling, judging, blaming, and other toxic behaviours, and even people with the facts on their side choose to do this to others. I’m also guilty in having used slurs – often not realising that my word choice was offensive, which I would like to believe is true of your word choice – so please don’t think I’m preaching from some kind of untouchable moral high ground. I’m calling attention to your slur because it was reported by Autosport, not because you’re the only one who does it.
I understand that you said what you said in a heated argument. I can make a fairly accurate guess as which part of your brain you were using, and I don’t think it was the rational, compassionate part. The beliefs driving that comment were probably unconscious, rather than being an act of deliberate malice. I’m not calling you a terrible human, or implying that we should throw you out of the community. With that said…
It’s okay to be upset with the stewards’ decisions. It’s normal. By taking away points and podiums, they are threatening your territory, which activates a primal urge to defend against intruders. Jaak Panksepp calls this feeling RAGE, and describes it driving evolutionary defensive behaviour in much the same way as hunger drives eating to prevent dying of starvation. You have territory to defend today because for millennia your ancestors have been defending their territory from predators.
It’s okay to feel scared that people are going to think you’re not good enough. We are social animals, and guess what? It’s an evolutionary driver. We have social urges hard-wired into our brains, because being alone makes it easier for predators to pick us off. We have systems all over our brains that monitor how people see us, and drive us to make nice after a fight to maintain the unity of the tribe. Brené Brown recently released a whole book on the feeling of belonging, called Braving the Wilderness, in which she talks about how not belonging is a cause of pain and suffering. It’s a good book, if you’re looking for something to kill time on a long flight.
It’s okay to be afraid of being mocked by other men for not being alpha enough. Alphas get first choice of food and mates. Simon Sinek talks about the evolutionary drivers behind this at length in his book, Leaders Eat Last. In Mask of Masculinity, Lewis Howes talks about the Alpha Mask for a full chapter, because this is a common way in which men (Howes included) police other men for being “not man enough.” Another good book, worthy of bingeing on when the whole plane is using the wifi and making it slow. It went on sale this week, so is a hot topic on t'internet at the moment.
It’s okay to disagree, and present your case for review. This is the basis of every legal system the world over. Evidence is collected and presented, and a body weighs in on it. The key part of this process being that the decision is final unless a successful appeal is lodged.
What’s not okay is using name-calling to express your disagreement. I’m not preaching from the moral high ground here. I was raised with name-calling as a primary fighting strategy and have called people some really nasty things in a fit of RAGE. To be honest, I think were we all raised with name-calling, unless our parents were ahead of the curve on parenting strategies. However, name-calling is a choice, and we can un-choose this conflict strategy. Since I stopped name-calling, I’ve found that I have better quality relationships. People are no longer bracing for a shame attack from me. I’m not promising an easy ride, because this is a really hard habit to break. I can promise that it’ll be rewarding if you do.
As someone who hears gossip from engineers, the way you behave is a factor in whether a team chooses you to drive for them. You’re safe at Red Bull for now (at least, as safe as anyone can be at Red Bull), but what happens when you want to trade your overalls in for some red or silver ones? Will those teams see name-calling and other shaming behaviours as acceptable because of your talent, or will they choose someone else?
Another thing that’s not okay is using disability (and while we’re at it, gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, because those are also themes in social media slurs) as a weapon to dehumanise people. The reason people find your choice of word offensive is because it dehumanises people with Down’s syndrome, and that dehumanisation has led to abled folk being really spectacularly discriminatory towards people with the condition. Dehumanisation is profoundly dangerous, and every genocide in history can be traced to this practice at its beginning.
We as humans are actually hard-wired to be nice to others (see the aforementioned Brené Brown book for an approachable but scholarly explanation of why that is). It’s in our evolutionary interest to maintain a cohesive social group, so being nice is a primary driver. To be able to commit violence against people, we need to dehumanise them. Just in case you were wondering how serious it is, dehumanisation has been a feature of every genocide in recorded history. By using that word to undermine Charlie’s authority, what you’re telling us is that you have conceptualised neurodivergent people as subhuman. If we want an alpha to defend us against The Big Bad, you’re not the one we can trust to be on our side.
Your fanbase includes people who have disabilities. By using that word in anger against Charlie, you have told your neurodivergent fans that you feel contempt towards them as humans. This will come back to bite you in the ass, if you keep doing it. A relationship – even one as distant and non-committal as the one between racer and fan – can’t survive contempt. (Science says so. Facial microexpressions of contempt are the surest predictor of a couple breaking up or two opposing groups engaging in violent conflict.) Showing your fans contempt will drive them away.
One comment is all it takes to undermine people’s trust in you, if that comment is offensive enough. I still don’t trust you after you gave that interview (several years ago, after which there has been no comment on the topic) in which you said that women were naturally more afraid than men. It showed several things about you and your thinking about women that made me doubt my loyalty.
You can reverse the trend. There are easily googlable resources on being an ally to people with various disabilities, most of which contain helpful “what you can do now” sections. Damon Hill, who called you out on Twitter, knows a thing or two about Down’s syndrome, and I’m sure he’d be happy to teach you how you can be more kind and compassionate to people with that particular condition.
People with disabilities are marginalised by society in oppressive ways. So are women and people of minority genders, nonwhite people, LGBTQIAP+ people, people whose mother tongues are not English, non-Christian people, and the list goes on. Think back to any of the times you've been told to "man up" and "don't be a pussy" and "quit being so gay" in an attempt to make you act more like their expectation. Did it make you feel like shit? That feeling of injustice that you felt is how marginalised people feel when we hear you use ableist slurs, or make discriminatory comments to/about women, or call people gay as an insult.
We deal with enough of that kind of bullshit on a daily basis to last a lifetime. Some of us turn to sport as a refuge against the world. It’s very unpleasant to deal with slurs in the course of casual sport-watching. To give you a helpful guide of words to avoid, I've included a selection below, sorted by genre.
The following words are also considered ableist slurs: retard, stupid, idiot, spaz/spastic, dumb, lame.
Words that, when used as insults*, are considered sexist include: pussy (even when used against a man), cunt, twat, (any variation on names for vaginas, really) slut, whore, hooker, prostitute (commercial sex providers prefer “sex worker” as a term for their job), bitch. Using "females" to describe women is usually considered dehumanising. Using "girls" to describe grown-ass women is considered infantilising and demeaning.
The following are considered heterosexist/homophobic slurs when used to degrade, especially to shame someone into conforming to gender norms: gay, queer, fairy, queen, fag/faggot (this is actually especially hateful, because it references the traditional execution method used for people convicted of homosexuality, which was burning at the stake), dyke, tranny. When used as adjectives in a non-pejorative context, gay, lesbian, and queer, are widely accepted descriptors. Note that context determines meaning, so using PC language as an insult is also considered offensive. It’s also uncool to introduce trans*people as a transman/transwoman unless you also specify that the rest of the posse are cisgender. When in doubt, say nothing, or ask someone who knows the current rules (they change fairly often; I understand it can be a bit confusing sometimes).
There are more racist slurs than I have time and space to list here. A good rule of thumb is including the word “people” in your description of someone’s race, and not using skin colour, ethnicity, or religious background to demean people. You can google cultural appropriation, racist microaggressions, and systematic oppression to find the line on this one. Be aware that, as white people, we have huge blinders on, and when a nonwhite person tells us something isn’t okay, it’s best to shut up and listen to what they have to say without questioning them or playing devil's advocate.
I hope I’ve given you food for thought, rather than a shame shitstorm. Know that “asshole” is a good general purpose insult, if you want to use one that doesn’t imply bigotry. Compassion is a better option than name-calling, though, and will get you further in the long run. Note that developing compassion as a skill is a lifetime’s work, and people like the Dalai Lama have many years of practice on us. Nobody is expecting perfection right off the line, but please work to keep the trend going in compassion’s general direction.
* Some people enjoy some of these words as dirty talk. They’re not completely banned, but it’s a good idea to check with your partner before busting out words from this list mid-coitus. Advance warning of this kind of dirty talk helps prevent derailing the encounter by saying something that upsets or offends your partner.