TG: Swearing Responsibly
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Tags: Consumption, Governance, Living Standards, Risk Management, Sustainable Development
Why You Should Give a Damn About When You Say ‘Fuck’
The case for swearing responsibly. Because only prudes want to ban bad words, but vulgarity is best used every now and then.
The trailer for Bad Words, the new Jason Bateman movie that opens in the US this weekend, goes in hard on its one-joke idea: that swearing is funny, particularly in fish-out-of-water circumstances such as within earshot or out of the mouths of children.
“Auto-fellatio”, Bateman says to nine-year-old Rohan Chand, the kid who played Issa Nazir on Homeland, after exploiting a loophole in national spelling bee rules that allows him to compete against a bunch of fifth graders. Bateman then teaches the kid to say “fuck”. As in Ted and a thousand Bad Santa-type movies before it, the joke only works if there’s tension between the film’s liberal premise – that bad language does not, in fact, do any harm – and the status quo, maintained by broadcasting regulators and rule-makers everywhere, that it does. Without standards, cursing would be neither subversive nor funny.
There has never been a better time to be foul mouthed in public. Before Christmas, much was made of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street breaking Spike Lee’s record of 15 years standing for the number of f-bombs dropped in a single movie – 506 to Summer of Sam’s 435, Variety reported.
As Ian Jack pointed out in a column in the Guardian last year, the New York Times continues to uphold the old standards, but most other mainstream media, including the Guardian, will, these days, happily publish curse words without the prophylactic of quote marks. When Elaine Stritch recently said “fuck” on the Today show, blog headlines said “fuck”, too.
Whether or not you think this matters depends on what you think is the point of swearing in the first place. In Britain, fear of vulgarity is considered the preserve of the terminally vulgar, hence upper class fondness for a certain profane jocularity, immortalised in the film Withnail and I with the line, “Monty, you terrible cunt”. Britain leads the world in precious little these days, but it does, undoubtedly, set the standard for swearing, the very definition perhaps of being all mouth and no trousers.
For this reason, squeamishness about swearing in the US is perceived by some as a collective expression of social unease. How bourgeois; how suburban. Mostly, however, how inconsistent, given the widening gap between what the law permits and the way people actually speak. Every few years, the Supreme Court justices meet in what will surely provide the premise for another hilarious movie one day, to discuss swearing on TV and how to police it.
Two years ago, the trigger for this was the failure of the Federal Communications Commission to punish ABC for airing Saving Private Ryan, which contains bad language, while at the same time insisting on bleeping out swearing at every awards show.
As Justice Elena Kagan put it at the time, “Nobody can use dirty words or nudity except Steven Spielberg”.
Personally, I’m with the kill-joys on this. The letter of the law, according to the Court’s precedent, hinges on subjective views about whether the bad language is justified, so that in order to be deemed offensive, “the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”.
Similar strictures apply in the UK, which is how BBC Radio 4, that great bulwark between British civil society and total anarchy, got away with using “cunt” in a broadcast many years ago, because it was part of an excerpt of Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement.
You can call this snobbery; it’s alright for the likes of some. But as we know from every useless pop star who thinks he or she is being dangerously controversial by swearing on TV, when in fact it’s just offensive, there is something lazy and depressing about casual swearing in public. There’s no particular moral argument for banning it, I don’t think. But the world is a slightly better place for limiting its use.
Not least to preserve the integrity of the language. Malcolm Tucker’s outbursts in The Thick of It are funny not because they’re obscene, but because they take washed-out old swear words and hand them back to us, reinvigorated. “Fuckety-bye”, “lubricated horse’s cock” and “faff-arse”, which isn’t even rude, but it’s satisfying for the same reason all compound swear-words are funny: when done well, they restore meaning where it is starting to fray.
A few years ago, I had cause to look into Dutch swearing and give you the following gifts in translation, for free: prick-biscuit, buddy-fucker, and what was, for a while, my favourite insult and doesn’t even contain swear words, which is: “your mother’s ass has its own union”. All of which are happy locutions in the Dutch language and evidence that Britain is losing its edge, even in this, its specialist subject.
None of these expressions would have any power at all if there were not at least notional rules about taste and decency in public life, and even in private, as those of us who say “fuck” too liberally know well, over-use degrades supply. I was brought up in a household where swearing was banned, a moratorium my mother managed to maintain until I was in my mid-teens, when she cracked one day and said “cunt” on the way to school. (A car had just cut in front of us at the roundabout.)
As a result of that early prohibition, however, I’ve never quite been able to shake the idea that swearing is big and clever, and when used right, funny. And I’m grateful for that. If the function of foul language – to be held in reserve as a resource more powerful than regular language – is to survive, it has to be used advisedly. Swear by all means, but swear responsibly, or you’ll ruin it for all of us.