Monday, February 28, 2011


Some people talk about "The F-Bomb". They say that when someone uses a particular Anglo Saxon word in their hearing, they feel as if they'd been punched in the face.

Other people don't seem to notice. For them, swear-words are not even exclamation marks, they're just commas. The F-word is a bit of random noise to fill up spaces in their sentences, like "Well" and "Er...." and "Hey Nonny No!"

Have you noticed, incidentally, that young people have taken to saying "Know-what-I-mean-innit" in the gaps where normal people used to say "Well, to be quite honest..." or "So I say to her, I says, I says, I says." In every generation, people in their forties have thought that people in their twenties were stupid, vulgar and inarticulate. In our generation, it's actually true.

Most people come somewhere in the middle: they remember when hearing the F-word was like having a bomb explode in their face. They don't feel that way now, particularly, but because they remember when they did, they think it's bad manners and socially unacceptable to say it very often.

Words change their intensities, of course. Quite possibly, "damn" really was as shocking to your Granny as f**k was to you; and quite possible f**k is as harmless to kids nowadays as "damn" was to you. When Henry Higgins said "I never swear. What the devil to you mean?" he was making a joke. Very nearly. 

Peter Elbow thinks that probably all words used to be like that. The word "sun" was warm and happy and bright, just as the word "shit" was smelly and embarrassing and disgusting. It's the job of a good writer to reconnect words with their meanings. The best possible writing would be a verbal firework display of a-bombs, b-bombs and c-bombs exploding in your face.

I myself have started to wonder if the best way dealing with the professional communicators in the church, the press and (especially) the house of commons who use words only in order to prevent us form finding out what they actually mean would be to talk, as far as possible, in those short, simple powerful words that our ancestors bequeathed to us: sheep rather than mutton, beat rather than chastise, wank rather than peruse certain very tastful adult websites. Would the various recent  scandals public life have got as far as they did if M.Ps and bankers had been used to simple words like lie, cheat and steal? I was most taken with a children's writer on Go4It some years ago, who explained to the kids that he had written the word "BUM" on a post-it-note and stuck to his computer. This was to remind himself that you should never use a long, difficult word like "posterior" when there is a short, simple word that everybody knows. (Unless, he added, there is some special reason why only "posterior" will do.)

The same thing is probably true about nakedness. In between the person who thinks "Oh my god! A man's taken has pants off ! And not even turned his back! Cover my eyes! Where shall I look! I feel dirty and violated!" and the one thinks "I wish you 'textiles' would explain the the differnece between Ian McKellen exposing his penis at the National Theater and Ian McKellen exposing, say, his knees" are five people who think " seem to have broken a social convention there. That makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, if only because it might make other people uncomfortable. I wonder if it will turn out to have been artisitcally necessary..." (*)

Some people claim not to be able to watch screen violence, even if it's in a serious and worthwhile artistic context like Kick-Ass and The Passion of the Christ. They know (I assume) that it's all a trick, and that no-one is really being tortured, but they still react to it as if they were watching something horrible. Or again: there's always a moment in Fraiser (Best. Sit-com. Ever) where I'm literally covering my face with my hands and squirming, because I can see what appallingly embarrassing situation Dr Crane is about to well meaningly blunder into. Kevin once told me that he couldn't watch the programme for that reason: the character's social embarrassment was so awful he couldn't laugh at it. I keep it at arms length: I squirm while I'm watching it, but can put it away again afterwards. The same is true of suspense and horror, I guess: if you aren't, at some level, actually experiencing what it would be like to be in a creaky old house with a murderer hiding in the attic, then the film is simply dull. If you experience it too intensely -- as if it really was happening to you -- then the movie is not fun, but unpleasant. Traumatic, even.

People who really dislike violent movies can't make this distinction: and they don't believe taht anybody else could make it either. I can't imagine why you would want to see a movie in which a man has his ear cut off, they say. How would you like it if I cut off your ear?  

The Rev Steven Green recently pretended to be unable to distinguish between the proposition: "Certain characters in a BBC drama about the birth of Jesus said, wrongly, that his mother Mary was guilty of fornication" and "The Communist controlled Darwin worshipping BBC said that Jesus' mother, Mary, was guilty of fornication." He pretended to be  very offended indeed.

I personally doubt if many of the people who claim to be "offended" by glimpsing a bottom on prime time TV are really experiencing that kind of visceral shock. I think that "I am offended" is a tactical reaction. I think that, for various political or idealogical reasons, they think that bottoms ought not to be shown on the BBC under any circumstances whatsoever. But instead of articulating their philosophical anti-bottomist position they say "Dear Sir, I was offended by your bottom" as if that closed the matter. 

Some people say that we have no right not to be offended. Other people say that we have no right to anything at all and the whole idea of rights was invented by treacherous European communists, intent on bringing down Western Civilisation. So that argument won't get very far.

If "being offended" means "feeling that you've been slapped in the face" then I would have thought that we probably ought to avoid "offending people" as far as possible in the same way that we probably ought to avoid slapping people in the face as far as possible. But that's more a guideline than a rule. Some people need and deserve a slap round the face. People who have written articles in the Daily Mail comparing homosexuality with bestiality, to pick a random example. Nice ladies used to write to the BBC asking them if they would please stop showing all those photographs of bleck pipple starving to death in Africa. They found them upsetting and they put them off their tea. Which, you can't help feeling, was rather the point.

If we said that we would try to stop offending people in the face-slapping sense, you can guarantee that the next day Richard Dawkins or someone would claim, tactically, that Aled Jones offends him so much that he has to put a bandage round his face. And maybe it really does. Is that an argument against hymn singing on BBC 2? I can't help thinking not.   

Everyone creates their enemies in their own image. The Daily Mel teaches that the Political Correctness Brigade first of all persuaded everybody (erroneously) that Intolerance was a very bad thing, and then set about claiming that all the pillars of Western Civilisation -- the church, the family, fox-hunting, swimming pools, etc were Intolerant. But surely that's just attributing to the fictitious  Political Correctness Brigade tactics which the censors and the moral welfare campaigners really have been using for decades. First of all claim that "offending" people is just about the worst thing you can do. Then claim that anything which criticise your class, your religion, your political party or your news paper is "offensive." 

Was I actually "offended" by Liz Jones nasty little piece about the Clifton murder?

No. No, I was not.


(*)Not really, no. I don't think there is much need for King Lear, who is Shakespeare specifically says is not naked, to expose himself, while Edgar, who Shakespeare specifically refers to as "the naked fellow" to keep his pants on. 

1 comment:

Phil Masters said...

Tom Sutcliffe had a pretty good column on some of this the other day, funnily enough. Including the hilarious little tragedy of the avant-garde theatre company who discovered that they just couldn't outrage the bourgeoisie any longer, at least with anything short of physical assault.

But anyway - I think that you slightly over-simplify the issue of violence on stage and film. I worked out a while back that I have a higher tolerance for this than a lot of people I know, and a lower tolerance than a lot of other people I know. Which is kind of interesting for me, because it puts me in a properly liberal position of being able to see both sides of the argument.

I can hardly go along with the idea that depictions of violence ought in general to be banned, because I can see the point a lot of the time, and I find myself thinking that specific cases really weren't that bad, or made important points. But on the other hand, I can't help thinking that it isn't all good, and that a lot of violent stuff is mostly aimed at the hurrh-hurrhing adolescents (of all ages) in its target audience, and I just can't bring myself to defend it with any passion.

I might manage to do so if the only reason for attacking it was that some people didn't like it and couldn't see why anyone else should. That's a solid freedom of speech issue. But I can't help wondering if the people who argue that violence on screen desensitises its audience, and normalises the idea of violence in general, might have a point. I'm sure that many of the people who defend it on high-minded grounds are (still) quite sensitive and peaceful and sincere, but they shouldn't generalise from their own experience to everyone else, should they?

Because, well, desensitising people to negative effects of the word "fuck" is probably just one of those things that happens. Desensitising people to the negative effects of punching other people in the mouth ... is worth not doing.