As Jerry Springer proves, we're still divided by a common language

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In common with the vast majority of people putting their two pence-worth in, I have not seen, as I write, the BBC's version of Jerry Springer - the Opera. I have seen in on stage, though - twice - and I can't say that about any other theatrical performance I've seen in my life.

In common with the vast majority of people putting their two pence-worth in, I have not seen, as I write, the BBC's version of Jerry Springer - the Opera. I have seen in on stage, though - twice - and I can't say that about any other theatrical performance I've seen in my life.

Those protesting about the BBC's plan to screen a version of the show tonight are placing much emphasis on the profanity. The group leading the attempt at censorship, Mediawatch, claims there are 8,000 swear words in the performance. The show's writer, Stewart Lee, rebuts this. He says there are 117 "fucks" in the show, and seven "cunts". He suggests that Mediawatch must have got its count up by including such third-division obscenities as "ass", "poop" and "nipple".

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that there are so many first-division swear words in Jerry Springer - the Opera that the profanity of the language almost approaches that which can be heard in quite a number of group situations in real life.

I am not myself an utter stranger to the use of what were known in my childhood as "bad words", although my compulsive habit has come to seem less and less clever as I've got older. But I am still amazed sometimes by how extremely everyday the use of sexually explicit swear words has become. It's common, as in widespread now, to swear like a trooper. In a fast changing word it's soothing to learn that for some people it's still regarded as common as in muck.

Of course - unbelievably - for some particularly sheltered souls, even the use of blasphemous swear words is still winced at. That's amazing, since in general our secular society has ceased to see such phrases as "Oh my God" as anything but a restrained and sympathetic expression of the mildest shock. These gatekeepers of old-fashioned good taste, in the matter of Jerry Springer - the Opera, have plenty more than bad language to be upset about. While the first half of the show satirises the low-brow confessional junk culture of the televisual age, the second half asks us to compare and contrast it with the equally satirised ethical assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Although when I say "satirised" what I really mean is "sent up". Jerry Springer - the Opera's flaw is that while it's good at ridiculing ethical and cultural stances, its conviction as to why it is doing this and what kind of message it wants its audience to take away is rather less clear. The show may be condemning cultural relativism, or it may be defending it. Like its comic cousin Little Britain, it doesn't seem quite sure what's wrong, although it is sure that it's highly contradictory.

There is one certainty among this confusion, though. This show gives powerful expression to some of our profound uncertainties about whether the contemporary culture we have created is tolerant or indifferent. In a country that runs a public-service broadcasting corporation, this debate should not be available only to those who have financial and geographical access to the West End of London. And those who dislike the West's coarsening language and spiritual confusion should accept that neither of these issues will be tackled by censoring their creative depiction.

**** At least this shying away from harsh reality being served up on telly makes a change. The West spends most of its time hoping that the world will turn out to look like it does in Hollywood films. Amid all of the exemplary tsunami disaster, I have to report one rather less creditable response. Several people - all of the male persuasion, I'm sad to say - have complained that considering the magnitude of the destruction, the footage of the wave itself wasn't that impressive. Should we condemn these people as unfeeling monsters, or should we simply accept that, as Jerry Springer: The Opera explores, our culture is highly mediated?

The art of honesty

Nelson Mandela has broken with taboo and announced that he has lost a son to Aids. His decision to be honest about the nature of Makgatho Mandela's illness and death is one that has the potential to save many, many other lives, because the stigma attached to the illness in South Africa is now in many ways more of a threat to its population than the virus itself.

Yet it is also worth noting that part of Mandela's greatness lies in being straightforward when other leaders may prefer to obfuscate. In this country, right now, we have a prime minister and a chancellor who both appear to believe that, above all else, the creation of a fairer world can be striven for through debt cancellation and international trade reform.

Yet while their timing is perfect - with the tsunami having brought global inequity to the world's attention, and Britain about to chair G8 and the EU - their main stumbling block is over which of them is going to get the credit for ridding the planet of poverty for ever. Guys, why not get the job done first, then squabble about who gets to be the new Mandela afterwards?

It's a sad truth that parents can be bad for your health

* Ruth Kelly's promise as Secretary of State for Education to tackle recalcitrant pupils by educating their parents does not sound terribly feasible. "It's not rocket science," she says. "It's about doing things like getting your child to school on time and making sure they understand that good behaviour is a given, not an option."

All very well, except that if it were this simple, then there wouldn't be a problem. Instead, sometimes, the ill discipline of the children is learnt from the parents and stalwartly defended by them.

A friend of mine gently challenged a young boy who was amusing himself by destroying a sapling tree in a playground. His mother tore over, screaming like a fury. Tearing branches off the tree herself, and throwing them in the face of the concerned citizen who'd dared to chastise her boy, she cleared the playground in seconds with her psychotic behaviour.

Teachers will tell anyone who wants to listen, Ms Kelly included, that the hardest thing about getting problem children referred to educational psychologists is convincing the parents that their child may have a problem at all. Which is why attempts to do what she suggests have in the past reached the extreme whereby parents are jailed for refusing to do simple things like getting their kids to school - without, even then, success in changing their attitudes.

Looking at the Ofsted report for our local comprehensive school, I was heartened to see that the questionnaire filled in by parents was not too negative. Then I noticed that the cohort replying was just 23 out of 802. Rocket science looks easy compared to challenges like getting these parents on message.

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