Rhoda Koenig: The true cost of free speech

Public vulgarity

Share
Related Topics

The best lack all conviction," wrote the Irish poet and dramatist WB Yeats in 1919, "while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Boy, was that man ahead of his time. Nowadays everyone lacks the conviction that it can ever be wrong to say whatever you want. Lots of people do not like this state of affairs, and do not contribute to the visual and verbal sewage they encounter each day. But neither will they stop other people adding to it, or even express disapproval. The few who venture to do so are confronted by the passionate sincerity of the verbal defecators who bellow that they've got a right, it's free speech innit, you don't like it don't listen, when you last get any you old bag? hahaha.

The exception, of course, is language that is racist, homophobic, or otherwise officially proscribed. Then even those whose usual vocabulary is straight off the toilet wall echo the indignation of the complainers. As a result, most people don't feel comfortable objecting unless the writing or speech meets that criterion – a situation that, of course, leads to weak and false demands for the protection of the law and, eventually, disrespect for it.

So, much as I deplore the Sunday Times columnist AA Gill's recent remarks about the broadcaster Clare Balding, I do not support her using his insults as a political rallying cry. The fault lies elsewhere – in those who made newspapers into places which see nothing wrong in describing a lesbian as a "dyke on a bike" who is "puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation". Yes, holding someone up to ridicule for being homosexual is nasty, but, before that, it is vulgar.

Since the Queen's private secretary thrice damned the Duchess of York with the word vulgar 15 years ago, it hasn't been heard much in public, with good reason. Using it will type you as snobbish, prissy, and absurdly out of date. But the cruel and bullying tone of so much of our society is a consequence of our abandonment of taste and restraint – if you want attention, you go a bit further. Shouting obscene words or wearing them on your chest as you walk down the street isn't simply a matter of having a free and easy attitude toward sex: it's a declaration that your wish to do so trumps everyone else's desire not to be offended.

Public vulgarity is hostile and selfish. It is an expression of the undeserved self-love that is today everywhere encouraged, for reasons of commercial or political manipulation. Gill was vulgar not only in transforming Balding's cycling into a sex act but in preening himself on his superiority for the accident of birth that made him heterosexual. In her statement that she normally doesn't mind "having the piss taken out of me," Balding shows that she is part of the problem.

Not long ago, Gill's kind of language would not be printed in a national newspaper. It would have denied him the company of any people except the foolish and depraved. And the cold look or quiet word that once would have silenced him has now been replaced by the grandstanding of such as Balding, who is so eager to bolster the nobility of her cause that she portrays the Liberal Democrat MP, David Laws, as a "tragic" victim rather than dishonest because of his expenses claims.

Permitting the language of the vulgar – in the sense of "majority" – free rein was seen, when public speech began loosening, as a democratic act, substituting robust reality for euphemism, plain speech for folderol. But it has had a profoundly undemocratic result. While those with loud and dirty mouths may boast that they don't let anyone tell them how to talk, it's a safe bet that they watch what they say in the presence of someone with the power to give them a job or beat them up. The rest of us just have to slouch along, blinders on and earplugs tight.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker