Don't abuse swearing

In the row over expletives on TV, the prudes are right. If we swear too often, its therapeutic value is lost and the language is impoverished
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The Independent Online
One of the many highlights of the exciting Sixties was Kenneth Tynan saying "fuck" on television. Opinion instantly polarised along entirely predictable lines. There were those who thought this was an outrage, such words should be absolutely forbidden. And there were those who took this to be a liberating moment when truth and freedom leapt across the barrier of hypocrisy and inhibition.

Now after the 9pm "watershed" you can hear the word nightly. In the name of realism and freedom of expression broadcasters have decided that what is heard on the street and in cinemas should also be heard on television.

The Broadcasting Standards Council has drawn attention to this and pointed out that a large number of people are still offended by such usage. "Viewers", says Lady Howe, the council's chairman, "find bad language, particularly pre-watershed, hard to justify."

Meanwhile, the actor Martin Clunes, star of the superb sitcom Men Behaving Badly, has said that standards are changing so quickly that within 10 years "fuck" will be heard on children's television. "It is", he says, "only a word."

Well, words are the most important things in the known universe. They, uniquely, distinguish the accumulations of matter we call people from all other accumulations. Blithely saying something is "only a word" could amount to the most savage nihilism.

But one sees what Clunes intends to say. This is just one word among the thousands that flow from and through us every day. Why should we focus our anxieties on that particular syllable?

This raises the more fundamental questions: what is swearing, and is it necessary? My own answer to that is: swearing is essential. And that is precisely why Clunes is wrong and the viewers and Broadcasting Standards Council are right to be alarmed.

There are two types of swearing. The first refers to physical functions, generally sexual, and the second uses sacred words - God, Jesus, Christ, hell - in inappropriate contexts. For many people the second category hardly registers at all. They do not believe, so the words cannot be blasphemous as such. They persist merely as the mildest of expletives.

But for some, mainly older, people they can still be offensive. Television producers find this hard to appreciate. One estimate suggests that the number of people in the BBC involved in programme production who are over 50 is no more than 1 or 2 per cent. The industry is, therefore, largely cut off from the sensibilities of a large - indeed, growing - sector of their audience, from people for whom the words have a force and significance and who find it offensive that others care nothing for their feelings.

The producers might reply that they are obliged to deal with the world as it is and that means a world in which blasphemy carries little weight. But that is crass. The language is full of ancient echoes and hierarchies. Even if the name "Jesus" means nothing to the speaker, it means much within the vast organism of language. Writers who are not aware of this are not being liberated, they are being bad writers. Certainly they can use the words, but they should do so only with a sensitive awareness of their resonance.

And the more important point is that, even for younger people, a form of blasphemy persists. Writers who might think nothing of using "Jesus" will almost certainly think twice about using "nigger", "poof" or "queer". We can be pretty sure that a character in a drama who uses "Jesus" is not being judged adversely by the usage, but if he says "nigger" we can be equally sure that he is intended to be seen as a bad man. The particular words may change, but there is always some form of forbidden language. Not using "nigger" except with care is a matter of respect for black people; not using "Jesus" except with care is a matter of respect for Christians.

Sexual swearing is less subject to change but its role in swearing is similar to that of religion. Sex, like religion, is important, private and transcendent. Unlike religion, however, most people still believe in it - indeed, they probably believe in it more than ever precisely because religion has lost its grip. Any newsstand or any night on television will demonstrate how central sex is to people's identities and aspirations. Everybody shares the feeling that their sexuality is inseparable from and co-extensive with themselves.

Sexual swear words, therefore, bear the same relationship to contemporary society that blasphemy did to an earlier age. They indicate a crisis that demands expression in strong language. And the strongest language is something that evokes an absolute, a generally accepted level of seriousness that cannot be improved upon. All swear words are, in this sense, sacred.

Of course, this sacredness is abused. Routinely we hear conversations in which every other word is "fuck". The word, to the user, has become little more than punctuation. But this does not necessarily mean it has lost its force in the world, it merely means that the speaker is illiterate. He either never had or has lost the power to express himself in language that has become little more than a single, monotonous gesture. There are many such people and determined realists may well feel they should be portrayed on television. Perhaps they should, but it should be clear that a person who casually uses "fuck" all the time is suffering from a form of degeneration as serious as the person who uses "nigger"

All of which is to say that words, like everything else, are laden with values. Specific contexts may change, but the language will always find ways of evaluating the world. Swear words are exaggerated expressions of crisis. They indicate seriousness and urgency by evoking what is usually forbidden. But they also relativise the crisis. We may say "Jesus" or "fuck" when something bad happens, but, in doing so, we lower the temperature. Clearly whatever has gone wrong is not really as important as God or sex, so, by calling upon either, we reduce the status of the problem.

Swearing is, as I said, essential. I do it all the time. The air in this room is currently blue with the expletives I have uttered while writing this column and trying to ignore the ringing phone. But, if "fuck" and all the others were "only" words like any others, then this private, therapeutic act would not work. I would not feel that my cries bore enough weight to express my frustration. I would have to seek out another offensive vocabulary to preserve my equilibrium, such as it is.

But, whatever the vocabulary, it must be offensive. For swearing is one small indicator that we are connected to other people, other sensibilities. Swearing works because we are part of a society which, at some level, in some contexts, disapproves. The BSC is right to protest and Clunes is wrong to downgrade "fuck". For, if swearing becomes casual and meaningless, it stops being swearing. The language is impoverished. We become less, not more, free.