Some swearing offends, and some doesn’t. It’s all about context

There’s private space and there’s public space, and what you do in one you don’t do in the other




Stephen Drew, the head teacher of Brentwood County high school and star of Educating Essex, has a message for parents. If you swear in front of your own children then it’s likely they will swear in front of teachers, and that will get them into trouble.

I was away when he said it but I just noticed a tweet from a radio programme which was asking its listeners to phone in and join a presumably heated debate about the rights and wrongs of his pronouncement.

This suggests that there are people out there who are prepared to go on the radio and argue that it’s acceptable to swear in front of their children, which I find pretty horrifying.

By swearing I mean something more than saying “bollocks” when dropping a hammer on one’s big toe. One imagines even the Queen does that. 

What I’m talking about is the additional colour and brightness which is lent to daily exchanges by rhythmically sprinkling each sentence with some adjectival profanity.

Pass the bleeding muesli. That kind of thing. I have to remind myself that there must be people who feel that if they’re not swearing then they are somehow depriving the people they’re talking to of the full majesty of their personality. If so, that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Actual swearing doesn’t bother me at all. Swearing is often very funny. It was funny when I was 14. It still is now. I’ve worked in offices where fully mortgaged, highly educated, even church-attending fathers of four have sworn like sergeant majors throughout the working day without causing any offence to those around them. It's because they've surrounded by people who all understand that, when it comes to swearing, like most things context is all.

Among consenting colleagues, swearing is stripped of its most disturbing quality, which is aggression.

But I would never have dreamt of swearing in front of my children when they were children, and I wouldn’t dream of swearing in front of them now.

It would have been aggressive. I’m sure they swear under their breath at me all the time but I’ve never heard them do it out loud. If that’s hypocrisy I’m perfectly happy with it.

That hasn’t left me under the impression they don’t know the words and don’t use them. What it does mean is that I know the difference between the context in which it’s OK to swear and the context in which it isn’t. They’ve done it so instinctively I’ve never stopped to see it as triumph of parenting.

I think they probably picked it up early on when they realised that one of the key places where the latter applies is in a classroom in front of a teacher. You just don’t do it. Teachers also realise this and reserve their cussing for the other side of the staffroom door.

I’ve worked as a teacher and I can assure you that they can express themselves every bit as colourfully as journalists, navvies, dockers and members of any other threatened profession. They know which side of the door to keep it. That’s why they’re teachers.

Of course I realise that there was once a time when you didn’t swear on television. I know precisely when that era came to an end. On July 13th 1985. I know because I was on TV at the time, linking the BBC’s coverage of Live Aid, and I was the hapless goon to whom Bob Geldof barked “Fuck the address”.

As I tried to steer the conversation back on the right lines the only thing going through my mind was “I hope my mother’s not watching this”.

Of course my mother was watching and she was far too considerate to mention it afterwards. I didn’t kid myself that my mother didn’t know that word or wouldn’t just sigh and blame herself for being behind the times. However I felt Geldof had no right to introduce the standards of the Hope and Anchor dressing room into our TV studio, thence into the public space represented by the airwaves and ultimately into her living room.

I still feel that, and I feel it even more 30 years later, when an increasing proportion of the population seem to feel free to introduce their own low standards into space which by rights belongs to us all. You have to recognise that there’s private space and there’s public space and what you do in one you don’t do in the other.

If your kids swear at a teacher, particularly in front of the rest of the class, that isn’t simply an exchange between two individuals. It’s a verbal assault in public space and the teacher has a right to enquire where they got the idea that it was OK to talk like that.

If your kids don’t learn that they can’t talk like that at home then they’ll never learn it at all and there could be a world of pain waiting for them. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

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