Thabo Modisane Executive Producer was suspended for a week for inadvertently not bleeping out the F word in an audio clip of the Christian Bale rant. As you know by now, I was furious – not so much with management but with the fact that one complainant, who shouldn’t be listening to my show in the first place if so sensitive, is given so much power that the show and the listeners are punished for a week by suspending the Executive Producer (whom, it so happens, is not prone to swearing himself). In this day and age, is the word “fuck” still such a big deal? Here is an article I wrote last year that is included in my book “Gareth Cliff on Everything” (published by Jonathan Ball and STILL available in good book stores….and it’s reasonably priced!)
Diane Keaton used the F-word on Good Morning America a while ago and sent all the viewers hurtling straight down to hell. Did you know swearing can curve your spine, sour the milk in your fridge and invite all kinds of punishment upon you for all eternity?
Well apparently the execs at ABC, the network that broadcasts Good Morning America, were made to apologise profusely – over and over again, because people were so furious. Parents protested outside their offices, old ladies threatened to embargo the network, and a lot of balding men in office buildings lost hair they didn’t even know they had. That’s how powerful profanity is.
Do you think swearing is still a big deal? Before you answer that, please don’t bring up the children. Children swear at each other in ways adults can’t even fathom. Most of the nasty racial epithets, novel derogatory terminology and just about all the bigoted words come straight off the playground – so let’s stop bullshitting ourselves that it’s all about protecting the children.
Right. Now that’s done, what about the rest of us? If I were to use four-letter words in conversation with you – not swear at you, but talk about things and pepper the odd sentence with one or two off-colour words – would you get upset?
David Cameron, the British prime minister, went on a radio show and used the term ‘pissed off’ and said jokingly that too much twittering could ‘make a twat’. Apparently, he also did something very profane. By way of explanation, the word ‘twat’ refers to the most intimate of feminine areas; it’s not a word many South Africans use, but it’s not as meek as ‘pussy’ or as vulgar as ‘cunt’.
Now you see, a lot of people might have been enjoying this book up to that last word in the last sentence. It’s amazing how powerful some words still are. That C-word is the hydrogen bomb of the common vocabulary. It can prematurely age you. It clangs to the floor in conversation like someone dropping a tray of crystal glasses. It’s the word of which certain respectable women would say: ‘Now I don’t mind piss and shit, but that C-word I will not tolerate …’ In short, there is no word that can cause more offence, and yet I find myself asking: why that is so? Who knows what we’re trying to protect by banishing the dirty words, but we’re told they’re bad and rude and shouldn’t be allowed.
I happen to have grown up in a house where my very respectable parents both swore. Often the only appropriate word was a swearword (even the term ‘swearword’ sounds like it was made up in a kindergarten). Watching the rugby with my father unleashed a panoply of foul and disgusting language that I regard as some achievement in passion. As a result of this sort of thing, I don’t really take much notice of other people’s swearing, and I try to keep mine in check only among people I don’t know terribly well or don’t want to. The old excuse that swearing belies a lack of vocabulary can’t be true for me because I think I use rather a lot of other words, too. I had a girlfriend who would wince every time I used foul language. She would berate me every time I did it. She told me it offended her and was disrespectful. She is no longer my girlfriend, but not for that reason – although it did bother me that something so childish should be important to her. Like with most things, it’s all in the tone, and the eye, of the beholder.
Diane Keaton may be irritating for any number of reasons (she dresses like a man, for example), but she’s not dangerous, and neither is the word ‘fuck’. The only reason that word is still shocking in some places is because of the grannies who protest when it’s used. Either you’re one of those people who swear or you aren’t, but surely it doesn’t matter?
There is such a thing as too much and too coarse a variety of swearing, usually aboard ships, in diesel mechanics’ workshops and in Johannesburg. The people involved use swearwords because they don’t have any others. They make the case harder to defend for those of us who make careful use of swearing. I’d think nothing less of a smart, interesting or sexy person dropping in a ‘fuck’ here or a ‘piss’ there, but the same doesn’t apply to a foul-mouthed drunk in a bar.
Do you go cold when Ozzy Osbourne mouths off? Not likely. He has opted to make swearwords his usual discourse. Of course, it becomes funny again if you put him at a table with a priest, but it’s funny, not impactful. What am I getting at? If swearing still bugs you, that’s really your business. You’re like those Victorian ladies who never acknowledged sex. You’re quaint … Thank you for being so quaint; now you can fuck off!