Brace yourselves, this is a long one. You might want to get a cup of tea.
I’ve been driving a lot for work of late. Sometimes I’m in the mood for music, other times I feel like listening to people talk so I alternate between Radio 4 (highbrow and pointy headed) and Radio 5 (Lowbrow and empty-headed).
Both stations seem to have been preoccupied with a debate about taste and decency this week, started by that Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand business and carried over into the Prince Harry and his little Paki friend fiasco and then reignited by Ross reappearing on TV and Radio.
In between some of this I quite enjoyed Sue Perkins’ Wheldon lecture on the subject of censorship of comedy and I’m all agog to see Frank Skinner do Panorama.
What’s with this sudden obsession with ‘decency’?
I think that I understood when Chris Morris was lambasted for his paedophile spoof a few years ago and I’m sure that he was expecting the backlash. I disagreed, of course, I thought it was a biting piece of satire and that the people who complained were a) idiots, b) people who had missed the joke, or c) both.
But this new incident was so anodyne by comparison. Was this just an argument waiting for a trigger?
I’m not going to repeat some of the sensible arguments about simply not tuning in to material you don’t find offensive (I was sickened by this nun and donkey snuff movie I downloaded from an encrypted torrent site…) and complaining about things you’re never read (dear editor, I insist that the sickening scene in which Susan George is raped is deleted from Tom Waits’ seminal album Rain Dogs…)
I am going to say this about language, though: I love it.
I am hugely entertained by the contrived couplets of Ogden Nash, the homely wisdom of Mark Twain, the juxtaposed, erratically poetic prose of Jonathan Lethem, the magical realism of Murakami, the absurdity of ‘I’m Sorry, I haven’t a Clue’ and the tongue-in-cheek pseudo-smut of ‘Round the Horne’. I am moved by the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. I delight in the company of friends who will concoct puns and riddles, shaggy dog stories, rants, diatribes, digressions and delusional ramblings. These may well contain the word ‘fuck’, a suggestive reference to a loved one or allude to political or ideological views with which I violently disagree. Do I move to censor? No.
Firstly, no word is offensive. It’s the context that is offensive. Were I to walk up to a random elderly lady and simply scream ‘Fuck!’ into her face at full volume, I think it might be quite correctly deemed highly offensive behaviour – it’s hard to imagine what, other than the desire to offend, would motivate such an act. But to find a joke offensive just because it contains that word, even if it has been told with the pure intent to amuse, is idiotic. I don’t have to like it or find it funny, but to be offended in that knee-jerk fashion is to be… well, I think the work ‘jerk’ in ‘knee-jerk’ is aptly placed.
It appeared clear to me that Prince Harry spoke without any hint of malice about his ‘Paki friend’. If the guy in question has a problem with that term, used in a private context, then he has every right to talk to the young royal about it and every right to insist that Harry either addresses him with politeness or consideration or live with the consequences of doing otherwise. But if he has no problem with it, what right does anyone else have to complain? Why should that word trigger so much fuss? It’s just a word. If he used it to express a racist sentiment: “I fucking hate Pakis, they all stink”, then yes, that’s hugely offensive to me – to hate someone because of their race is a repugnant, ignorant, closed-minded attitude that has led to war and untold suffering.
Who judges what’s offensive? As the witty and erudite Stephen Fry observes – we’re not offended by the phrase ‘the traffic was murder’ even though the comparison is to the most egregious sin that one man may commit on another. Whereas ‘You need a good fuck’ is deemed unconscionable even though it describes the most intimate and beautiful of transactions.
Which is more offensive – an old chap clapping a friend on the back and chortling “You daft old bugger” or me staring at someone over a table and saying “I find you devoid of merit in every way and, as a token of my lack of regard, find myself sincerely hoping that your wife suffers a fatal embolism, your daughter gets hopelessly addicted to narcotics and that you become so despairing that you take your own life.” I would sincerely hope that you agree that the latter is the more offensive. It’s not unknown for one of my fellow Layers to call up another just in order to good-naturedly call them a cunt. Is this offensive? No, I really don’t think that it is – and don’t give me that feminist line about ‘if you don’t have one, you can’t say it…’ – I don’t have a jackass and, even though I have friends who work with about the same frequency, I don’t have a large hadron collider. I think I’m entitled to use both phrases. Again, it’s context. I wouldn’t use the word ‘cunt’ in front of one of delicate sensibilities (unless I was deliberately provoking offence to prove a point) or in a way that reduced a woman to that one idea. In fact, it’s a word I’d use rarely (outside of describing one of the Layers) but that I would use in a specific context, for a specific purpose.
There’s my point. I choose my words. In fact, I’m far more offended by lazy, thoughtless language than I am by any number of ‘rude’ words. (Except for the rudest word in the world*). If the rather splendid Mr Fry should choose to utter a ‘fuck’ in his podcast, I will presume that it is a word that has been chosen for a purpose and take it as such. I’m actually more offended by people trying to describe something as: “The thingy… that does the… you know… the thingy with the doo-dah” who then look pleased with themselves, as if their linguistic ineptitude were some valid source of pride.
Which brings me on to ‘lol’
How often do you see ‘lol’ written on the Internet? And on roughly what percentage of occasions have you been moved to laugh out loud? On how many occasions do you imagine that the writer was actually chortling away as they typed? It’s like, reading a: sentence that’s had. [punctuation] added, randomly, and over-frequently, where, none was really: needed. And it’s unimaginative and uncreative and booooring. What’s wrong with “This’ll tickle you”, “This made milk come out of my nose”, “Laugh, I almost gave up bestial porn”, “This will give you a rectal prolapse or your money back”… Make the effort!
Lazy language… is it a pressing problem, Neil, is it really?
Well, gentle reader, ask any neuropsychologist (amongst the many with whom you no doubt wine and dine) and they’ll tell you that language shapes thought. It follows without too much grunting and straining, then, that lazy language is the father of lazy thought, and creative language… are we getting through? Then appropriate choice of words will start to beget… Ah, yes, I see that you’re nodding along (or nodding off, I think I’m breaking my
blogging endurance record)
Did you notice that a text message is just the right size for a Haiku? Is there any reason that you can’t embellish the humdrum details of your life with just a little descriptive prose? We are lashed, daily, with a storm of banality. Can we not look up and offer just a little respite by way of risking a little linguistic adventure? – “How was your day?” – “Transcendent. Resplendent. I’d go so far as to say ‘transresplendental’ which, if it isn’t a word, by Odin’s toothbrush, damned well ought to be. I’m kidding. It was as ordinary as an egg and cress sandwich that was voted ‘most mundane in class’ at the annual ‘Unremarkable Snack Foods Awards’”
Surely better than “Cool.”
If you’ve made it this far then bless you and kudos on the stamina. I’ve only made it this far by cloning myself (advice to would-be cloners: go fuck yourselves. See? I think that’s funny, and it won’t work at all in Bowdlerized form). Finally, here’s my usual egomaniacal commandment:
Don’t get offended by naughty words. Get offended by bad words; and by bad, I mean, not fit for purpose. Lazy choices, imprecise language, mundane words, waffle, corporate jargon, gibberish and all manner of tedious newspeak. Take everything in the context in which it is offered and get offended by bad ideas, not naughty words. And if people disagree with you, they can fuck right off.
Thanks for reading.
*The rudest word in the world is, as it turns out, “clittibuds”. Now you know. Shhh…….