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Sunday, 9 March 2014

In Defense of Swearing

In the list of things that the UK does better than the US, one of my favorites has to be the fact that you can see swearwords in British newspapers, like the Guardian. Even the venerable Economist is willing to use words like "bullshit" when quoting a source, whereas American papers like the New York Times tend to tie themselves up in knots to avoid it. This usually takes the form of verbal acrobatics describing what the person in question said without quoting them, and then ending with a phrase like, "and used an expletive".

I think this is a great shame, not because I particularly want to see the word "fuck" appear every other word in the New York Times, but because it shows how the editorial staff (and the wider culture) in each country regards its respective readership. Whereas the Economist or the Guardian accept that people swear, and to achieve a more powerful effect will reflect that reality when they quote a source, the New York Times seems to operate on two assumptions: that a child reading the paper might see the word and repeat it, leading to lawsuits against the Times; and that readers in general can't handle that type of language.

Both are kind of insulting. It's a cliche, but kids really do hear that kind of language all the time in real life, whether at school, on the street or simply on the internet. And adults, by and large, hear and use that language all the time too - they can choose to be offended by it or not, but realistically, it won't incite them to bad behavior, the way they imagine would happen to children.

It is, however, a tiny bit more insidious than that. By banning swearwords in print, we play into this idea that everything has to be "child-safe", thereby infantilizing adults as well. We're treated like creatures who can't make decisions for ourselves, and so we have to be "protected" - all because there will be someone who takes issue with that kind of language.

To use another cliche, this really is a free speech issue. When the FCC fined CBS for the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the NFL halftime show in 2004, it led to, in effect, a chilling of speech on public airwaves - TV stations were suddenly afraid to air movies like Saving Private Ryan, for fear of being fined again (even though the FCC ruled it wasn't indecent). More generally, it also led to an unfortunate blacklisting of Janet Jackson by CBS and its affiliates, according to former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who also noted that the backlash didn't affect Jackson's co-star, Justin Timberlake.

The real problem with the US's stance on indecency, however, is that it's so inconsistent. As shocking and complaint-inducing as Saving Private Ryan's opening scene is, it's still defended by people across the political spectrum for its artistic merits. Yet it's hard to imagine anyone defending the idea of nudity on TV (outside of premium channels, like HBO, I mean).

To give another example, at the gym the other day, for some reason, someone had put one of the Final Destination movies on one of the TVs by the treadmills. In the half hour that I was running there, I saw two gruesome deaths depicted on screen - the channel was FXX - and nobody seemed to object. It's a legitimate question, though, whether Final Destination 3, which has some pretty extensive nudity, would have been okay to show on TVs in a public place like that. I also question whether FXX would have permitted use of the word "fuck" in the transmission, or if it censored that out (the sound was off, so I couldn't tell).

Realistically, it would be nice if the US could just move on to airing movies uncut after a certain time of day (say 9 or 10pm), the way they do in Britain. It would also be nice if American broadcasters stopped assuming everybody was so squeamish about sex, but so blithe about violence. Frankly, it should be the other way around.