Age of coarseness? Eff Off!

Swearing is offensive. It’s a main part of why we do it.

It is also often done within some well-signalled and well-understood social parameters, a pub or a football match will be more likely to have a level of swearing than a high street tea shop. Much of the time we instinctively modify our language to fit the situation. We may watch our words around a person of faith and belief, or around children, or just simply recognising that the person we are talking with doesn’t use profanity.

Sometimes a sentence may be peppered with those handy expletives that serve conveniently as verb, noun, adjective and adverb. A form of offensive bonding that on common ground and a levelling of barriers.

Yet increasingly those social niceties and observed relationship are changing. Instinctive moderation of language taboos becoming less frequent In part there is a shift in perception of private space. Something that could be attributed to the rise of mobile phones where loud, often shouted, conversations (that would once have been very private) are taken into a public space. All too frequently the person talking takes offence that their ‘privacy’ is being ignored if anyone dares look, raise an eye-brow or god-forbid, say anything. “Shut up, what are you looking at? This is a private call. Tch”.

We could blame television. That thin edge of the wedge from the first use of the F-word on television and the inevitable push through the list of words likely to cause offence, from bleeping, and dropped out sound, to replacement words (mudder-funster) to sod-it, use it, post-watershed and damn-the watershed.

Obviously television does maintain rules, primarily to avoid children hearing inappropriate words either alone or during family viewing time. Yet the rules on acceptability are constantly changing and reviewed and without doubt attitudes have shifted dramatically.

Drama, it is argued, needs to reflect real life and people swear. Everyone has heard worse. Get over it. Stop moaning. It is either to be seen as a slow erosion or an evolution that has come along way from The Filth and The Fury and front page news over kicked in screens as a reaction to an ‘inappropriate’ word on TV.

That always seemed a little hypocritical. Newspapers and editors fulminating about the power of television to corrode young minds when the self-same journalists swore like troopers as did many of those who they sought to ‘protect’. But television has always been a problem, beaming into the family sitting room with the power to surprise and ambush with a word, a phrase or a stream of insults.

Then there’s music. A Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics or Content sticker a guaranteed lure to any teenager, gravitating like a moth to a flame. We could blame a specific genre. Say rap. It pushed the boundaries and introduced a level of invective unknown even to the anti-establishment posturing and societal threatening world of punk. It embraced the shock of the profane along with the re-appropriation of the N-word and the problematic use of derogatory terms for women. It was more in your face and in your house than any previous genre.

What about films? The classification or censorship, whichever term you prefer, has changed. The ratings push back and accommodate changing social mores, what is acceptable with a wider range of warnings on the front card as to what ‘threats’ the film may contain rather than simply a guiding letter: U, A, AA, X.

When those films hit television we are now treated to a warning from the narrator or an on-screen wording: “Warning: this programme contains violence and threat from the outset”.

So are we more tolerant to coarseness and offensiveness? Should it matter and should we be looking to blame anyone or thing? Does it matter? Possibly. Have we become coarser as a nation and an implied acceptance of it? Perhaps and possibly. Is it right? Probably not.

Walking into a fairly new coffee shop near Brick Lane in a once (and still not very trendy) part of east London, the young owners had chosen to decorate the bar area with signs liberally using the F-word. In truth that extra word didn’t enhance any of the signs. Nor did it even add humour. Nor were they puns or word play, just a liberal use of a (once?) offensive word appropriated into the mainstream and the everyday. A nod to some of their other customers, it just is, it’s how we communicate, get over it.

Would the signs be better without the addition? Almost certainly.

Above their fridge was an array of mugs for sale — slightly tacky and badly made but not cheap — printed with the F-word (again not very funny other than for mild shock value among an office populated by 20-somethings still learning to rebel).

Next to them mugs with a C for a handle and three letters-printed on the mug. Funny? No. Humorous? If trying to shock is humorous then mildly so. Offensive? Quite possibly, yes. Just all part of a gradual coarsening and the catch all claim, they are just words.

But Donald McGill did it better.

The question remains whether that overall sense of coarsening is damaging in a wider sense. Certainly there appears to be a move towards an embracing of ego and self that allows people to swear profusely in public whilst engaged in a ‘private’ call, the rise of ‘me’ and ‘right now’ culture also erode a sense of others and the general consensus that we should respect others or at the very least, be aware of them. But does that have wider implications? I think so.

It appears to allow, endorse and legitimise a sense of confrontation, anger and outrage that is allowed not to simmer but to boil over instantaneously for simple, perceived slights or for an imagined look. The rise in not just physical assaults but escalated to stabbings and shootings over what appear to be the most mundane of reasons is cause for concern.

The unprovoked haranguing of strangers for their clothes, their language, they way they do something — anything! It is as if we have been robbed of reason and consideration, respect for differing opinions and a general short-fuse intolerance. The result is unpleasant and dangerous and something that we need to resist.

Sadly, I fear that it is already too late and pushing back against this new age of coarseness, is probably pointless and more likely to get a fist in the face than a thanks for the reminder.

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