Monday, January 26, 2009

Swearing on the Bible

No, this is not a Barack Obama post. 'Have I Got Bad Language For You' airs on the Beeb tonight, following on from the Brandon Ross affair, with comedian Frank Skinner looking at the place of bad language on TV. Skinner has himself toned down his live act, trying to do without swearwords, and since the infamous phone call the BBC has dusted down it's bleeper and got to work on Have I Got New For You, QI etc.

There's no question that the line has moved: language which used to be censored, or simply not used, is now commonplace. Films which use the F word can now pass with a 12 certificate, when they used to be 15s. Bad language in music is much more commonplace: the Parental Advisory sticker is almost a badge of honour in some genres.

So how bothered should we be? Someone on 5 Live this morning (go to 2hrs 26m in) was protesting that there's no such thing as 'bad' language, just some that's stronger than others. He should have been at our local tip the other day, as one punter let fly a string of foul language at a council worker, right in front of my small children. Thankfully they didn't repeat any of it later, but no civilised person would think its ok for a 3 year old to hear, let alone use, that kind of language.

I remember as a 17 year old, my folks packed me off to see Uncle Frank. I was starting to have ideas about being a vicar, so they probably thought that a couple of days in Dudley in the Black Country would give me a reality check. Frank, God rest his soul, was an amazing man, but not averse to the odd swear word, which shocked me. Christians weren't supposed to swear. It was one of the first things I'd tried to deal with as a new Christian, having been a fairly foul-mouthed teenager before that point. The Bible was quite clear "out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers this shoudld not be: can both fresh and salt water flow from the same spring?" (James 3:10-11)

That in turn was fuzzied up by some of the strong language used in the Bible - Paul himself refers to his old life as something stronger than 'dung'. Reformer Martin Luther was pretty earthy too, breaking wind to send the devil packing. But is that just looking for excuses? As a vicar the occasional mild swearword can 'humanise' me (oh, he really is a normal person after all), but at the same time it can also send the message that there really isn't much different about Christianity, it's just what everyone else does but with church added on.

The more bad language we listen to, the more we're desensitised to it. I always feel uncomfortable when people use the names of God and Jesus as casual swearwords in conversation, but less uncomfortable than I used to feel. It's frustrating that, tuning in to most decent drama and comedy after 9pm means that you're going to have to put up with a lot of bad language. And bad language itself shows that the users have failed. If we need to swear to make your point, then we clearly aren't making it well enough with the other words at our disposal.

On the radio this morning someone made the point that swearing in live comedy is good for cheap laughs, but it's lazy, and it's poor comedy. Barack Obama (drat, I wasn't going to mention him) doesn't need to swear, and he had a bigger live audience for his stand-up last week than a thousand Frank Skinners. It'll be interesting to see which way Panorama goes. With the BBC generally pushing back boundaries of taste (Jerry Springer, the Opera) and moral boundaries (has it ever done a programme which wasn't sympathetic to euthanasia?), it will be a major surprise to see a Beeb programme which argues the other way.

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