Dug Campbell

Swearing and the Inevitable Decay of Society (Or Not)

How damaging is bad language? Do the words that we hear (or utter) have a negative influence on our lives, or those of others?

Apparently the local council near Finsbury Park in London is putting its foot (collectively, presumably….feets?) down and enforcing new rules that forbid the use of bad words by musicians during such festivals in the park like the Wireless Festival. It sounds like an idea that’s doomed to failure from the start.

After having lived through the ridiculous aftermath of Tipper Gore’s Parental Advisory sticker crusade against all those US rock band albums consumed in my formative years, I’m pretty convinced that the language had no negative effect on me. Perhaps that’s because used well, it seems to enhance the music in many cases, bringing some kind of emotional punctuation that goes beyond the range of all other instruments.

Given that I spend a vast amount of my time reading a lot of words, it’s never been an issue that I’ve spent any time thinking about before today. So today’s rabbit hole involved asking: are we getting ruder in society when judged by the words that we use?

Spoiler alert: I have no real evidence – and the answer is probably yes – but who cares?

There’s definitely been a change, at least since the olden days when I was young. I can’t really remember seeing books like Mark Manson’s  or the subtle bedtime stories of Adam Mansbach in those days. And I found some research that certainly this up, showing that there’s been an increase in the use of swear words in American Books between 1950-2008.

But simply on the basis of the words we choose to deploy in person as we go through our day, are we getting ruder across society as a whole? And if so, does that show us becoming lazier in some way when it comes to our language? Could this be a leading indicator that’s warns of (shock, gasp) an imminent breakdown in civilisation? After all, in the years before the media exploded, the BBC (in the UK at least) always acted as guardians of the youth’s moral standards in the form of the Watershed. With this interweb thing having taken off, anyone can say what they like to everyone, right?

There’s so many sides to this. For a start – what classifies as a swear word? With key themes replicated in different cultures around the world, swearing does seem to be a universal part of the human experience. And it’s not even just humans – chimps are at it as well. The definition of what constitutes a swear word fills books in itself. And then we start to look at its use in art. To me, standup comedy is the creative pursuit which has the strongest feedback loop there is, requiring constant evolution of language every single time an act is performed – understandable where the addition or omission of certain words (at the right time) can be the difference between success and failure. And I can’t go on without pointing out that there are inherently funny words in our language (of which a subset are most definitely if not swear words, inspired by profanity). As Wikipedia puts it:-

The funniest nonsense words tended to be those that reminded people of real words that are considered rude or offensive. This category included four of the top-six nonsense words that were rated the funniest in the experiment: “whong”, “dongl”, “shart”, and “focky”

But back from that tangent…is the move towards swearing a bad thing, as Haringey Council seem to imply? Well, it’s indisputable that most societies have shifted decisively towards more individual freedom of expression in the past few years. And it’s clear that swearing carries out a purpose for us beyond simply signalling our own lack of imagination. Interestingly, swear words remain accessible to those suffering from the latest stages of Alzheimers and dementia, even after most of the rest of the vocabulary is gone.

The jury’s out. It’s probably for the most part a generational thing in any event. But good luck Haringey Council at next year’s Wireless Festival. I’m sure a crowd of drunk music fans will support your every effort to remove swearing from the event….