Why is swearing on TV more offensive than graphic depictions of violence?

In December 2011, The Australian Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, created a media controversy when he swore during a live address on the national public broadcaster, the ABC. This live gaff had me thinking about swearing, the power of ‘bad words’ and the regulatory bodies that set and enforce the standards for television programming. It’s popped back into my mind as I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about power dynamics and the changes in linguistic practices.

Speaking to the National Press Club about the proposed tax for the National Broadband Network, Conroy said:

If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down, its fucking fantastic. Excuse me – that is fantastic.

This comment went to air during 12:30 and 1:30 pm. As Aidan Wilson points out on Crikey, Conroy’s offence was not simply using a ‘vulgar’ word, but also that his address was followed by the ABC’s afternoon children’s shows.

The language guidelines for TV shows can be confusing. Why are some words allowed in some contexts and not in others? It’s not simply a timing issue - some swear words are only allowed to escape the mouths of Thespians late at night but not during the day. This makes sense if you’re trying to protect children from being exposed to certain swear words.

The again, some words are generally considered to be more offensive than others - but the social norms on this are not clearly articulated by law. Some words are only allowed to be said a certain number of times per TV episode. Writing for Life’s Little Mysteries, Natalie Wolchover argues that the USA’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines are difficult for the average viewer to fathom as the FCC does not make a list of banned swear words publicly available. These murky laws also affect audiences in Australia (where I live), since a great deal of our TV programming comes from America. Wolchover argues that the FCC ‘leaves it up to programmers to tread carefully through the murky waters of its regulations’.

Wolchover contacted FCC media relations spokesperson Janice Wise for clarification about the swearing guidelines and she felt none the wiser for it. Wise told Wolchover:

No one is going to tell you what you can and cannot do, because it changes on a case-by-case basis… What you would do if you were a TV programmer is look through all the case law and see what the FCC has acted on in the past.

So: in some cases the same swear words are more or less offensive than others? This makes sense when we think about the sociology of social interaction, which illustrates that the verbal signs and visual symbols used in communication take on different meaning in particular contexts. Yet when it comes to particular swear words being said on television, why do regulatory bodies censor on a case by case basis and why can they not be clear about which swear words are especially offensive and why?

Australia has its own regulation agencies, of course. The Press Council has long been referred to as a ‘toothless tiger’ by media analysts and the media itself. For example, see the September announcement of the Labor Goverment’s media inquiry in the The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the coverage of November hearings of NEWS Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan in The Australian. In fact, the media enquiry seems to show that journalists watch the TV show Media Watch ‘with trepidation’, fearing its critique more than a rebuke by the Press council.

Polite use of language is shaped through context. It can be determined by culture, such as in the difference between language use in Japan and Australia, as well as particular situations. Generally, research has found that men swear more than women, but this also depends on context. Swear words are used to add emphasis to masculinity, but younger people of different genders tend to swear just as much as one another. At public schools, swearing is sometimes conceived as an act of resistance but not necessarily meant to be offensive or malicious.

Melanie Burns argues that swearing serves two social functions. First, it is a physiological release of energy - in this sense, swearing is a socially-sanctioned way to express aggression. Second, swearing is a sociolinguistic marker. It helps people to express their belonging to special cultures and subcultures. Some words are taboo at certain points in time, though the shock value can be diluted through repeated use. Burns notes that the word fuck is taboo because it refers to sexual intercourse, but it is is also an adjective and an “intensifier” intended to add emphasis and emotion. It is more commonly accepted in everyday speech in working class areas, and in some Indigenous communities. Burns concludes:

Many people disapprove of swearing, seeing it as 

representing a decline in moral standards or as a sign of limited education. Despite unfavourable perceptions of swearing, it clearly is an important facet of individual and group functioning, and it provides an insight into social interaction.

Here is where one verbal slip during a press conference draws critique. The media revelled in the controversy of a politician using a swear word - a verbal release of emotional intensity. Politicians are supposed to uphold higher morals - fair enough, but the media furore over one word seemed imbalanced when at that same time slot, movies and TV shows allude not only to sex, but also depict graphic violence.

It’s reminiscent of George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV. He made this same point in the 1970s: killing and rape don’t bat an eye lid, but obscene words draw heavy censorship. Polite spoken language, it seems, matters more than visual violence.

I love words. I thank you for hearing my words.
I want to tell you something about words that I think is important.
They’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion.
Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts but thoughts are fluid. Then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for that thought, so be careful with words. I like to think that the same words that hurt can heal, it is a matter of how you pick them.

George Carlin (1972) Class Clown.

Watch the video here.

George Carlin’s classic comedic skit on The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV in full (from his 1972 comedy album, Class Clown). Warning lots of swearing - obviously - but it’s a very amusing take on how television regulatory bodies in America decided some words are not okay for adults to hear, even though glamorised portrayals of killing and rape are screened daily, and I might add, despite the fact that the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of minority groups is a-okay. Even though it’s from the 1970s and some of the words considered too offensive for TV audiences have changed, Carlin’s comedic critique has resonance today. I especially like that he covers double entendres - my second favourite literary device.

It’s a shame that Carlin has a joke about how some of these words were banned in order to not offend ‘some ladies’ - as if women demand to be protected from some words more than men.

Still, it’s worth having a listen. Let me know what you think?