“Steven Pinker on Metaphor and the Mind “I think that metaphor really is a key to explaining thought and language. The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract construction underneath - not always on demand, and not infallibly, but often enough and insightfully enough to shape the human condition. Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself.” “”

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, cited in Mariana Soffer, Metaphor and the Mind, Sing your own lullaby

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.

#Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke speaks about #film censorship in #China at the #Melbourne #International Film #Festival. Speaking in his native Chinese language here Zhang-ke says his thought-provoking film, A Touch of Sin, made its debut in Cannes in May and that the version we are seeing at the #miff will be released in his homeland in October. He goes on to say that the Chinese censorship board took over 2 months to hand down a decision on his #movie, but they only objected to the language used in a couple of scenes. He subsequently changed the dialogue, as he didn’t feel these minor changes impacted on his artistic vision. He also shares a cheeky aside that when he ran into one of the censorship officials, they said they’d personally loved the film. Zhang-ke says his films are inspired by news stories he read on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site that is similar to Twitter. He was motivated to tell stories of workers’ suffering in remote villages. His film weaves together four tales of people who are exploited, subjected to violence at work without recourse for justice, and who bear the cost of China’s prosperity. The director’s thoughtful responses to the moderator’s early questions were fascinating. I also loved watching the questions and his answers being translated back and forth and the negotiation in between, as the translator would check that her words satisfied Zhang-ke’s meaning. Zhang-ke’s discusion of his film was concerned with sociological themes of alienation, social responsibility and the ambiguous role of violence as a means to escape suffering. The latter section of the Q&A devolved in a way that I found sociologically amusing but which rightfully frustrated the crowd. Two speakers took the mike and gave five minute orations in Chinese languages that did not translate well and confused everyone onstage. Possibly the miscommunication was partly due to the audience members’ excited rambling, or it might have been partly due to the fact that Mandarin dialects can be vastly different. This may be compounded by poor bilingualism; speaking English as well as another Chinese language probably impacts on how Chinese dialects are understood (poorly in this particular case). Two English speakers took the mike next and rambled even more in an attempt to sound intellectual but nobody understood their point. The lack of comprehension about the English language questions among the English speaking audience was farcical and probably mirrored what we’d just witnessed in Chinese. One speaker was asked to repeat his question several times and he kept using jargon words such as the phrase “systemic structures of violence” but he could not simplify his meaning or summarise his question in one sentence. I’ve been to many academic conferences and I’ve seen this happen many times so I was highly bemused. Still, I wish the moderators had worked harder to reign in the ramblers so we could have heard more from Zhang-ke. It was an absolute travesty that the lead actress Zhao Tao, who was sublime in the film, did not get a chance to speak. She did graciously translate a few things when the translator couldn’t translate, which was also interesting to watch. #Language is a complicated beast. My review of the film will follow over the next day or so. #miff13 #sociology #linguistics

Germaine Greer on the etymology of ‘cunt’. Taken from the BBC’s ‘Balderdash and Piffle’.

I’ve posted Part One above (aired in 2007). Greer runs through a brief history of the word “cunt”, discussing how this word has gained further potency throughout the ages, when other offensive words have lost some of their shock value. Why has this word become the most offensive word in the English language? Greer notes that when lexicographer Francis Grose published A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in the late 1700s, he couldn’t bring himself to write the word “cunt”. Instead, he wrote it as many people are used to seeing it even today: “c**t”. As part of the definition, Grose writes:

a nasty name for a nasty thing. 

Unfortunately, these two ideas pervade English-speaking cultures to this day: the word is repugnant and too ugly to utter, and women’s sex is also scary and too filthy a topic for discussion in civil society.

See Part Two here, where Greer talks about how she tried to change the meaning of the word “cunt” to something positive in the 1970s, drawing inspiration from the feminist movement (to which she was a central figure) as well as the civil rights movement, which sought to reclaim and politicise damaging slurs. Greer recalls:

I tried to take the malice out of it. I wanted women to be able to say it. The same way I would say: “You think cunt is nasty? I’m here to tell you cunt is nice. Like “Black is Beautiful”. Cunt is delicious. Cunt is powerful. Cunt is strong.

Ah - it didn’t work. And now, in a way, I’m sort of, perversely pleased, ‘cause it meant that it kept that power.

Greer notes how women don’t generally embrace any terms that describe their genitals, and particularly not this word. This adds stigma to women’s vaginas and women’s sexuality in general. Watch both videos, I highly recommend them for the social science analysis as well as for people who are interested in languages.

Greer’s argument raises some important issues: what does it mean for women that their vocabulary for describing their bodies is limited to clinical terms like “vagina”, nonsense words (don’t get me started on “vajayjay”), or non-specific phrases like “my front part”? What does it do to gender relationships more broadly when the word “cunt” is a loathsome way to verbally pummel others? Not all women have vaginas or vulvas, but being unable, unwilling or uninterested to appropriate this term and give it a more positive meaning does society damage.

The history of the word “cunt” shows that the patriarchal relations that banned this word in the first place are connected to the present-day reticence to speak about women’s sexualities on equal footing with men’s sexualities. Men’s sexuality is active and celebrated; women’s sexuality is passive and shameful if it’s discussed in the open. There is also a disturbing link between the way in which the word is used today and gender violence: calling a man a “cunt” is emasculating; saying it to a woman is the epitome of hatred and anger. (Don’t make me link to Tom Cruise yelling “Respect the Cock and tame the Cunt" in the otherwise sublime film Magnolia. Okay I linked regardless, but it was for your educational purposes.)

Colloquially, women who use the word “cunt” are looked down upon, depending on your social circles. While words describing male genitalia (“cock” for example) are also used as swearing and to insult, they don’t carry the same potency as yelling “cunt”. Plus, these masculine words are also allowed to be sexy and there is not the same stigma, ugliness and violence attached.

Greer concludes that perhaps its best that “cunt” remains a dangerous word because it represents the power of female sexuality. I don’t agree. Swearing in public is not something I advocate, but as a sociologist, I see that having inequality in the way we use gendered language in our everyday lives speaks of the broader gender inequalities that persist. We might take it for granted that the word “cunt” is the worst thing you can call someone - but have we stopped to think what this says about female sex? Language is not innocuous. Language choices and social meaning are culturally loaded with society’s mores about what’s “good” and “bad”. The taboos around the word “cunt” tells us something truly disturbing about how society denigrates women’s bodies and sex.

I obviously support the idea that we change the meaning of “cunt” to something positive. What do you think? Should we re-appropriate this word? 

How do you like your rappers? Aged two and super deliciously cute? Here you go. 

Cuteness aside, Valerie Chepp provides a very useful postmodernist sociological analysis of this clip. This discourse analysis shows how the social dynamics of learning language, such as emulating patterns of speech, gestures and inflections of emotion, can occur prior to learning the meaning of words. 

This home video of 2-year-old Khaliyl Iloyi rapping with his father can be used to illustrate Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) concepts of langue and parole which, for Saussure, comprise a larger system of signs he calls language. Langue entails the total system of possibilities; it is the abstract set of structured rules that a given speech community internalizes. Parole, on the other hand, consists of individual speech acts and the message contained within them. Saussure argues that individuals don’t pick and choose what belongs to langue or parole; rather, langue is social (in that it operates according to a set of rules that are in place before and after our existence) and parole is individual. Another way Saussure understood this distinction was that langue is a static, synchronic system while parole is diachronic and contingent. This video clip illustrates how, even at age two, Khaliyl understands the basic underlying structure of language (langue), even if he has yet to master the meaning of individual speech acts (parole). He is engaging in the social enterprise of langue in that he has internalized the abstract rules of language for his speech community, even though a meaningful message has yet to be put into practice (parole). 

Essentially, Chepp points out that learning how to act our speech patterns is just as critical as knowing how to speak. The way humans exchange verbal and non-verbal signs is central to the transmission of culture and belonging. The child in the video, Khaliyl Iloyi, comes from a musical family. He has learned how to mimic the behaviourisms of his rapper father even though he cannot speak. These non-verbal cues - what Bourdieu calls habitus, are part of the embodiment of culture and history. We learn how to act out our culture before we really understand verbal meaning. This is why the way we behave as adults seems natural and normal - because we’ve internalised how we are supposed to behave as infants, and we learn to take this for granted.