>What’s the future for liberalism in speech?

>Etienne de Durand of the French Institute of International Relations said in this last week that cooperation between the UK and France in defence was about “being sex buddies rather than marriage.” I just picked this example because it was to hand, yet there’s a vast amount of modern literature that uses words like “fuck buddies” (the more common term).

My question to you is do you see this kind of liberalisation of speech continuing, and perhaps as something that people are more likely to read in even academic works in the future? Or does seeing such vocabulary on an academic site make you squirm? Is there a right and wrong to discuss here or not? Is it simply a product of the times?


  • >The best communication is direct and easily-understandable; in M. de Durand's case, this was a pretty vulgar, but effective way, of communicating a complex point about Anglo-French relations in defence policy and the potential implications for this in the future as austerity bites on both sides of the channel. To use some examples off the top of my head:E.P. Thompson (1963, which, according to Larkin, is the year sex was 'invented', if I remember rightly) spoke of Methodism as 'psychic masturbation'. It was his way of summing up a complex point that provincial Methodism in the 1790s, with its rigid discipline and spiritual fervour bordering on the euphoric, created a safety valve for discontent (perhaps a more fitting metaphor) which helped avoid a revolution in Britain when France, which suffered less of a tax burden in the 1780s, had one. (My point, by the way, is not to debate the rectitutde of Thompson's point or to discuss why Britain didn't have a revolution in the early 1790s, merely to point out his use of colourful metaphor).Thompson himself, of course, was merely sexing up (literally) a more famous metaphor used in the later 1800s by Karl Marx; religion is the opiate of the masses.In the very early 1700s, Bernard de Mandeville graphically highlighted his point about 'private vices' securing 'public benefit' by speaking of a prostitute providing an outlet for frustrated young bachelors and thus preserving the modesty of more 'respectable' females. Mandeville's quite wonderful work is more a work of macroeconomics if anything, but there again he is using a somewhat colourful choice of metaphor – precisely to explain his point.I'm sure, with a more rigorous filing of even my own brain, I could find more; if I went and researched the issue I could find hundreds of examples, even without touching the realms of literature (I'll leave Augustine's Confessions here) which, understandably, has a more liberal linguistic palate.Does it make me squirm? Not when done well – Durand's wasn't done well purely because 'fuck body' is, I'm sure, an ephermeral and very early 21st century turn of phrase. It's not the device so much as the example that kills it for me. Why I like 'the Transforming Power of the Cross' (the chapter in the Making of the English Working Class from which the Thompson quote was taken) so much is precisely because of its fire, simplicity and intellectual confidence in using such language. Similarly with Mandeville, I think. Is it wrong? No. Is it a product of the times? Well, it goes back to at least the early 1700s and, undoubtedly, much earlier still even in relatively dry academic texts.

  • >Very interesting stuff! Do you see this process reaching a pinnacle at some point in the future? i.e. will there come a stage when we can't say anything more controversial? Do you think that in a hundred years we could be living in a world where teachers never have to tell their students not to swear, because the words are treated as just that i.e. words, without any cause for offence?

  • >Interesting points.We should bear in mind that while M de Durand's point was a base sort of metaphor, there was nothing wrong with the language. Indeed, of the examples I gave the most shocking image was probably Thompson's, and even he retains the matter-of-fact 'masturbation' rather than resorting to taboo lexis. Similarly, the colourful language of a Rahm Emmanuel (who, bear in mind, however high profile is not yet an elected or particularly public figure) stands out because it is so unusual to use such public language in formal circles. Even then, this isn't new, judging by similarly earth utterances attributed to Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson (a man who, as a wonderful aside, conducted policy talks with his aides whilst evacuating his bowels) We're a long way from a situation where swear words are not taboo – if de Durand had said 'fuck buddies' he would probably have been dismissed or severely reprimanded, although the meaning remains precisely the same. There is, for better or worse (and I'm broadly of the opinion that words themselves cannot be offensive, what is offensive is their aggressive usage; hence, to label someone an 'idiot' is far more improper than to compare, quite neutrally, Anglo-French relations as askin to 'fuck budies', or even to call a situation 'fucking idiotic'; I am, in short, quite liberal about the use of lexis, I'm more concerned about the nature and intent of language) a taboo around certain words. It's important to remember that.Would we reach a situation where words are just words? Probably not (remember, what Emmanuel's, Johnson's and Eisenhower's remarks all have in common is that they are not from public addresses and were essentially from people caught out; there is a convention that one does not swear in public and, by extension, that swearing is a lower form of expression; remember also that de Durand didn't swear; nor did Thompson, Marx or Mandeville). Swearing is still taboo in the public sphere _in a formal sense_, though comedians, celebrities and so on are much more relaxed than a generation ago. Even then, however, the distinction between contexts remains and so long as school remains a formal learning envirnoment swearing will still be discouraged. Had a pupil made a similar analogy to de Durand on a given topic I'd be keener to explore their thinking and probe what prompted them to make the analogy and explore how far it works (to use it as a teaching aid, in short) rather than tell them off. They didn't swear and didn't offend in any way; in fact, those with far more complex ideas and greater powers of communication than they have used it to very ably explain very complex ideas. I'd like that kind of creativity, to be honest. Then again, would I encourage them to use that point in House Debates? I don't think that I would, which again goes back to the point about context and purpose.

  • >P.S. I take it you got the de Durand quote from the Economist last week? That's where I read it. Even if you didn't, check the final letter to this week's edition…

  • >I agree completely. The last point is particularly interesting too, for although you think 'words are just words', you don't think certain ones should be used in all contexts, even if they don't imply aggression. I take from this that you say although to you words are just words, their interpretation by each person also matters. Saying 'shit' instead of 'sugar' when dropping something, is no different to me. In fact I'd be far more likely to laugh if someone said sugar. Yet if any political figure was caught on camera using 'shit' in that context they'd instantly be on the news, and verbally assaulted for acting as a bad role model. This is only the case because people watching interpret the use of the word in a certain way, and perhaps associate it with a certain type of person, who voters may not be inclined to vote for.Yet surely the fact that neither you, me, nor I suspect any of the other of this site's contributors, would be bothered by it, suggests something? Does it not suggest that perhaps society is changing? Both my mum and dad would cringe at the use of such words, and would possibly even rethinking their voting intentions if the remark was said on a polling day and there was little between two candidates. I'd hazard a guess that many among their generation would be the same. So based on this I would say that although swear words will never entirely lose their taboo status, they are losing it a bit already

  • >I want to hear either someone use the word muthafucka.i think it would be brilliant for someone like david cameron to come out an say " all these muthafuckas need to stop talking shit and get out of my way. muthafuckas".then we would have liberal speech.

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