I expressed a similar view on a radio programme a few years ago when I was taking part in a studio discussion on blasphemy law. I pointed out that religion wasn’t just a matter of belief, but entailed also a close emotional relationship with the – presumed – deities involved. This being the case, I felt that we needed to tread cautiously, exercising the same level of tact as we would in talking, for example, about someone’s parents. In fact, I used the same example as the Pope did. What happened next was particularly interesting.
‘It would be overstepping the mark,’ I said to the presenter, ‘if I said to you, “Your mother is a bitch”.
All hell seemed to break loose in the studio. The presenter came down on me like a ton of bricks, saying that bad language wasn’t tolerated on air. She then apologised profusely to the listeners for the language that they’d been subjected to. The discussion then continued but after about ten minutes the presenter interrupted the conversation to refer again to the use of bad language by a studio guest, saying that it was strictly against the broadcasting rules of the station and repeating her apology.
I was bamboozled. I hadn’t insulted anyone. I had merely used a word to illustrate a point. It wasn’t even a strong expletive, if indeed it could be regarded as an expletive at all. If I had used the word dog, the male equivalent of bitch, it wouldn’t have caused any controversy. If I had said b dash dash dash h instead, it would likewise have been allowed to pass. So why the hysteria?
It seems that certain words – swear words – are imbued with a kind of negative mystique which requires them to be treated with the utmost circumspection. Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell got into serious hot water for allegedly telling police officers: ‘Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government.’ The censure was more for the expletive used than for the sentiment expressed. When James Naughtie, presenter of the Today programme, spoonerised his introduction of Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary – a mere accident – hands were thrown up in horror.
It seems that we have an innate understanding of our own cultural taboos - whether or not we share the standard emotional reaction to the breaking of them - which is lacking when it comes to the taboos of other cultures. This isn’t an attempt to justify violence, merely a suggestion that if we examine our own irrationalities we might find it easier to see where the 'other' is coming from.