People less inclined to ‘take offence’ but more inclined to fear giving offence

Opinion: Survey of attitudes seems to indicate that we are becoming more tolerant of ‘bad language’

'What a weird fate," exclaimed Vaclav Havel, "can befall certain words!" He was thinking particularly of "socialism", but when he wrote those eight words in 1989, I doubt if he envisaged the imminent fate of the word he had most immediately in mind.

Those words of his came to mind last week in a rather more banal context: the publication of a survey tracking some of the shifts occurring in the kind of language Irish people find offensive. This formed part of the Ipsos/MRBI survey of public attitudes to broadcasting, conducted on behalf of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The results indicate some interesting shifts since the most comparable survey, in 2005. The phrase “Jesus f**king Christ” moved down the rankings from 5th to 10th, whereas “homo” moved up from 11th to 6th. The top four terms remain unchanged, apart from a switch between third and fourth places: number one is “ni**er”, followed by “c**t”, “Paki” and “spastic”. There are three new top-10 entrants: “retard” at number five; “faggot” at number eight and, intriguingly, “pedo” at number nine.

Even listed like this, several of these words have the power to create frissons of reaction, perhaps ranging from a sense of liberation arising from their apparent sanitisation in a legitimate “context”, to minor shock at their appearance here.

But the colour of the words may serve to distract from some of the meanings of the survey, which gives indications of interesting undertows with potentially significant implications for future drifts at the surface of our culture. We seem to be moving, for example, from inherited notions of acceptability/tolerability – previously couched in formulae deriving from religion and ancient concepts of delicacy or civility – to a different mode of taking or experiencing offence. Indeed, “bad language” per se appears to be losing its capacity to “offend” in the least. “Even accounting for a qualitative/group environment where participants may not have been entirely open,” the small print of the survey stated, “the near silence regarding the potential of coarse language to offend was deafening”.

Superficially, the findings appear to confirm the increased dominance of “political correctness”, but this too is a loaded expression, capable of summoning up, to different ears, a modern form of courtesy or an insidious cult of censorship. Described “neutrally”, the survey seems to capture a shift from the tendency to take offence based on personal belief to one in which the offence of others is more likely to be anticipated. The top six epithets are pejoratives relating to what are called “minorities” – respectively, black people, women, Pakistanis, the physically and mentally disabled, and homosexuals. From here, depending on your perspective, you might decide that we are increasingly under the sway of lobbyists speaking on behalf of “minorities”, or that Irish society is developing an enhanced sense of the fragility of certain marginal groups. Perhaps these amount to the same thing. Or perhaps not. The survey found that, in terms of being offended by broadcasting content in general, people had become more “liberal” than in 2005. Broadly, what most gives offence remains substantially unchanged: content that is abusive, cruel or explicit, out of context and without a warning. There was overwhelming support for restrictions on scenes involving cruelty, violence or sexual assault, whereas a majority said there should be no restrictions on reality TV shows, comedy or the portrayal of religion.

But a generational shift is discernible. Older people are more likely to bear witness to being offended, whereas 71 per cent of those surveyed said that broadcasters should cater for “all tastes”, even at the risk of giving offence. In fact, this underlines one of the deeper patterns to be noted in the survey – of a kind of projection of sensitivity: younger, more “liberal” people seem increasingly to be discounting or suppressing any sense of personal offence in favour of anticipating the offence of others, which they may or may not – it’s not clear – be using as a code to give muted expression to their own suppressed delicacies.

The awareness of the existence of extreme material on the internet appears to be reducing our inclination to express objections across a range of phenomena, including sensitivities towards sexual explicitness, violence and crudity. A standard response was: “It’s out there, you can choose to watch it or not. The choice is yours.” Put another way, people seem increasingly open to the rights of more “liberal” consumers, even at the cost of their own and other people’s sensibilities and sensitivities. Is this what we call “tolerance”? Interesting word – signifying one of the great liberal totem-concepts. But perhaps it’s coming to signify merely a fear of seeming prudish?

As a society, the survey appeared to conclude, we feel powerless over what is being introduced into our lives via technology, and have become almost accepting of the potential for damage, preferring to manage exposure.