Honestly I didn’t know – or rather, I didn’t bloody know: there’s a strong positive correlation between swearing and honesty. It seems all that swearing in the media that I complained about a while back is just plain speaking. Who’d-a-thunkit?
I need to get with the program, especially since I’ve just made a rare visit to the theatre to see The Book of Mormon. The show starts with an athletic instruction to God that only He, She or It, being omnipotent, could pull off . . . and goes on from there. When it comes to profanity the authors of this festival of obscenity and blasphemy are world champions, as their TV cartoon, South Park, continues to demonstrate.
But it’s all right. Messrs Parker and Stone are telling truth to their audiences. They must be, or else you might think they’re using taboo words and situations to gain a few cheap laughs.
I’m not averse to that. One of my consistent Maxims to Live By is: if you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss. Until quite recently, this may or may not have included swearing. Now I see that any cheap shot MUST include naughty expressions, and the naughtier the better.
It was the Weekend Australian newspaper that alerted me to this new imperative. One of its regular columnists reported on a study by four academics – one each from Maastricht University, the Netherlands; Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Stanford; and Cambridge (yes of course, not that upstart town in the US). Wittily, they have called their paper Frankly We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty, but somewhat less than lightly they have begun their discussion by explaining the source of the title, apparently lacking confidence that their fellow nerds would get it.
I imagine these three chaps and one chapess sitting in front of their computer screens, at the four corners of the Earth, contemplating collectively how the hell they were going to sell the product of their labours to the bastards who have future research grants to hand out. [See, I’m getting into it.] “I was watching South Park . . .” one began but was stopped. “Bugger it, we can’t go that far,” a wiser head counselled. “What’s the mildest bloody swear word you can think of?” A bit of electronic head-scratching ensued: “Damned if I know.” And then the light bulb went off.
Which of these dons, I wonder, watches old movies on TV? How, in fact, does such a widely distributed foursome get together, to swear at one another in at least three languages? [It sounds like the start of a dirty joke . . . a Dutchman, an American, a Pom and a Chinese lady walk into a conference room and . . .]
Anyway, what they actually did was this, according to the abstract: “There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty. These two forms of norm-violating behavior share common causes and are often considered to be positively related. On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty. In three studies, we explored the relationship between profanity and honesty. We examined profanity and honesty first with profanity behavior and lying on a scale in the lab, then with a linguistic analysis of real-life social interactions on Facebook; and finally with profanity and integrity indexes for the aggregate level of US states. We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.”
The message is clear to me: swear your head off for credibility. And who do you think is the one person who gets cited by name in the ensuing 20-odd pages of statistics, charts, footnotes and appendices as an outstanding example? Yep, you gottim – The Donald. No commentary on anything these days is Trump-free, and I apologise for joining the herd . . . although I do claim I am merely reporting somebody else’s example.
Now I wouldn’t want anyone in academia who might chance across this to think their fellows are breaking rank here. What they actually say is: “Profanity has even been used by presidential candidates in American elections as recently illustrated by Donald Trump, who has been both hailed for authenticity and criticized for moral bankruptcy.” But if you put that together with their conclusion that “profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level”, judgement on the swearing Donald must swing towards authenticity. You decide whether “authenticity” can be a synonym for honesty – I guess the four good persons and true couldn’t bring themselves to use the “h” word in relation to Mr Trump. I’m also slightly startled that seasoned academics find it surprising that “even” presidential candidates have been profane.
But look, this is all well and good – damned statistics don’t lie, do they? – but I’m just a bit sceptical. I related in my original piece a story of interviewing a Gold Coast property developer who was a truly creative and prolific swearer. Anyone who knows anything about the Gold Coast and property developers, together and severally, must entertain the same doubts. Maybe the word “spiv” springs to mind. All I know is he boasted to me about Big Plans but nothing he said he was going to do actually came to pass and he went broke (again) before he died.
A photographer with whom I both worked and lived a long time ago loved to tell stories, some of them detectably tallish in nature. It’s not that he lied – he just liked to tell people what they wanted to hear (for example, that there was film in the camera all the time he was clicking away taking pix of their cute babies). He was also somewhat volatile in his relationship with spoken English, such that under stress his vocabulary became severely limited to a small number of Anglo-Saxon words. He remains the only cricketer I’ve ever heard of whom the umpires sent off the field when they could no longer tolerate his behaviour. My friend was a fast bowler and, like all of the breed, he liked to swing the game his way by any tactic he could think of. I wasn’t present the day of his ill-fame but it appears there was one particular batsman who just would not get out. He tried everything, up to and including cheating by opening and raising the seam of the ball (cricketers will know the gravity of the crime). This apparently was all right. What tipped the umpires over the edge was his action in following through from his delivery right up to the batsman and screaming abuse at the chap nose-to-nose in his, as I say, limited vocabulary.
Those were the days, though, when swearing outside the bar and in front of women was looked on as poor form – although I will say that in my profession the language barriers were low to non-existent and the ladies neither blushed nor refrained from giving forth in their own right. One female journo of my acquaintance not only possessed the enviable skill of drinking and smoking simultaneously but was also a formidable four-letter fornicator when she could get her mouth free. Nevertheless public profanity was poor form.
My standard in most matters of the English language is, as my small but perfectly formed audience knows, P.G. Wodehouse. In all his 75 years of professional writing, 90-plus novels, hundreds of short stories, umpteen pieces of journalism and a career on Broadway and in Hollywood, he only once resorted to profanity although his characters often absolutely and undeniably needed to express themselves freely and frankly. He used a range of euphemisms like “dash it all”, “blasted” and “blighter” – which for many years I regarded as normal words from his Edwardian era, until one day it came on me like a flash that this was Plum swearing. The great Australian adjective he mostly represented with “blood-soaked” or “bloodstained” but at some stage he came up with the more inventive “exsanguinated” – and that’s my all-time favourite.
The sole instance of Wodehouse slipping off the gold standard is in the novel The Mating Season in which one character is called a “pie-faced young bastard” and another refers to her fiance’s aunts as being “all bitches”. The Mating Season was written in Paris in 1946 after Wodehouse’s distressful war experiences, his consequent grilling by the British authorities and the tragic death of his much-loved step-daughter. The late Lt-Col. N.T.P. Murphy observed in Vol. 2 of his Wodehouse Handbook: “I surmise this [coarseness in The Mating Season] was a hangover from PGW’s days in the internment camp. I regret to say that, in such all-male institutions, bad language is used so often it becomes habitual, losing all significance or meaning.”
Murphy was old-school, too, and I doubt he got around much in places where the youth of today gather. As a veteran soldier it’s unlikely he would have been shocked at anything he heard but he might have been slowed down a bit by some of the things that have reached my ears on public transport when I’ve had the misfortune to be travelling at the same time school gets out. I’m the father of four boys and so the air around them over the years, and even more so now they’ve grown to man’s estate, has often assumed a bluish complexion. I’m not unguilty myself in this area. And of course the media these days is almost completely uninhibited. But what constantly appals me – and I concede it shouldn’t – is the language of the, to use a Wodehouse term, delicately nurtured.
If I ever got the chance, I would like to ask our four psychology researchers – who frankly do give a damn – to consider something that may be a touch more profound than whether “even” US presidents use profanity. It’s this:
After you’ve heard a bunch of butter-wouldn’t-melt schoolgirls, going home from a day at the finest educational institutions their parents’ debt capacity can buy, offer opinions on life, the universe and everything in the plainest of four-letter language, do you think the world is a better, more honest place?