February 24, 2011

Reds don't have to use blue language

Reds don't have to use blue language

Thursday 24 February 2011

The anti-student fees protests brought new people onto the streets, and new ways of speaking with them.

Seeing Harry Potter-themed placards suggesting fees would bar entry to Hogwarts or were beyond the wickedness of Voldemort made me feel particularly old.

I know the Harry Potter books from reading them to my children.

The protesters knew them well from the other side of the bedtime booktime.

New protesters bring new energy and imagination, including a group of student protesters pushing against police lines with massive cardboard and sponge books.

Watching officers pushed aside by oversized copies of Negative Dialectics by radical philosopher Theodor Adorno brought new meaning to the phrase "words are weapons."

The prevalence of home-made signs by new protesters also brought a great deal more slang into the protests - putting the demotic into the demo.

Like the protester I saw carrying a life-size cutout picture of David Cameron with "Dickhead" and a crude picture of a penis scrawled across his forehead, or the more prosaic but forceful "Osborne, f**k off."

At the risk of waving a big waggy middle-aged finger of pomposity, I think there is a place for strong language in protests, but there is also a time to be more restrained.

Because my waggy finger really is getting old, some of my references are so historic that I have included explanatory extracts from my personal Solipedia, so that younger readers do not have to resort to Wikipedia.

My feeling is that strong language can help to express the feeling of the moment, but you need to use a little judgement about alienating some people.

I remember facing this issue when selling "Bollocks to the poll tax" T-shirts on the streets.

It was a good slogan reflecting popular rage, but we need to be careful not to be wearing out our swearing - and also about other issues.

The T-shirts were popular with teens, but if they were particularly young there was always an anxiety that some angry mum would remonstrate with us instead of demonstrate with us.

So the swearing is not always appropriate, especially not when the movement gets broader.

I was a Unison branch secretary for five years.

In the broadest movement - the trade union movement - you have the socially conservative next to life's natural anarchists and all shades in between.

Some people swear like troopers, some are deeply religious and are offended.

And it is often a surprise who is sacred and who is profane.

There is also no correlation between who is the best union militant and who is the most socially liberal, so the meetings have to be respectful to all.

It is all about judgement.

And the main judgement to make is that the left is organising a campaign to change the world, not change our lifestyles.

It is about organising the largest number of people into the most militant possible activity.

We should always choose the language that helps us do that, which means using the vernacular if it helps put over our case, but not if it puts people off.

In my judgement, there is one one special case - the "C-word."

By this I mean using c**t as a pejorative, not a descriptive - an insult ("you are a c**t"), rather than an actual reference to part of a woman.

The fees protesters showed a new willingness to "drop the C-bomb."

Slogans I saw included: "Cameron put the N in cuts" or the shorter "C**tservatives."

I think this is a special case because the C-word has a long association with misogyny.

The harshest profanity is intimately connected with womanhood.

Using the C-word as a swear word suggests that there is something bad about being a woman.

The 1811 edition of the Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue - a compilation of "buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence" - defines c**t as "a nasty name for a nasty thing."

The strength of the swearword relies on the strength of ill-feeling towards the feminine.

This is still a word that hates women and I don't think we should be using it.

I am all for banning the C-bomb, although we should approach those using it with a bit of generosity, not least because ideas and words can get jumbled up in a contradictory fashion - both the placards using the C-word I saw were carried by women.

This is not a new argument.

I can recall demonstrating with the Right To Work marchers outside the Conservative conference in 1982.

A group of young radiologists began chanting: "Maggie Thatcher's got one, Norman Tebbit is one."

They were gently told that their hearts were in the right place, but their mouths weren't - that the bad thing about Mrs Thatcher was not her womanhood and that they weren't just disrespecting Mrs T and Mr T, they were also disrespecting their sisters.

It was a debate held in a comradely fashion and the chanting changed. I would hope that the lessons of 1982 have not all been lost in the past 30 years, not least because we can always find new ways to insult our leaders.

In 1982 Robin Day accidentally enraged Tory minister John Nott on TV, describing him as a "here today, gone tomorrow politician."

Nott blew a fuse and embarrassed himself by charging out of the news studio.

When Nott was then seen entering the conference, 5,000 protesters surged forward and chanted with one voice to the "here we go, here we go" chanting tune: "Roooobin Day, Robin Day, Robin Day, Robin Day, Robin Day, Robin Da-ay."

If the name of the BBC's lead interviewer can become a humiliating insult, we don't need to use misogynist swearing.


The Uninteractive Encyclopaedia

(1) Norman Tebbit
Standard-bearer of the hard right in Thatcher's government.

A thin Eric Pickles.

(2) Robin Day
BBC interviewer and host of Question Time.

A cross between David Dimbleby and John Humphreys in a polka-dot bow tie.

(3) John Nott
Tory defence minister.

Imagine current Defence Minister Gerald Howarth, but not fancying himself as much.

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