Cursing and Censorship, What Should The Rules Be?

Ed Ramsey

Controversy is not only exciting, but it generates discourse. If a subject isn't talked about enough, or if it's been talked about perhaps in the wrong way, one of the few things that can genuinely fix that problem, is controversy. My favourite source of controversy? 

Culture. Film, theatre, television, art, literature, whatever it may be. It's one of the best places to find controversy, it's practically a fountain for emotion, personal reaction (good and bad) and debate, a rich fountain one can dip in and out of whenever one wants, a fountain which must be protected at all costs. There's often debate about how much cursing should be allowed in certain productions for example. And this is just one of those things that I both hate debating and think it necessary to do so. Because of course, like many things, it should probably be decided on a case-by-case basis. However, I also think it necessary to point out a few things. 

'Vulgar' language and its uses have changed. This cannot be news to anyone. Language evolves. Setting the precedent of 'bad language is and always will be a bad thing for everyone in every situation' is all very well for the second in which you set it; but the more you move on in time the higher susceptibility that precedent has of becoming entirely false. 

The word 'fuck' has many uses: some offensive, some not. It would be silly to attempt a debate over that. But to move this into the theatrical realm to provide the reader and I some common ground: surely the people who understand the play most, are the creatives who were involved in 'creating' it, aren't they?. Those of us working in the theatre industry, are not fools. And what's more, it is likely that we have come to the realization that in order to change worlds for the better, it would be more beneficial in the long run to attempt to mold future mentalities than anything else. It should be our decision to decide whether we should swear in our piece of theatre. Nobody else's. And by the 'else' here I am referring to producers, venue providers and other such entities.

In a play that I am soon to appear in at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, '1984', there is a sequence known as 'two minute hate'. The use of 'bad' language in such a sequence is, as I think you could guess, essential. And yet there has been in a couple of situations some pressure to omit cursing from the play. And in these sorts of occasions, which I and others have experienced frequently, very often the deal seems to be: dumb it down or set age restrictions. Now this is all very well and good, except it, isn't really, and here's why. 

My argument against age restrictions is this: the more you tell people exactly what they should and shouldn't watch, the more you take responsibility out of the hands in which it should be, and into the hands it shouldn't. What's more, it's ageist. I know twelve year olds who would be perfectly mature enough to handle a piece of Artaudian theatre, just as I know adults who simply wouldn't get it. And I know that my examples don't necessarily represent the masses, but I would point out that age stereotypes (as with any stereotypes) polarise only if we let them. If we admit to ourselves that age is less important than we think it is, and maturity is the real issue, then we allow ourselves to focus on what we need to be focusing on. In this day and age for instance, when you go to see a film as an adult, if you do not research the film you are going to see prior to seeing it, then you are willingly entering into a non-verbal contract wherein you have no right to complain if you are offended. You have the right to be offended, you just don't have the right to use that to control culture in any way. Similarly, if you take your child to see a film, the same applies. Age restrictions have taken responsibility away from ourselves and our parents, and into the hands of those who can only use statistics to judge, and statistics just aren't enough.

This I think also links slightly to another column on this site which talks about how school productions shouldn't be afraid to be meaningful. I agree very strongly and would go on to say that school productions shouldn't be afraid to approach adult topics in an adult way, with adult language where necessary and with a maturity level that is judged and decided on a case-by-case basis. One of my favourite quotes is the following from American musician Bryan White: "we never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public". The quote reveals (as I'm sure many of us have realised at one time or another) the important fact that 'adulthood' is decided in weird ways, with faded, often difficult to see lines- difficult if you don't know the individual anyway. And this means that controlling culture due to these faded lines contains inevitable problems, problems which in the UK took us until the 60's to finally get pretty much sorted out. In schools, for example, it should be the person or people who know and love what they're doing who decide what plays to put on, and what language to include in those plays. Not uninvolved staff, or even parents.

Recent cases of principles who have ceased productions due to homosexuality featuring in some way, or because of the 'adult' themes can be easily researched, and it's not good. It seems to me that there's enough of this everywhere to suggest that the really brave thing for a high-school to do would be to attempt an unabridged production of 'Angels in America'. The fact that these cases occur more often in schools bears almost zero relevance, really. The more we censor culture- no matter where it is- the more it becomes controlled and repressed, this leads to specific knowledge being held back from the public- and everyone should have the right to knowledge. The more we censor culture, the less we know. The more books we burn, the closer we get to dystopia. Fahrenheit 451 anyone?

At the end of the day, state intervention (or rather: intervention by the wrong people) with culture is more dangerous than accidentally insulting people now and then, because the former could ensnare a whole society irreversibly (ironically Orwellian, no?), whereas the latter...doesn't. Cultural freedom (freedom of the expresser, that is) is one of my favourite things about modern Western society. I would love it if we could keep it that way. 


Edward is a drama student from the United Kingdom. Twitter: @Edward__Ramsey (yes, that is two underscores)

Photo: 'Glengarry Glen Ross,' by David Mamet, With Al Pacino & Bobby Cannavale - The New York Times