Prize-winning Author of Historical Fiction

Reactions to Offensive Language


Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Untrue apparently. Because the capacity of individuals to be hurt or offended by other people’s written or spoken words seems almost limitless. Witness recent events in Paris. Or the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Or the American and British court actions in 1933 and 1960 against James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Obscenity, blasphemy, profanity, sedition are words describing other words which clearly give offence. But what is it that upsets us so about the views of others? If we’re religious, are we saying that God Himself (Herself?) needs shielding from human insults? And if that’s so, aren’t we projecting the image of a deity who’s no more certain of themself than we are? Or if we don’t believe in gods in the particular or general sense, must we tiptoe round the sensibilities of anyone who does? Are believers all so tolerant of atheists? The Bible contains derogatory comments about the Jewish God, Jehovah. Should it be banned? Is it sedition if we criticize our government? And are there really parts of human bodies too personal to be described in detail, or named in anything but Latin?

To be accused of sloppy writing or bad taste is one thing. To be regarded as a criminal quite another. In England until 1960 the publisher of a book containing any passage which ‘might have a tendency to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences’ was liable to imprisonment. But who decided whether such a ‘tendency’ was present or who was ‘open to it’? The Lord Chancellor in the 1930s, who when he died was found to have a specially bound copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses (deplored by one critic as ‘full of the filthiest blasphemies’) in his own private library? I don’t think so.

And nowadays despite the legal publication of such books, are we still saying there are certain thoughts which we should never put into the minds or mouths of characters in literature, for fear of depraving or corrupting someone else? For fear they’d take offence? Poor Thomas Hardy lost the will to write another novel after his Jude the Obscure was branded ‘blasphemous’ – while I’ve been personally surprised at the shocked criticism I’ve come in for by allowing a character in one of my own novels, The White Cross, to swear profanely, despite the fact that I described a man who is recorded to have done so often; King Richard Lionheart. But were those readers really shocked? Or just pretending to be shocked, in case someone like me should think that someone like them would swear so graphically in their own daily life (even if they do)?

Is it perhaps the context or the circumstance that matters more to us than the rude words? Good men and true are happy to swear roundly and obscenely in each other’s company. But much less so in front of women, and seldom when they write. Women use words privately with girlfriends that they would hesitate to use more widely. We say things in the bedroom in the dark which probably we’d never say in daylight. Or in front of children – who’re apt to use worse words themselves behind the bike sheds, or let’s face it, these days almost anywhere! We feel embarrassed when Granny’s forced to hear the f-word or the c-word on her television, forgetting she survived the swinging sixties.

So now if I should dare to claim that current views of blasphemy, profanity and of obscenity are very often hypocritical – I wonder if you’d take offence?