Piers Kelly writes:

Deprived of the outrageous gaffes and old-fashioned biffo that we might have been expecting from this fizzer of an election season, journalists have started romanticising the days of feistier figures like Hawke and Keating who were rarely afraid to lash their abusive tongues. Even rat-fucking Rudd appears already to have merged into that grainy gallery of foul-mouthed former Labour leaders.

But now it’s the Liberal pollies who are asserting their curse-word credentials by exposing their own daring linguistic behaviour. Tony Abbott was recently on the Gary, Fitzy and Mel Show admitting to yoof listeners that he liked to use “colourful language” behind closed doors — or, presumably, whenever he believed the microphone was off. Meanwhile Alexander Downer was telling Claire Harvey of the Sunday Telegraph that he thought Rudd was not a cad, a blackguard, or a downright rum sort of fellow but, rather extraordinarily, “a fucking awful person”.

“I don’t use the c-word,” he explained to Harvey before graciously fetching her smelling salts, “but I do use the f-word pretty freely”. One wonders what that nancy boy Bob Hawke was thinking about all this bravado.

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At least we didn’t have to spend a penny for the thoughts of broadcaster Steve Price. “Our pollies must swear off abuse” he admonished from a Herald Sun column where he released the earth-shattering news that he once personally overheard Downer using “the f-word” on his mobile phone. (Read the full story at Wikileaks).

But Price’s gravest condemnation was reserved for K-Rudd who is accused by Julie Bishop of having uttered the word ‘cunt’ while overseas and in front of women. Zounds! Not at home? In the presence of consenting willies? “Now I don’t believe that is acceptable under any circumstances”, he explains. “It’s an awful word anyway and is always used in a derogatory way.”

Which is why he is so baffled by what he takes to be a manifest hypocrisy:

Governments around the nation – federal, state and local – pass law after law and establish tribunal after tribunal to enshrine in legislation laws that prevent that type of abuse. Unions have smashed employers who allow workplace discrimination on the basis of sex or colour or gender. Using language like that said to be used by Rudd and Downer, aimed at enemies or colleagues, would be classified as workplace bullying.

What’s so frustrating about these kinds of disingenous sermons is that they fail to attribute any linguistic sophistication to the rational and practical use of swear words. It’s as if human communication happens without reference to context and that our minds perform a simple keyword search, such that in all circumstances one word makes you a workplace bully, another a misogynist. Journos and news editors subscribe to this philosophy when they quaintly talk about the “f-word” or render direct quotation as “f—“, as if readers can’t tell the difference between a mention, a quotation or instance of actual use.

That Price’s prawn is not sufficiently cooked is betrayed by the very fact that he acknowledges the relevance of context in his qualification “aimed at enemies or colleagues”. But moral absolutists prefer to insist that language is simple, inflexible and denotative in order to accommodate a reductive view of the world.

There’s no doubt that swear words can be used to dramatic effect. They can pack a punch in any serious insult — abusive or otherwise — and are hardly unexpected in the rambunctious cut-and-thrust of politics. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett deferred to the Bard – incorrectly as it happens – when taken to task for using the word ‘prick’, and Bob Ellis defended his use of the word ‘fucked’ in his political memoir Goodbye Jerusalem on poetic grounds. There is clearly nothing intrinsically abusive about the words themselves, powerful as they may be.

All this goes to show that there’s a time and place for every swear word, and those who are not sharp enough to take stock of the communicative context run the risk of misjudging the situation entirely. If you have trouble distinguishing abusive intimidation from vibrant argy-bargy, then don’t try this at home.

Or overseas, for that matter.

Next: How to swear at the police

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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