Sociology of Swearing

Young man wearing sun glasses with a t-shirt that reads 'Let me hear the f*cking bass'

Why is swearing on TV more offensive than graphic depictions of violence?

In December 2011, The then-Australian Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, created a media controversy when he swore during a live address on the national public broadcaster, the ABC. This live gaff had me thinking about swearing, the power of ‘bad words’ and the regulatory bodies that set and enforce the standards for television programming. It’s popped back into my mind as I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about power dynamics and the changes in linguistic practices.

Speaking to the National Press Club about the proposed tax for the National Broadband Network, Conroy said:

“If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down, its fucking fantastic. Excuse me – that is fantastic.”

This comment went to air during 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm. As Aidan Wilson (2011) points out, Conroy’s offence was not simply using a ‘vulgar’ word, but also that his address was followed by the ABC’s afternoon children’s shows.

The language guidelines for TV shows can be confusing. Why are some words allowed in some contexts and not in others? It’s not simply a timing issue – some swear words are only allowed to escape the mouths of thespians late at night but not during the day. This makes sense if you’re trying to protect children from being exposed to certain swear words.

The again, some words are generally considered to be more offensive than others – but the social norms on this are not clearly articulated by law.

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The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

Silhouette of figures wearing baseball caps with the sunset in the background

This cartoon below by Charles Barsotti is a good illustration of the social construction of group deviance in public spaces. This cartoon points out how some social groupings can be given negative labels, such as a “cult.” The beliefs or the practices of particular socio-economic groups can are treated with suspicion by a dominant group where they do not conform to society’s norms, values, behaviour or appearance. Non-conformity can lead to the creation of stereotypes; that is, labels that simplify specific qualities of some people as typical of the group they belong to (hence the cartoon, where one wolf says to another, “We’re a pack, not a cult.”).

In most circumstances crowds that “blend in” and meet society’s standards of “acceptability” escape the stigma of social deviance. Cases where “ordinary” groups might be negatively labelled by authorities might occur during times of civil unrest, such as during political protests, or due to other political cycles, such as the lead up to an election.

Racial minority youth are often labelled as deviant simply for being in public. In the case of Aboriginal youth, even something as routine as being in a shopping centre is mired by harassment by security (Perry 2018: Powell 2018). In another example, Muslim girls have been forced to leave a school excursion at a public exhibition centre because other visitors felt “uncomfortable” (Foster 2017).

Let’s take a look at this problem of stereotyping racial minority youth in public spaces, focusing specifically today on migrant minorities. We’ll examine how labelling these youth as “deviant” keeps society from paying attention to pressing social problems, such as structural inequality and interpersonal gender violence.

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