I'm glad I'm not in the business of setting rules for the use of taboo language in film or broadcasting. I'd be tearing out my bleeping hair trying to articulate some non-abitrary, empirically defensible set of standards.
The difficulties are highlighted in a blog post for The Telegraph by Brendan O'Neill (5/25/2012). Evidently, the British Board of Film Classification is going for nuance, trying to distinguish between degrees of offensiveness of the word c**t. O'Neill writes:
If, as in Ken Loach's new movie The Angels' Share, the characters in a film say that word in an "aggressive" fashion, then the film will be stamped with an 18 certificate. But if they were to utter the c-word in a "non-aggressive" fashion, then the film could be granted a more lenient, box office-friendly 15 certificate. So Loach, whose new film is based in Glasgow, where the c-word abounds, has been forced to excise the more aggressive uses of the word in order for his film to be a 15. He is rightly annoyed that he has effectively been forced to censor "a word that goes back to Chaucer's time".
As O'Neill further notes:
…it isn't the language itself, the actual words, which terrifies the likes of the BBFC and other members of the great and good. It's the question of who is using those words and to what end. So certain uses of the c-word are now positively celebrated, with Sex and the City types and feminists uttering it as "a word of sexual potency". They rarely get any flak for describing the c-word as "a cherished part of [our] lexical armour". Likewise, when the ironic superhero film Kick-Ass showed an 11-year-old girl calling a group of men "c***s", there was, in the words of the Guardian, only a "half-hearted whimper from the Daily Mail" – everyone else thought that funky use of the c-word was hilarious and Kick-Ass got a 15 from those unelected defenders of common decency at the BBFC.
However, when a bloke – worse, a Glaswegian bloke – uses the exact same word, and not as an expression of "sexual potency" but rather as part of a heated-but-friendly exchange or as a term of abuse, we reel in horror, and the BBFC insists that only over-18s may have their ears defiled by such shocking lingo.
O'Neill is upset because he sees the variable standard as linguistic class warfare; what's considered an obscene bomb when dropped by a working class Glaswegian becomes "edgy" or empowering" from the lips of "floppy-haired posh people".
He may be right to complain about this. On the other hand, I'm inclined to be sympathetic to the BBFC's quandary: obscenity, of course, is not about specific words so much as it as about specific words in context. If it were just about the words, it would be completely mysterious why I can get away with discussing the infixation possibilities of the morpheme fuck in a linguistics class, but would propel my students straight to the dean's office if I ever handed back their assignments saying "I've marked your fucking papers".
This is what makes swearing such an exquisite skill, hard to master outside of one's native language. Swearing with just the right degree of coarseness is all about nuance.
The BBFC's determination of context may well be flawed; but it's at least partly right to recognize that the offensiveness inherent in taboo words has to take into account "who is using those words and to what end". Only partly right, of course. The right metric for offensiveness would also have to consider who is hearing those words. And good luck trying to build that into any definition of acceptable standards.
(A Twitter hat tip to @hyperlingo.)