During his visit to Edinburgh last week, David Cameron encouraged the Scottish people not to vote ‘yes’ for independence at Thursday’s referendum simply because they were ‘fed up with the effing Tories’. As part of his heartfelt plea Cameron reminded voters that Thursday’s poll is not a choice between political parties but a once only chance to save the union.
A few might have seen this use of an expletive or ‘near-expletive’ as genuine slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment but many more commentators have interpreted it as a cynical, scripted attempt to win over the hearts of the common people by using the language of the street. Rather than sounding sincere and genuine, some commentators have said it came across as patronising and affected. The thing about swearing is that it is frequently driven by intense emotions, whether positive or negative, and expletives are often uttered spontaneously when other words fail us. They can also often be used humorously or to connect intentionally with others, particularly within a social ‘in-group’. But to do this, as David Cameron was seemingly trying to do to create empathy with the Scottish electorate, there needs to be some degree of congruence between the language used and the persona of the speaker. The words need to match the delivery style, personality and position of the speaker to come across as authentic. To some, Cameron’s half-hearted stab at using an expletive in his speech came across as a disingenuous attempt at showing himself to be a man of the people.
Use of Profanities by Public Figures
Of course, there is also the broader question of whether leaders, people in positions of authority, should use profane language in public. Is it ever okay for politicians, educators, business leaders or other prominent figures to use expletives in the public arena? Does it show that they are human and that they really care about the issues that concern us? Or does it suggest that they lack control or are prepared to risk losing the respect of some of those they lead in order to identify with others?
Language and language use change constantly and the use of expletives in public is much more socially acceptable than it was 50 years ago. There is certainly a long list of politicians who have been caught on record swearing, whether deliberately or inadvertently. Perhaps wise advice to them would be to use profane language moderately and be aware of its long-lasting impact. After all, in years to come will David Cameron want to be remembered for his ‘effing Tories’ comment should Scotland vote for independence?