The recent Channel 4 documentary SKINT, an investigation into poverty in Scunthorpe, has raised once more the age-old issue of bad language in front of children. In the show the inhabitants of ‘Scunny’ swear relentlessly at all times, with no term taboo. Indeed, Scunthorpe even has a swear word in its name.
There is a marvellous scene in which Dean, the man the show has deemed the most intelligent of those it documents, is interviewed about his difficult life by the narrator Ralph Ineson, who emphasizes his northern working-class accent. Whilst Dean is talking, a youth stands in the background, carefully carving the word FUCK into the whitewashed wall of his own home.
Viewers of the show – the much more bourgeois Channel 4 documentary watchers – have reacted predictably, with one we asked saying they are ‘utterly shocked’ by the language used in front of children. But what is behind this shock?
The question we tend to ask is ‘why?’ Why do they swear in front of the kids? Why write FUCK on your own wall? Sometimes one hears the retort ‘why not?’ and usually the argument is heard that it is only our repressed politeness, a hangover from the 19th century, which wants to taboo swearing. But this is completely uninteresting.
What is really interesting is the way that what we cannot understand or attribute a cause to is dismissed as ‘meaningless.’ As we did with the riots of 2011 across the UK, the swearing is dismissed, ‘why all this needless swearing’ ‘why all this pointless violence.’ We can ignore it, because there is ‘no reason’ for it.
Karl Marx writes of the oppressed and excluded class that: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. Their representative must appear simultaneously as their master [and as a] power which protects them from the other classes and send them rain and sunshine from above.’ The comment, made in 1852, captures the ideology of SKINT perfectly. The class of Ralph Ineson, of the Channel 4 documentary, ‘speaks for’ the inhabitants of Scunthorpe (which it sees as a class), who would otherwise be unable to articulate themselves. This ‘speaking for’ is a mastery and control, under the guise of help and protection, pretending to save the inhabitants of Scunthorpe from the more judgmental classes, giving them a ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ representation.
But it is our treatment of the bits that we do not know how to ‘speak for,’ which cannot be explained, that shows us the real state of play here. There are actions which we do not have a language to explain. We try give an explanation, that the swearing and the violence occurs because people ‘dont know’ how to articulate themselves, seeing as they have been deprived of opportunities etc. If only, we imagine, they could have all been given the opportunities we have had, they would articulate themselves rather than needing us to do so for them. We can help even, to bring them into our language.
But postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, speaking about the quotation from Marx in her famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ explains that we are made to believe that beyond this speaking-for ‘is where oppressed subjects speak, act, and know for themselves.’ We imagine that it would be possible for oppressed subjects to express themselves, given the opportunity. But what Spivak wants to demonstrate in her work is that this ‘leads to an essentialist, utopian politics.’ We try to hide from ourselves the reality that there is always someone excluded, someone or something outside of representation, instead mistakenly believing that it would be possible for every subject to speak. These acts that we cannot explain, which cannot even be ‘spoken for’ because they do not conform to a position that wants to speak, show us that the truly subaltern is not that which is not allowed to speak for itself, but that which cannot or does not want to take up a position in our system from which to speak.