Words that cause offence

“I can see myself leaving here quite soon. I love this country but I’ve had enough of it. I don’t see what we’re being given back. I just see the country being raped …” 

Ray Winstone, talkSPORT Radio (8 March 2013)

Free_speech_doesn't_mean_careless_talk^_-_NARA_-_535383Does free speech give us the right to say anything without censorship or should we avoid offending others?

In a chatty radio interview, Winstone used an emotive verb to express his feelings about the British tax system.  It reflected a personal point of view: the government shows a lack of responsibility in the way it uses the tax revenue it raises and Winstone believes it is ruining the country.

While celebrities often complain about high tax rates, Winstone’s choice of verb has caused a media storm. Opinion is divided. Is he a straight-talking bloke using colourful language that is typical of his hard-men film characters? Or is he an insensitive rich man  failing to distinguish between a serious crime and a personal gripe?

Had this conversation taken place in a private context, it would have been an inappropriate verb, but ephemeral – once spoken, it would have been gone. In the public context of a radio interview, however, lexical choice becomes a more delicate matter.  However informal and personal the occasion may appear, however well the participants may know each other, broadcasters should always be aware of their wider audience. Their language must be acceptable.

Perhaps the form of the word here plays as much a part in causing offence as its denotation and connotations. The passive continuous verb form (being raped) creates a sense of immediacy that makes the act itself more prominent. While recognising that the use is figurative, the effect is unpleasant.  Equating rape and paying taxes is a rather thoughtless comparison.

An interesting contrast can be drawn with the title of a novel published in 1959: The Rape of the Fair Country. This novel by Foxes_Bridge_CollieryAlexander Cordell tells the story of the Welsh iron and coal communities of Blaenavon and Nantyglo during the  Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.  The figurative ‘rape’ here describes the destruction of the Welsh landscape by industry and the exploitation of the workers in their bitter struggle with the English ironmasters.

It is difficult to imagine this title causing offence, perhaps because ‘rape’ is the head of a noun phrase rather than the head of a verb phrase. Its effect is therefore less forceful. Moreover, there is a clear social and political argument underlying the lexical choice: its emotive connotations are designed to make us think about the situation in the Welsh valleys as the workers face physical hardship and the ravishing of their land.

Unfortunate – yes; malicious – no. Whether you think Winstone has been politically incorrect or not will probably depend on whether you think the wider point he makes is personal or political.

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