It sometimes feels like we live in a hyper-connected (and hyper-sensitive) age, where certain keywords muttered in one place trigger automated responses elsewhere designed to advance the cause of whichever group believes they have ownership of that particular word, phrase or concept. A high profile figure uses the word ‘rape’ in an offhand manner and it’s no longer surprising when an advocacy group takes the chance to highlight the evils of rape. Had Swann said ‘corn holed’, representatives of the corn industry might have taken offence...
But perhaps that’s a glib thing to say. I’m prone to say glib things that might offend, which is perhaps why this story attracts my attention. Thankfully, I’m not an oft-lauded English off-spin bowler so nobody will really care what I say, glib or otherwise. Before my meaning can be misconstrued, however, let me state here that I believe rape to be the most horrific violation of not just the body but the human spirit. In many ways, it is a crime worse than murder, so what follows is not a defence of rapists or an attempt to degrade the significance of their crime. What interests me is the degree to which we are allowed to use these words and concepts in our everyday language. At what point does a subject become too taboo for the idle quip?
You see, I feel a little sorry for Swann. Swann is an easy target and he’s in no position to defend his use of the phrase. He is speaking in a way that’s familiar in a certain context. It’s the kind of quip often exchanged between male friends, the sort of vulgar joke that might include some reference to the film ‘Deliverance’ and the phrase ‘squeal like a pig’. It’s not sophisticated humour. Nor is it humour that will appeal to everyone. Taken out of one context and placed into another, it will easily offend people who don’t share that sensibility. But it’s a type of humour that is out there and is so very recognisable.
Of course, Graeme Swann doesn’t say any of this. It’s easier for Swann to say ‘sorry’ and move on than it is for him to defend his right to use whatever language he feels appropriate when posting to his brother’s Facebook page. And, really, is there anything he can say that sounds as meaningful as the words of Yvonne Traynor, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, who told The Telegraph:
"We are appalled that Graeme Swann equates a cricket match with the devastatingly serious crime of rape. It is the duty of a people in the public eye to make sure that their own distorted views are kept to themselves and not shared with the general public. These comments lack compassion and intelligence and he should apologise to anyone who has suffered from this heinous crime."
The problem I have is the problem I have whenever an offhand remark is countered with a well-considered response. Anybody can make an offhand remark which can then be made to look foolish with an acutely reasoned reply. Somebody well practised at deconstructionism could take many a mild statement and expose some raw misogyny, fascist leaning or underlying assumption about other people and their cultures. We routinely use words to express ourselves which come laden with all kinds of prior meanings but that isn’t to say that we advocate the murder of the French whenever we say that somebody has ‘met their Waterloo’ any more than there’s an implied support of colonialism when we say ‘I could murder a curry’.
So if there has been no reasonable defence made for Graeme Swann, then I think there should be one. There should be a reasoned argument that says something like: ‘obviously, he didn’t mean to offend anybody who has suffered that most terrible crime of rape, but he used an example of extreme human barbarity to express the profound disappointment he’s feeling at the moment.’ It should go on as follows: ‘Rather than diminish the severity of rape, his comment acknowledges rape’s status as an ultimate taboo in our collective morality. Much of our humour comes from exploring these taboo concepts and his remarks belonged to a long tradition of using such terms for darkly comic effect (see Freud’s Totem and Taboo). Of course, rape exists and it will continue to exist as long as individuals seek to impose their will on other individuals. It is part of all human potential and, sadly, it will always be part of the sum total of what we call “the human condition”. Yet to hide it away and restrict our use of the word for only those moments when we’re talking seriously about something is wrong and denies us an important part of our language.’
But, of course, if that’s reasonably put, it’s also reasonable to say that there is a point at which such comparisons become unacceptable. Swann could have said ‘murdered’ by the Australians and it wouldn’t have raised any objection. Had he compared it with ethic cleaning or, even worse, been so specific as to compare it to the Holocaust, he would have been rightly vilified.
There might, then, be a matter of degree in this situation. ‘Bummed’, ‘buggered’ or even ‘butt fucked’ wouldn’t have raised such alarm. ‘Rape’, however, is such a sensitive subject and in some sense politicised, he should have known better than to walk down the middle of the wicket wearing his spikes and cutting up the rough.
Because, to some, making supposedly funny remarks about rape is tantamount to attempting to reduce the seriousness of the crime. They argue that we desensitise ourselves to the violence of rape by using the word in such a casual manner. And I suppose there might be that danger. The old saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ has established wisdom about it. We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to be shocked. Films have developed such an elaborate language of horror that it’s hard to think of something that exceeds the imaginations of filmmakers. Saw was a shocking movie but tame compared to what came later. The ‘unimaginable’ horrors of films of the 1950s are laughable compared to today’s torture horror. In another fifty years, what might that generation think about today’s Human Centipede?
Yet whatever they think about our horror, I doubt if future generations will have any more developed response to rape. There is a difference between styles of horror and certain depictions of physical violence. Whilst the sight of Norman Bates’ mother, at the end of Psycho, has lost much of its shock value, the same can’t be said of rape scenes from films of the 1960s and 70s. A Clockwork Orange still makes for very uncomfortable viewing as does Straw Dogs. One of the most shocking and uncomfortable films I’ve seen which still shocks today is Hitchcock’s Frenzy.
There is something about the act of rape that isn’t lessened by familiarity or overuse of the word. It simply never fails to shock. I’ve laboured longest over the wording of this brief article than I’ve done over anything in a long time. The very fact that it makes for uncomfortable discussion and there’s been little or no debate about a cricketer’s use of the term would suggest that it retains its power. Horror has its basis in some part of the brain that’s unconnected with our moral actions. Rape remains the ultimate violation, utterly taboo, a place reserved for the worst things that humans can do to one another.
And in this respect, Swann’s remarks belong to that category of darkly humourous exaggeration we use as a way of commentating on something so out of the ordinary. Is it too much of a stretch to say that it was used in the same way that Alexander Pope meant it when he wrote ‘Rape of the Lock’? Well, perhaps it is. Times change and perhaps Swann was unwise to use the word in what might be thought of as a public forum. He might have used the word unthinkingly (but I don’t think it was as unthinking as some would wish). Yet if Swann’s choice of expression was shocking, some might say it was shockingly funny but shocking nevertheless. And that is how it should be and, in that sense, I don’t believe he has any reason to apologise. Just to suggest that he uses it in a way that’s disrespectful of all rape victims is to play unfair games with language. It plays politics with the issue by spinning the spinner’s words.