An Irish friend who pays much closer attention to the media than do I often passes on to me items that he thinks might interest me. He is of my view that things of no importance in themselves might nevertheless point to phenomena of greater significance. This is why he passed on to me a tweet by a British actor called Hugh Grant about Boris Johnson’s temporary suspension of the British Parliament.
I know very little of the actor. I once saw him in a film called Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I know that he once had some kind of trouble with the police. I thought the film abominable (though that, of course, would not be the actor’s fault); it had that kind of self-regarding and self-conscious charm that is not easily distinguishable from oleaginous fraud.
Here is the tweet:
You will not fuck with my children’s future. You will not destroy the freedoms my grandfather fought two world wars to defend. Fuck off you over-promoted rubber bath toy. Britain is revolted by you and you [sic] little gang of masturbatory prefects.
No doubt the space allowed by Twitter does not encourage profound or logical reflection (though in the Analects, Confucius manages concision and compression somewhat better than Mr. Grant). What is important in the above mental eructation is not its thought, or even feeling, but its mode of expression. And apparently a quarter of a million people went to the trouble—admittedly not the very great trouble—of indicating that they liked it.
In the days when I worked as a doctor in prison, I did not permit (though actually I had no power to prevent) my patients from using Mr. Grant’s favorite word in front of me. A patient would say to me, “I’ve got this fucking headache,” whereupon I would ask him to halt a moment while he explained to me the difference between a headache and a fucking headache. (Actually, there is such a thing as a coital headache, but that was not what the patient meant.)
“That’s the way I speak,” the patient would say.
“Yes,” I replied, “That is what I’m complaining of.”
The patient spoke of his own use of language as if it were a fact of Nature, such as the Swiss Alps, rather than a matter of choice on his part. But oddly enough, under the mildest of remonstration, he soon demonstrated that it was under his conscious control.
Mr. Grant’s adoption of gutter language is in my view very significant, much more significant in the long term than Brexit or the actions of the current prime minister. It points to the complete cultural degeneration of a nation that, insofar as it has an ideology at all, has made vulgarity posing as egalitarianism its ideology.
If I have understood correctly, though I am open to correction, Mr. Grant has made something of his character as an upper-middle-class Englishman. But he is at one with the British cultural elite in vulgarity of expression. Here, for example, is the headline of the cultural section of a recent edition of The Observer, the Sunday newspaper of the intelligentsia (at least, that part of it that still reads a newspaper): “It’s a risky, clumsy motherf—er, this play.”
The accompanying picture is of a playwright called Lucy Prebble, dressed in a rather pretty and no doubt expensive flowered frock, smiling and looking exceedingly pleased with herself. She is being interviewed about her newest play.
Quite apart from the obviously bogus self-deprecation of the statement, the use of the word—I need hardly say to which one I refer—is clearly intended as a signal of her liberation from supposedly bourgeois restraint and her desire to assert her membership in the linguistic underclass. We may assume that as a successful playwright she is capable of more expressive, less uninformatively vulgar ways of describing her doubts about the value of her own play than this. Her choice of word, therefore, is not to convey anything meaningful about her play, which it is clearly incapable of doing, but to establish her social and political virtue, that is to say her nonmembership of an elite that once upon a time would not have used such a word, and certainly would not have wished it to be published that it had used it.
What, then, lies behind Mr. Grant’s dull and tedious adoption of the language of the gutter? We may be sure that, irrespective of what Mr. Johnson does, he will be able to arrange for a bright future, at least in the material sense. We may be sure that, if any government were to threaten that assured material future by genuinely and inescapably egalitarian economic measures, his howls of indignation would be a good deal more sincere than in the tweet above.
In fact, vulgarity as an ideology is a substitute for economic egalitarianism, in which neither I nor the ideological vulgarians such as Mr. Grant believe, and which both of us fear. Mr. Grant, however, thinks that he can deflect some of the envy no doubt directed at him if he can show by his employment of vulgar language that he is really in the same boat as the most subterranean members of the underclass. He is asserting some kind of equality with them by his use of debased and inexpressive language.
The tendency to act down, which occurs in spheres other than language, does not derive from any guilt about social or economic inequality, which, on the contrary, it is designed to preserve and maintain. It is rather a camouflage or smokescreen for privilege, whether that privilege be earned or not. But though it is playacting—indeed, defender of freedom and democracy may be Mr. Grant’s greatest role—it is not without real cultural effect, an effect that is baleful if you do not approve of the coarsening that it inevitably brings with it. Moreover, lack of verbal restraint is not liberation, it is impoverishment of thought.