The news has travelled around the world: It’s OK to swear on the radio in Canada now!
Only… it’s not quite what the headlines make it. This is more a story of one listener telling a French-language radio station to shut the fuck up, and the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council telling that listener to sit the fuck down. It’s not open “fuck” season all day all the time on all Canadian radio from coast to coast to coast. It’s just an acknowledgement that the word fuck is no more offensive to French-Canadians at large than the word screw is to English-speaking Canadians.
But let’s start with some background.
Swearing on the air in Canada
First of all: You’ve been able to say “fuck” on the air in Canada – in English-speaking Canada, even – for years, within specific limits. You can see the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics: On TV, it’s open season between 9 pm and 6 am as long as you put an advisory on it. I’ll give you a couple of examples from my youth. Years ago – in the 1980s, even – there was a news magazine show after the 10 pm national news on CBC TV called The Journal, hosted by the late lamented Barbara Frum (mother of David) and a few others, including a whippersnapper named Keith Morrison. They would run clips from it as teaser ads a couple of times during the news program, The National. On one occasion there was a person featured in a documentary who said “Sometimes you just wanna say ‘fuck the world’ and go home.” This was played as a preview ad during the national news, and of course was played again during The Journal. On another occasion they interviewed Germaine Greer and the clip they used to promote the interview was of her saying (I’m going by memory here) “Why is it that whatever men fuck they have to kill?” Private broadcasters wouldn’t have run those clips, but that’s just because their advertisers would have objected. The government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was happy to.
But that’s TV. Can you say it on the radio?
According to the Code of Ethics, clause 9(c), radio broadcasters are to make sure their programming doesn’t contain “unduly coarse and offensive language.”
Whatever the fuck that means.
Well, if someone is listening to the radio and they hear something they think is unduly coarse and offensive, it’s up to the radio station to explain why it was just duly coarse and offensive. If the listener is unconvinced, he or she can complain to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and get a ruling.
So what happened this time?
There’s a French-language station in Montreal called CKOI, owned by the company Cogéco, that plays popular music and has some chit-chat between the program hosts and various guests and listeners. Two instances caught someone’s attention.
The first one was on January 23, 2017, at about 4:30 pm: They played a clip of Madonna speaking at the women’s march on Washington, where she said “And to our detractors that insist that this march will never add up to anything … fuck you.” And then one of the hosts said “Évidemment, elle le répète là « fuck you, fuck you, fuck you », elle a dit que ça.” (“So, apparently, she repeated ‘fuck you, fuck you, fuck you’, she said that,” is the translation given by the CBSC in the decision.)
The second one was on March 25 at about 2:15 pm. A show host, talking with a listener, played a clip of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong saying “What the fuck?! I’m not fucking Justin Bieber, you motherfuckers!”
In both cases, all the conversation surrounding the clips was in French, because it’s a French-language station in a French-speaking province (Quebec). This is important to remember.
Some fucking guy complained
Right after the Madonna clip, some listener complained. He sent a short complaint to the CBSC about CKOI saying “Played a snip about the women march to Washington with the clear and uncensored expression: ‘fuck you’.”
The CBSC passed the complaint on to the station, who responded directly:
First, we’re a musical radio station, and this is music superstar Madonna talking. Second, we think this women’s march to Washington deserves obvious interest for our listeners.
We acknowledge that some sensible ears may be offended by that often-called ‘four letter word’. However, in French culture, this word doesn’t arouse much reaction. We would even put forward that this English ‘dirty’ word is now, although unfortunately, part of the common French spoken language.
As an example, last Sunday night, on the very popular TV show Tout le monde en parle, one of the most watched shows on Radio-Canada, this word was heard 5 times, without any censure. This very word is pronounced several times every day on sitcoms, talk shows, movies, etc., on private TV channels as well as on national Radio-Canada.
All that said, we are not promoting usage of such language, which remains questionable. What we’re saying is that this very word has become common usage, especially in French.
We thank you to have taken the time to express your opinion. As ever, opinions and observations of our audience are welcomed and appreciated. We will carefully pay attention to the use of such words that may offend some of our sensible listeners. We’re a responsible broadcaster. We’re sorry if we offended you.
The listener was not placated and requested a ruling:
The broadcaster’s response consists in mostly justifying the use of the expression “fuck you” on the air before telling me it judges (appreciates) me to be sensitive.
My perception of this reply is the broadcaster does not take me seriously and thinks I’m annoying. That is not an acceptable response.
Évidemment, the listener has a huge chip on his shoulder, but we pretty much knew that already. Anyway, after the Green Day clip, he fired off another short complaint to the CBSC with the subject line “CKOI yet again” and the comment “They’re doing it on purpose.”
So the CBSC passed that on to CKOI, who responded in French, including this nice explanation:
Nous réitérons le fait que l’utilisation de ces mots dans des émissions en français n’ont pas la même connotation qu’en anglais et ne suscitent aujourd’hui guère d’attention chez les francophones. Ces mots se sont immiscés dans le langage populaire et le vocabulaire courant de la francophonie. Ils sont entendus couramment à la télé privée et à la télé publique, dans les émissions de variétés, les téléromans, les films. Ils sont lus dans des magazines de musique rock, tels que Classic Rock, Mojo, Record Collector, Uncut et plusieurs autres. Quoique certains puissent considérer cette situation déplorable, une langue est à la fois vivante et le reflet de sa société actuelle.
The CSBC didn’t include a translation for that, so here’s mine:
We reiterate the fact that the use of these words in French broadcasts doesn’t have the same connotation as in English and hardly draws any attention today among Francophones. These words are mixed in the popular language and the regular vocabulary of French speakers. They are commonly heard on private and public television, in broadcasts of variety shows, soap operas, and movies. They are read in rock music magazines, such as Classic Rock, Mojo, Record Collector, Uncut and several others. Although some people consider this situation deplorable, a language is a living thing and a reflection of the society it’s part of.
The CSBC told the listener to sit the fuck down
The CSBC rendered its decision on November 7, 2017, and the meat of it was a reiteration of a decision they rendered back on October 19, 2016, of which they quoted the two key paragraphs:
Although the CBSC has found in some previous decisions that the English word “fuck” constitutes language “for adults” even in a French-language program, the Panel Adjudicators note that the English word “fuck” does not have the same vulgar connotation when used in French. The Panel emphasizes, in this regard, that language is evolutionary and reflects current society. The Panel prefers to impress upon broadcasters the need for appropriate viewer advisories and correct classification of programs rather than to target the occasional usage of vernacular language.
The Panel Adjudicators therefore conclude that the use of the English word “fuck” in some circumstances will not breach Clause 10 of the CAB Code of Ethics. First, the primary language of the program must be French, since the word “fuck” in French does not have the vulgar connotation it can have in English; second, the use of the word must be infrequent; and third, the word cannot be used to insult or attack and individual or group. If a broadcast meets these three criteria, it is probable that the CBSC will not find a violation of Clause 10.
That decision was about television. The reasoning was reiterated in this latest decision as applicable to radio.
The truth about fucking in Quebec
Quebec is dominantly French-speaking, but most people there speak at least enough English to get by (especially in Montreal), and many of them speak English far better than most English-speaking Canadians speak French. Quebec, and especially Montreal, used to have a dominant moneyed English-speaking set who looked down on the French speakers, though they’ve lost their pull in the last half century. Quebec now has laws enforcing the use of French and penalizing preferential use of English (for instance, you can’t have public signage in English that is even close to the same size as your signage in French). They are very focused on maintaining their culture, and they’ve been well known for preferring, for instance, “le parc de stationnement” where even in France they say “le parking,” and “la fin de semaine” where in France as in much of the world it’s “le week-end.” But they’re still surrounded by English culture, and it has its influences. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t need those language laws.
Swearing in Quebec is a special and remarkable thing. The Roman Catholic Church was utterly dominant in Franco-Quebec society until the middle of the 20th century. One effect of this is that the strongest swearwords in Quebec French are related to liturgical appurtenances: the consecrated body of Christ (hostie), the vessel that carries it (ciboire), the cup that holds the consecrated blood of Christ (calice), and the tabernacle in which they are stored (tabarnac). You can’t give school kids a course on the liturgy without them breaking into snickers. Sure, Quebec French also has merde (‘shit’) and foutre (‘fuck’, loosely), but those aren’t the heavy artillery.
And then there’s fuck. In particular, there’s fucké, which adds the past-participial ending é to give a Frenchified ‘fucked’. It’s been assimilated, but its taboo emotional jolt has not. As is usual with swearwords borrowed from other languages, it’s not a real swearword in its new context. Schoolkids in Quebec can say it in front of their parents. It just means ‘screwed’ or ‘screwy’. You can use it to mean ‘crazy’ or ‘broken’ or ‘annoying’ or ‘abnormal’ (just check Wiktionary and see for yourself). It’s used on TV shows even. Some Quebec French speakers are unaware of just how rude it is in English and may use fucked in an inappropriate context when speaking English. So, as CKOI and the CSBC say, it is a well-established and generally unexceptionable word in Quebec French. And thus it can be used on French-language radio, within reason.
On the other hand, the CBSC has made no commitment at all about its acceptability on English-language radio. Will they give carte blanche to that? Not fucking likely. Not soon, anyway.
What’s all this about, really?
So OK. Some fussy listener took exception to this rude English word (yes, quoted from English speakers, but on French radio) and was given the formal brush-off because it’s not so rude in French. The decision to allow it is not really the news that a lot of people make it out to be. But the most telling part of all this, I’d say, is in the listener’s final response to CKOI after requesting rulings from the CSBC:
Le fait de promouvoir l’expression Fuck You et d’en justifier l’utilisation par un double standard est un lourd manque de classe. L’expression est d’extrêmement mauvais goût et votre attitude fait de Cogéco une entreprise de troisième classe.
Let me translate that:
The fact of promoting the expression Fuck You and of justifying its use by a double standard is a grave lack of class. The expression is in extremely bad taste and your attitude makes a third-class company of Cogéco.
Such language, you see, is the language of low-grade people, and the listener does not want to wear the smirch of that set even by extension or accident (“it was used on 2 days out of 3 last I listened to them”). That’s what this is all really about: use of language differences as a social filter for class stratification, a stratification that is maintained by aggressive responses to marks of a lower class. When our fussbudget complained to the CBSC “They’re doing it on purpose” “yet again,” he framed it as an underclass insurgency and a personal affront (“the broadcaster does not take me seriously and thinks I’m annoying”). These low-grade persons are deliberately taunting him with their dreadful invasions of bad taste! These are the protestations of victimhood by someone who finds the world is not all acknowledging and catering to his superiority.
But wait, there’s more: They’re the protestations of someone who holds English judgements to be of a higher class than French judgements. Remember that bad old history of a high-handed Anglophone moneyed class looking down on the lower-class Francophones? Here we go again. The French speakers who use fucké so casually are, in this listener’s view, third-class; if they were people of worth, they would understand the real (English) effect of fuck.
But Canada is, by law if not by fact, an egalitarian society, and a bilingual one, and the official language of Quebec is French. So fuck you, complainant. T’es fucké.