Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Positive trend of the day: taking less offense

I'd posted before on New Zealand's uniquely pragmatic mechanism for determining what's acceptable language for broadcast television: namely, they survey Kiwis to ask them what's offensive. They read respondents a list of words, then ask them whether they'd consider use of those words in different TV contexts to be unacceptable. Then they draw the line based on respondent answers. None of this FCC trying to figure out what community standards are by asking a bunch of prudes.

What I'd missed was the nice time trend. For each and every swear word listed on their summary sheet, and yes they don't asterisk anything out there so consider yourself warned if you blush easily, fewer people took offence in 2009 then in 1999. Respondents were asked whether the use of each term was "unacceptable". Restricting ourselves to the words included in all years, the average "unacceptability" rate was 43% in 1999 and 32% in 2009. The most offensive and least offensive terms on that list showed the same five percentage point decrease in offensiveness, but the f-bomb showed a nineteen percentage point drop over the period: only 51 percent deemed it unacceptable in 2009.

We are taking less offense than we did a decade ago. I count that as generally a good thing.

What does this all mean though:
  • If you want to be offensive, you need to ramp things up. Be more creative; combine existing offensive terms in new and amplifying ways. I'm thinking Deadwood, but less anachronistic.
  • If we've seen an increase in use of such language on TV over time, that means that there's diminishing marginal offensiveness with use of terms. So we'd expect the time trend to continue.
  • Note that newly measured terms rate, on average, as more offensive than the old stand-byes. The median of all 2009 measured terms is 31% deeming offensive; new terms rate as, at median, 45% unacceptable. So "Jesus Christ" dropped from 41% to 31% deeming it unacceptable, but put a participle in the middle (newly measured) and it's more offensive than either the root term or the modifier. And, I'd bet that if you flipped the participle for the compound noun that precedes it on the list, it would be even more offensive. Some of this will be due to novelty, some due to a multiplicative effect.
  • For the former combination, we'd really need individual level data to suss out whether it's exceptionally offensive because the set of persons deeming the root terms unacceptable don't overlap perfectly and they're catching the union of the sets, or whether new people deem the amplified term to be offensive. These are important questions; I wonder whether the underlying data is available.
Update: And, of course, even the most unacceptable term on the list can show up on broadcast after 8:30, as it did last night.

Update2: HT: @CherylBernstein


  1. Language inflation. It works not only for 'offensive' language (what about cunt though?) but for many other words. It is just a matter of looking at our promotion applications; one cannot be just *good*, but super sustained competent to apply.

    Have you seen the latest XKCD comic trip? Very topical.

  2. so a bunch of people filling out an online survey get to decide what is and what is not offensive

  3. @Luis: I loved stochastic being in the mix in that XKCD

    @Anon: Aha, good catch. The last survey was online; the prior ones were all face to face. But the decline happened also between the first two iterations, both of which were face to face.