Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Rooney, swearing and The Civilising Process

So Wayne Rooney swears into a TV camera, the world stops turning and Muammar Gaddafi is no longer the most vilified man in Britain. Almost. Maybe the Manchester United striker should be punished and  maybe he shouldn't but talk to a figurational sociologist and they'll probably tell you the reaction to Rooney uttering those few (almost inaudible) words is the logical outcome of The Civilising Process.

Norbert Elias, the German-born father of figurational sociology, wrote Über den Prozess der Zivilisation in 1939 although it was effectively ignored for thirty years before being re-printed in 1969 when its first volume - A History of Manners - was also translated into English.

Just in case you haven't seen it...

In his magnus opus Elias set out to explain the historical evolution of the concept of civilisation from medieval times to the 'modern' day. In so doing he argued that the concept was socially constructed, developed and reinforced and that over time the values and terms connected with it went from being socially-imposed (socigenetic) to self-imposed (psychogenetic).

From the 13th Century onwards manners developed far greater importance - for example the use of cutlery when eating became part of court etiquette and eventually spread to society as a whole. Nowadays we use cutlery even when eating alone - evidence, Elias argued, of the internalisation and self-imposition of widely-accepted norms of behaviour. In essence it is now important for people to be 'civilised' so they are accepted by the rest of society, whereas in the past the concept of being civilised simply didn't exist.

With his student-cum-colleague Eric Dunning, Elias went onto expand his theory with a specific focus on sport in the book Quest for Excitement. The pair argued that the emergence of the modern state with its increasing monopolization on the use of violence coupled with a greater requirement for interpersonal relations led to a decrease in the levels of violence in everyday life. In this relatively routine, risk-free world sport provides catharsis - the quest for excitement. 

Yet, in this sense football (and sport in general) presents a dichotomy - on the one hand it is aggressive, a play battle the very nature of which encourages the violent tendencies of its players to be acted out. Yet on the other, through both the codification of the rules of sport and a general pressure to conform to society's norms, there is an increasing restriction on what is deemed acceptable and into this no man's land, Rooney fell at the weekend.

Clearly the sports of ancient Greece and Rome were far more violent than the sports we know today. Had Rooneyus Maximus sworn in the Colloseum, few spectators would have been too bothered, not least because he would probably have been standing over the still warm corpse of his opponent. Or a dead lion. Of course, had Rooney killed a West Ham player on Saturday he'd have been charged with murder and also perhaps be facing a two or three-game ban (dependent on whether the referee mentioned the incident in his match report).

Thus it's clear that over time society's concept of acceptable 'civilised' behaviour has changed. Yet what was Rooney doing when he swore if not taking advantage of one of the few remaining opportunities for expressing unrestrained emotion in the 'modern' world?

I'm Rooneyus

It's also worth questioning society's attitude to swearing in general. In 1976 Bill Grundy was suspended and then had his Today show cancelled after the Sex Pistols repeatedly said 'fuck' while he was interviewing them.

Fast forward 28 years and John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) again espoused his anarchic philosophy by calling the British public 'fucking cunts' after they failed to vote him off I'm a Celebrity... Unfortunately not only did Ant 'n' Dec escape suspension but the show wasn't cancelled either. Furthermore, Rotten was rewarded for his outburst by becoming the front for a cutting-edge, counter-culture advertising campaign for Country Life butter. In that context, one has to question whether Rooney's outburst was really worth all the angst-ridden debate it generated.

Of course there's allways the possibility we've misread the incident entirely. Perhaps, far from being the uncouth, foul-mouthed yob as portrayed in the papers Rooney was, in fact, making an important philosophical point by questioning the increasing subjugation of the individual by society. Perhaps what he was really saying was: "I am me. I throw off the shackles of society's restrictions. I am Wayne Fucking Rooney."

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