By Rev’d Alison Riley, Network Youth Church Minister, Calder
‘Two f** ladies’ announced the bingo caller,
‘Eighty-eight’ was the chorused response as eyes scanned bingo books and dibbers dibbed, but the young people I was with seemed to bristle at the words and there was muttering. It was as if a rule had been broken, or a swear word uttered, or perhaps language used that they deemed offensive or inappropriate.
As a Network Youth Church minister in west Cumbria, I’d taken some of our youth to a chocolate bingo fundraiser at a nearby church. We’d had a great evening – we were very well looked after and won a lot of chocolate – so much so that we’d decided to host our own chocolate bingo evening in a few weeks’ time.
The following Friday after dinner, we were working out how to run our event. ‘Oh good’, said one of the older team members – he was from the baby boomer generation – ‘Two f** ladies and all that’. This time, the young people responded more verbally:
‘You can’t say that – it’s rude’, said one.
‘That’s not nice’ said another while others nodded, and there were accompanying gestures of eye-rolling and flouncing to indicate disapproval.
To top it all, at our own bingo evening a few weeks later, two older ladies of a certain physical disposition walked in and self-identified as eighty-eight; I don’t think this was a reference to their ages. As they sat down with big smiles on their faces, they announced loudly for all to hear that they were ‘two f** ladies, eighty-eight’. It was a jovial comment and people laughed, but again, I noticed a different response among the young – a non-response this time – if asked, they would probably have said, ‘we blanked them’. I am sure if you are a parent, teacher or youth worker of any kind, you have experienced ‘being blanked’. On this occasion, it was a relatively inoffensive way of marking that they did not wish celebrate or collude with the comments or responses.
As I reflected on why the youngsters responded as they did, it occurred to me that perhaps they were being ‘woke’, but even superficial research of this word’s epistemology informed me that using ‘woke’ in this way was inaccurate. I wondered if the term ‘politically correct’ might be more fitting, but there was a passion attached to these responses that didn’t resonate with that. Perhaps it was because they were all ‘snowflakes’ and needed to accept more robust expressions of language? I don’t think so because I’d seen this lot on the swings and roundabouts at the local park, daring themselves and each other to push the apparatus to new limits, so I knew that ‘snowflakes’ they were not!
And so I talked with them about it. I asked them why they would not collude with the expression ‘two f** ladies’. It became clear that ‘f**’ is not a word they would use anymore (unless it was referring to the composition of a dinner along with proteins and carbohydrates) because ‘f**’ is a shaming word. The young have recognized that when it is spoken, it can put down or upset another because it brings to the fore an aspect of physical appearance of which another might be ashamed. It can be used to ridicule or expose, and it can be received as such even if there was no intent on the part of the speaker. It can ultimately lead to others feeling excluded or actually excluding themselves from groups.
Furthermore, the young I encounter here on the west coast are acutely aware of unfairness in our society, that there are vastly different experiences of childhood for economic and other reasons, and that some among us experience very difficult upbringings. As such, they are far less judgmental than my own generation, far more likely to say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ than to judge another. It seems that in this respect, mercy has indeed triumphed over judgment and as a generation, they are the better for it. In practice, this means that when a youngster is over-weight, the others do not make reference to it for fear of upsetting that person’s well-being. Thus, ‘f**’ is an offensive word and not to be used in case others experience unnecessary shame, particularly when their lives are tough already.
I think Jesus would whole-heartedly endorse this change in use of language and I am proud to work among youngsters so concerned for the well-being of others that they are careful with their words. In this respect, they follow in the footsteps of Jesus who said his own words were spirit and life (John 6.63) and enact St Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them’ (Ephesians 4.29). As we seek to build the kingdom of God in our communities, I think we can learn from our younger generations and resign the ‘f**’ to history for the sake of being able to offer spaces in which all can worship, pray and share life together, and where all can feel encouraged and unashamed.
So what do we say when ‘eighty-eight’ comes out of the bingo machine? Well perhaps you have some suggestions of your own, but I rather like what our youth said when they called it at our fund-raiser: ‘Two cold snowmen – eighty-eight’, and I sincerely trust that snowmen of all shapes and sizes will not take offence!
Rev’d Alison Riley
Network Youth Church Minister, Calder
Associate Minister, Harrington and Distington with Salterbeck