Anyone over the age of 45 is likely to have some memory of July 2nd 1985. This was Live Aid – sometimes billed as the ‘global jukebox’. Also known as the ‘Woodstock of the Eighties’, the world’s biggest rock festival was organised by Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof to raise money for famine relief in Africa. Elton John, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, the Beach Boys, Mick Jagger, Queen, Wham and Dire Straits all played. As did the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Duran Duran and Paul Simon.
This 16-hour music marathon was held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London, UK, attended by about just over 72,000 people; and at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, US, attended by just under 90,000 people. The BBC beamed it all live, which at the time made this one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time. The estimated audience was 1.9 billion, across 150 nations. That was over one-third of the planet watching, from three-quarters of the world’s countries. Quite simply, Live Aid was huge.
The seeds for Live Aid had been sown eight months earlier on the famine plains of Ethiopia. After seeing Michael Buerk’s BBC news reports of the devastation of the famine, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote the song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ to raise money for the crisis. Performing under the name Band Aid, the song was released in December 1984, reaching number one and raising £8m.
Live Aid in July 1985 gave its audiences many “where were you?” moments – when Bowie sand, or Freddie Mercury and Queen performed? Peppering the performances were pleas for donations, with Geldof memorably imploring “don’t go to the pub tonight…please stay in and give us your money…there are people dying now”. In the US 22,000 pledges were received within five minutes of the ‘phone lines opening. It was different back home in the UK. Three hundred ‘phone lines were staffed by the BBC, so that members of the public could make donations using their credit cards. The ‘phone number and an address that viewers could send cheques to were repeated every twenty minutes.
Some seven hours into Live Aid, however, there is one of the “where were you?” moments of the decade. Geldof had enquired of the BBC how much had been donated so far, and he was informed that it was a little over £1 million. And this was the point at which Live Aid went into an unscripted hyper-drive.
Geldof was giving an interview live on the BBC, and the postal address to which cheques could be sent was repeated every twenty minutes. Geldof interrupted the announcement abruptly and brusquely, and with passion and rage with these words: “fuck the address, let’s get the numbers”, and it is possible that other profanities were uttered as well, such as “give us your focking money”.
Whatever your views on Geldof swearing live on the BBC (all seems rather tame now), the use of the “f-word” was galvanising for millions of viewers. After the outburst, donations increased to £300 per second. Giving lept. What had been hitherto sluggish responses to an appeal turned into a tsunami of donations; an outpouring of goodness and charity. The next day, news reports stated that between £40 and £50 million had been raised. It is now estimated that around £150 million in total has been raised for famine relief as a direct result of these concerts.
Lawyers are well-versed in the concept of Vicarious Liability. Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine that assigns liability for an injury to a person who did not cause the injury but who has a particular legal or sub-contractual relationship to the person who did act negligently. It is also referred to as Imputed Negligence. Live Aid was a watershed for many of us who watched, because the combination of Michael Buerk’s BBC news reports and the action of Band Aid and Live Aid drew a significant percentage of the world’s population into a new consciousness.
Namely, that we were all vicariously liable for what was taking place in Ethiopia. Fixing this famine was our responsibility. Arguing that it was their mess, or someone else’s, was just not good enough. Not for God. Nor for humanity. It was not socially responsible. It was not moral. Is not.
To be sure, we know how to apportion blame: the Germans for the Nazis and what they did to the Jews, for example. But it takes a much harder moral and social effort and introspection to press for a new order that might say many more outside Germany had invested in anti-Semitism. And of greater socio-moral concern, arguably, are the many who knew, yet still chose to remain silent.
So what is it that shakes communities, nations and humanity out of its disengaged sloth? I think that Geldof’s use of the ‘f-word’ might be one of those moments. Put bluntly, “fuck the address, let’s get the numbers” gets to the point. It certainly gets your attention. The use of the expletive is a kind of verbal triple exclamation mark with a few other characters thrown in for good measure (!!?!*). As in punctuation, so with swearing (sometimes): used sparingly, a drab oft-repeated sentence or two that might get lost in the paragraphs of dull mind-numbing process suddenly gets a new emphasis. And an exclamation mark is emphatic. See!! “Fuck!” does the same.
Such words or gestures, even though they may seem small, ripple across time. Rosa Parks’ “No!” in 1955 launched the Montgomery bus strike which was one of the seedlings for the Civil Rights movement in the USA, and in part shape today’s Black Lives Matter. I don’t know if Parks’ said “no” softly, but with a steely don’t-ask-me-that-question-again look: quiet, but utterly resolute. Or if her “no” was “NO!”. Either way, Parks’ “no” was, in effect, an “f-off” to the suggested invitation that she might like to stand, and give up her seat for a less needy white person.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) contains no swearing as far as I know, but I think quite a bit is implied if you read between the lines. What a complete “f-ing waste of space and time” the Levite and Priest turn out to be. True. I mean, who wants piety and prayers as the balm for their pain, when what is needed is immediate aid, justice, compassion and solidarity?
The Samaritan is the hero of the parable, but not because he was thought to be of that archetype. Rather, he represented the unclean half-breed, mixed-race, mongrel-faith and despised individual that Judean listeners might have sworn at under their breath at the very mention of any “Samaritan”. And they would have sworn out loud when Jesus delivered the telling punchline at the end of the parable: the good neighbour is a Samaritan.
Which brings us to lalochezia. This unusual term comes from two Greek words: lalos, meaning speech; and chezo, meaning to ‘relieve yourself’ – but by using foul language in order to alleviate stress or pain. Lalochezia comes to most of us some time or other. Simply treading on an upright drawing pin in your bare feet in the dark will do for most of us.
Lalochezia recognizes that swearing is sometimes very good for us, for in the very act of verbalising our pain, violation or stress, we actually produce helpful chemicals (endorphins) within our body that help us to cope with the pain and distress at the precise point it strikes. Swearing, in other words, can be much healthier for us and far better than bottling it all up.
Which in turn brings me to vicarious swearing (or lalochezia). Sometimes it takes a swear word or two to help the body politic realise its pain. Geldof’s swearing did not just shock us. It also, at that moment, relieved us of hesitation, spurring many viewers into realising that the pain in Ethiopia was our collective pain. Rosa Park’s “no” in 1955 is on behalf of us all.
Yes, sometimes, it takes a swear word or two in ordinary everyday moral and social theology to shake us out of the delusion that whatever we have just witnessed, or just experienced, is somehow acceptable or tolerable. The “f-word” says, “no it isn’t”. Plenty of Old Testament prophets knew this too, and in word and deed, embodied and enacted powerful signs of God’s intolerance of our indolence and indifference when it came to registering and responding to the pains and sufferings of our neighbours.
That’s what prophets do. They announce, and they denounce. Excalamtion marks and the odd expletive are just their way of speaking God’s “No!”, or “Enough of this!”, “Stop” or “Start”, or “Love” and “Forgive” (all meaning “for God’s sake” and “for goodness sake”).
Geldof’s use of the “f-word” was vicarious. He said it on behalf of us all. It wasn’t good enough that after seven hours, the UK had only managed to donate a little over £1 million. It wasn’t good enough that some people were thinking of going out to the pub that night for a few drinks and meal, whilst others were dying in Ethiopia for the lack of food and water.
Even in the summer of 1985 after Band Aid’s epic No.1 single just seven months before, the world was still dozing whilst millions starved. The “f-word” woke us up. It was a kind of prophetic poke in the eye. It is at such points that we often need to be roused, in order to see that the world is and will remain “fucked-up” if we tolerate the status quo. Sometimes, “fuck” is the only word that will do, capturing as it does, our pain and anger…and God’s too. But in saying it, and uttering a rare, sparing expletive, we can begin to realise our collective relief which might release and augment the birth of some greater, common good.
So as we prepare for Lent, maybe you don’t want to fine yourself every time you utter an expletive as you step on a drawing pin, and then send the money off to some charity during this penitential season. Dare to be different. Make it your business to swear once at least once a day at some injustice that still grieves God, yet we barely notice because we have gotten so used to the sights, sense and sounds of the cries and pains of those who still neddlessly suffer. Then put that money in your swear box, and as you do, give thanks for Geldof’s prescient use of language that woke us all up.