"A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all, and will not last."
One of my favorite anecdotes about the Vietnam-era antiwar movement concerns a young woman who was holding a sign that read, "Fuck the War." A cop told her she couldn't display an obscenity in public. She responded by scratching out the word "war."
Two hundred and thirty five years into our national existence, there are few things more baffling to me than our society's perpetual freaking out over profanity. I'm not saying profanity's always appropriate or warranted; it usually isn't. That said, it certainly isn't worth the reaction it usually provokes in our society, which is roughly equivalent to the response to Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast. For younger readers, that means people get really upset.
This year's winner of the Academy Award for best picture, "The King's Speech," features a scene in which the stuttering monarch, King George VI, repeatedly drops the F-bomb as a form of therapy; in other words, not even as profanity. This movie contains no violence or sexual content. For the F-bombs, it was rated R, and the movie's producers lost all appeals to downgrade the rating. Meanwhile, one of the nominees it defeated, Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit," features a scene in which a man is graphically shot in the face after chopping another's fingers off. It's rated PG-13.
This is because the Motion Picture Association of America's bylaws typically only allow three to four nonsexual uses of the word before a film's rating is automatically R, but there are no such specific guidelines for violence. Last summer President Barack Obama told Matt Lauer he needed to know "whose ass to kick" in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which prompted more outrage than the spill itself in some corners, with the Drudge Report running perhaps the most hilariously panicked headline of all time, "Obama Goes Street" God forbid anyone who thinks this is unpresidential language ever hears the Nixon tapes.
Around the same time, an intercompany email from investment bankers at Goldman Sachs was leaked that referred to an investment being sold to clients as a "shitty deal." Goldman Sachs responded by banning the use of curse words on its email server, because that's apparently more obscene than stealing millions of dollars from clients.
Moral panics over language are nothing new, but to chart the current one we need to start in 2003. Upon receiving a Golden Globe, musician and humanitarian Bono referred to the experience as "fuckin' brilliant" on live television; the incident became a cause célèbre for anti-vulgarity advocates, particularly the Parents Television Council, which owes its continued existence to a combination of incidents like this and "Family Guy." Under pressure from such groups, the Federal Communications Commission handed down a total of $8 million in fines between 2003 and 2009.
A lawsuit by broadcasters over the lack of concrete language-decency standards eventually reached the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed that the communications commission's standards were far too amorphous, resulting in one of the funniest sentences ever to make it into a legal brief: "While the FCC concluded that 'bullshit' in an 'NYPD Blue' episode was patently offensive, it concluded that 'dick' and 'dickhead' were not." (Interestingly, most television and radio stations don't seem to have any problem with the word "bitch." I'll leave the reader to consider what that might say about the mentality of the people making these decisions).
Beyond the issue of how to properly apply such arbitrary standards, censorship has a tendency to make art ridiculous. If you've ever watched a network airing of "Jackie Brown," you've heard Samuel L. Jackson talking about having to "kill every mother's father in the room." And I'm sorry, radio editors, I'm sure you worked very hard but calling Cee-Lo Green's song "Forget You" just sounds stupid.
That's not to say absolutely any language at any time should be permitted anywhere on the airwaves; I understand parental concerns about what children might pick up. But it's a simple fact that you can't tackle a problem if you're too hysterically afraid of it to have any kind of discussion, and, moreover, when the words you choose as replacements sound like a kindergarten teacher's euphemisms for using the bathroom, all that serves to do is accentuate exactly what's being censored.
Gosh darn it. S
Zack Budryk is a journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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