Monday, August 09, 2010

(Bleep) the Censors Say

On certain hot issues, my country puzzles me. Profanity is one them.

The fuss that is made over profanity amuses me. A word, a phonetic utterance, does not have the power to summon evil or bring about a natural disaster. A word does not have the magical ability to pervert any person's soul -- and no, not even a child's.

If we know the meaning of a word, why can't we say the word? If we know what it is we are talking about, why can't we use frank language for what we know we are talking about? Do we believe that saying the word will conjure a demon with laser eyes that will start killing us all? There are nicer words for sex than fuck in some cases, but that's the wonderful thing about language: sometimes "making love" is right; "making the beast with two backs" is fun; and in other cases, I wish I could just say fuck among adults without pussyfooting around it. A model sentence would be, "The high rates of DUI and teen pregnancy in Deming arise in part from the problem that, in Deming, there is little to do besides drinking and fucking." That is a constructive argument stated in frank, direct language.

It amazes me what people put up with from the state, the corporations that determine their choices as consumers, and other citizens; yet they are driven into fits of outrage when Janet Jackson accidentally flashes a breast on television, or Bono slips and says "fuck," or if a new television show premieres with the title $#!' My Dad Says.

Here's the thing: the title of this television show does not actually contain any profanity. Those symbols are, literally, part of the title. In other words, the title consists of a reference to a profane word, without actually using the word itself.

That's still not good enough for the Parents Television Council. This organization is going after the show's advertisers urging them to force the network to change the title of its show, because they feel the title is "indecent."

I wouldn't consider it "indecent" if the network actually called the show Shit My Dad Says. It is common English. Shit, a word for excrement that has many colloquial meanings, some perjorative and some not. In this case, it refers to idle or foolish chatter, which is the topic of the show (in which William Shatner plays an ornery senior citizen given to saying inexplicable, yet often funny or unexpectedly wise, things).

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing indecent about $#!' My Dad Says. A dollar sign, a number symbol, an exclamation point, and an apostrophe? Perhaps someone at the Parents Television Council is objecting to the fact that the symbols made them think of the word? Based on the PTV's own press release, their position may be even less thoughtful than that. President Tim Winters is quoted saying:

[Advertisers] can be complicit in the effort to serve up excrement in front of children and families, or they can choose not to associate their products and services with excrement...Beyond a port-a-potty, a laxative or a roll of toilet paper, most corporations don’t want their customers to associate their products or services with excrement. I certainly hope advertisers agree that their hard-earned brands are worth more than this raunchy attempt at humor."

In order to give themselves something to do, the folks at PTV are pretending to believe this word only refers, literally, to excrement. At this point, they are not only attempting to censor network television to suit their taste (and their strange ideas about the supernatural power of words to destroy civilization), but they are insulting our intelligence as adults who speak the English language fluently.

What a bunch of shit.

William Shatner seems to agree. Here's what we had to say:

Do you know what I wish? I wish they would call it shit. ... I've got grandchildren. I brought up three girls. They've all got kids. OK? And you say, `Boopy-doo-doo, you've got to make poo-poo. Come on. Make poo-poo in the toilet.' Eventually, poo-poo becomes shit. `Go take a shit, you'll feel better.' You say that to your kids. The word shit is around us. It isn't a terrible term. It's a natural function. Why are we pussyfooting?

It doesn't mean you have to say "take a shit" all the time. Other people's feelings do matter. Like the censors say, we have lots of other ways to say that. They are right. The problem is, they want to control those options, based on their own taste. And they claim their concern for children as their justification, even when it's a show that is not marketed to children, and even though there is no law requiring parents to put a television in a child's bedroom with no adult supervision.

As a parent, I want to teach my son about profanity, not shield him from it. We use different language registers for different situations: they way I talk to my chums is different than the way I talk in a professional situation, or when I'm with my in-laws, and so on. And heck, among Italians it is even more complicated: the meaning of a word or phrase can change based on what you're doing with your hands while you say it. Children need education about the world so they can participate fully.

But again: this show isn't for kids anyway.

And this needs to be said again because it's a bigger deal than the press is making it out to be: this time, PTV isn't even going after one of the famous "Seven Dirty Words" for being spoken. Now, they want to forbid networks from even making you think of one of the seven dirty words.

Thought crime?? This is going too far. It's going beyond too far. Hey, PTV, here's a message just for you:

Back the %^(& off

Here is some required viewing:


Debby said...

I think, as a nation, we've stopped pussy footing around about profanity. And my take on it is this: it shows a lack of respect for the feelings of others. I am a direct person. I can also choose to say what I have to say without resorting to profanity. Note that I do not always do so. I can swear, and sometimes, I get mad enough to do so, but truly, there is nothing that I hate more than seeing a bunch of assholes in a McDonalds turning the air blue in front of small children who will grow up to take it for granted that everyone talks like this. There is such a thing as self control. Of your speech, of your behavior, of your spending, your eating, and on and on it goes.

As far as swearing and my children, I once had a conversation w/ Dylan when he was maybe 8 or 9. He was crying about his father, and he said, "I am so mad that I want to swear." I said, "Well. If you think that it will make you feel better, go ahead." So he did. He found that it did not make him feel all that much better. I pointed out to him that I trusted his judgement. If he felt that he had to swear, well, I would not punish him for it. He'd heard me swear before. I did point out that if he swore at school, he would be punished. If he swore around other children, their parents might not allow him to play with their little boys. What he learned was that language is a two way street. What people hear is as important sometimes as what you say. That other people count. That there is a time and a place for everything. And surprisingly, once he had permission to cuss, there was surprisingly little of it.

Sorry for the blog post on your blog. Profanity is something I feel strongly about.

Algernon said...

Long comments are welcome. Heck, any kind of comment is welcome. Especially thoughtful ones like yours.

There is wisdom in your parenting: with permission, cussing loses a lot of its allure. The impulse to cuss is universal. My 2-year old's cuss word was "Apples!!" for a while. I tried it and found it oddly satisfying -- yet "G-rated." So it has to do with something besides the word itself.

I think it comes down to who is talking, to whom, and what they are trying to achieve. "Bullshit" is a very useful word in my vocabulary, but I don't feel moved to go bandying it about and embarrass people unduly.

So I think that's our area of agreement: context, and the feelings of the listener, matter.

Pam said...

You know, I have mixed feelings on the subject. I'm afraid I have a very foul mouth much of the time. I use profanity far more than I should.

Until this past year, neither of my 2 younger grandsons used any profanity and I was glad. My daughter is about as mouthy as I am.

This year the 2 boys, ages 10 and 12 started really using extreme profanity when out of control or having rages here, and in Connor's case, at school in his Behavior unit.

I am appalled when I hear those words come out of their mouthes. It sickens my stomach. Strange when I cuss like a sailor. Makes me want to clean up my act.

So,I'm torn. For years the boys said nothing more than "fricken" or they "referred to certain words" or even spelled them. Now it's all out cussing and I don't like it.

Go figure.

Kelly said...

I thought Debby's blog, I mean comment (just teasing you Debby) expressed my thoughts quite well. Respect for the listener is equally as important as the rights of the speaker.

I was always taught that excessive profanity was the product of a small mind, being unable to come up with a more intelligent word to use in its place. I always enjoy the weeks that A.Word.A.Day offers words for insulting others where they don't realize they're being insulted. (said with tongue in cheek. I'm not usually looking to insult others) Oftentimes the books I read include profanity. This doesn't usually bother me unless it seems the author is using profanity for shock value or just for the sake of using it.

When my children were small I learned to substitute words that sounded nicer than others when I felt the need for an expletive. I still to this day say "dadgum" rather than "dammit" or "damn". "Rats" takes the place of "shit".

However, there are others that still fit the bill when used in a descriptive context rather than as an expletive, such as your use of the word "bullshit" or Debby's use of "asshole".

It's funny, though.... for years I hated the word "fart". I don't know what it was about the word I didn't like, but I despised hearing it and would never use it.

So tell me, Algernon. What is your opinion on racial or ethnic slurs? Are they just words, too, or do you have an aversion to them? Just curious.

Algernon said...

"Dadgum!" is great -- it's even more fun to say than "dammit." After hearing my son yelling, "Apples!" when he got frustrated, I tried out "applesauce!!" and that's nice, too. That much is purely about the phonetic pleasure of uttering an oath when we are hurt and angry. Personally, I don't project morality on to that. "God damn it!" doesn't offend me any more than "dadgum."

Kelly asks about racial slurs and the like. Context, context, context. How is the language being used, by whom, and for what purpose?

I've noticed, for instance, that there is a lot of effort being put to declaring the "N" word dead and gone, getting rid of it. In a sense, they are right, but the best way to get rid of it is to renounce racism and call it out, including the institutionalized racism that keeps so many people entrenched in social and economic misery. That's really what the "N" word refers to: it's a brand of miserable status in our social order. Get rid of the problem, and the word becomes a historical relic.

But you don't do that by covering up the language. You do that by going to the roots. When you cover up the language, you just make the real problems more difficult to talk about.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I like profanity. It's very dense language, with a massive weight of meaning.

Profanity as punctuation is just orc-speak, though, and devalues the real thing.

Debby said...

That's interesting. I don't think that 'nigger' has a place in our speech, regardless of context. Same with, say, chink, or the like. In my mind the context does not matter at all. It is a word meant to demean. Period. It is wrong. It's like calling a woman by the name of her genitalia. Reducing her importance to sex. I don't think we need to look at why someone needs to use language like that when addressing another. It's easy. They're small people who seek to make themselves big by demeaning someone else. That's as far as I feel the need to delve into it.

It's kind of like assault...only they are striking out with words.

Algernon said...

Debby, notice that you are talking about the intent behind the words. I agree with you about the intent of the words -- demeaning people is not okay. We agree about that.

But the action is being done through a word. In Brooklyn, the unemployed men who congregated on our doorstop and watched over the neighborhood often referred to each other as "nigger." None of them seemed to feel demeaned by their friends. If I had gone over there and started calling them "niggers," that would have been a different context. The word is expressing something -- and the something is what is most important.

Kyle said...

Excellent post and good subject. Profanity is, for lack of a better term, an amplipher for me when I write. Its a big neon sign that points to something I am trying say. Sometimes though, I use it gratuidously for the sake of being shocking.

Debby said...

Well, perhaps you have a point. I don't know. I live in a pretty homogenous neck of the woods. But I'm telling you this. If I ever heard my children using language like that, I'd rip them a new one. It would not fly at my house. This is redneck bigot country, and I am proud to say that I have raised my kids differently. Words matter. They matter a lot, and I believe that we are too darn careless with them.

Algernon, as a side note, I'm going to tell you that Cara spent the summer working with inner city kids with the Upward Bound Program. (We're talking HS students...the idea is to expand their horizons, allow them to experience college, to be able to visualize themselves moving beyond their world.) She was shocked at the way they talked. There was no respect for the teachers, for the college students working with these kids, but not even for each other. She said that it shocked her how quickly they turned on each other. She spent most of her time breaking up fights. She was so shocked by the events of this summer that she dropped her education minor, which is a shame. She'd have been a good teacher.

You know, thinking about it, I'm going to say it. No. I stick to my guns. We have no right to speak to each other like that. Even if your friends were not offended by their careless conversation, I believe that words cast an aura. I believe that words leave a mark. Nope. Nigger, gook, wetback...they have no place in our language. Period.

Your post certainly has given me much to think on this day. Thank you for that. I imagine that we will simply have to agree to disagree on this one, my friend.

Algernon said...

Debby, I don't think we are that far apart. Hateful speech is bad, I agree. Disrespectful speech is bad, I agree.

But it's not the words you're objecting to, it's the intention behind the speech. It's racism you don't like. It's disrespect that you don't like. If you address those, the speech changes.

Obscuring the problem (like, say, by censoring words) actually exacerbates the issue because without language, we have a harder time identifying what's going on and communicating about it.

The people who want to eliminate the word "nigger" from ever being spoken (which is not going to happen) have taken their eyes off the real mission: working to deprive that word of any power or meaning.

"Shit" may be coarse language and not to your taste. That's understandable. What I don't agree with is one person deciding, on my behalf, what kind of language I am allowed to hear. The TV has lots of channels.

And in the cast this post is discussing, the PTV is going beyond censoring actual words, and now trying to censor anything that even makes us *think* of the word. The implications of that are very, very bad.