US Censors Free Speech? Bullshit

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

An interesting, and worrying, article from The Guardian’s American media correspondent today:

“The US Federal Communications Commission just declared that shit and all its variants, including bullshit, are not merely indecent – which is where the law stood after the supreme court washed its seven dirty words out of comic George Carlin’s mouth in 1978 – but are now profane if broadcast. That is a profound distinction. Legally, a profane word is ‘certain of those personally reviling epithets naturally tending to provoke violent resentment or denoting language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance’. Nuisance, in this case, is not a dog barking but a word the community cannot tolerate. The FCC reserves ‘that distinction for the most offensive words in the English language’.
This devil’s dictionary has but two entries. Fuck, condemned in 2004 after Bono’s joyful utterance of the adjectival form at the Golden Globes, and now shit. Notice what is not included: no racial or religious epithet, no hate speech. Thus, the S-word and F-word are worse than the N-word and K-word. Even the FCC recognises the uncomfortable and un-PC irony that these epithets may constitute constitutionally protected political speech, while bullshit does not.

But bullshit is political speech. It is our single most precious means of expressing displeasure with the political and the powerful. Without the word, we are left with far less satisfactory means of protest. Don’t feed me the mothers’ bromide about swear words indicating a limited vocabulary: bullshit is the most expressive word we have to convey disapproval. In his delightful treatise, On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt compares its equivalent: ‘It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say ‘Humbug!’ than to say ‘Bullshit!”

So now imagine a protester at a televised rally railing, ‘This war is humbug!’ Doesn’t cut it. If, instead, she said, ‘Bush’s war is bullshit’, and that were broadcast, every station carrying it and the speaker herself could be fined per utterance, per station. If, fearing this, she censored herself, that is evidence of the chill the FCC has imposed on political speech. And if, because of that chill, a station decided to time-delay the news – a journalistically repugnant but pragmatic necessity after Janet Jackson’s infamous indiscretion – it could dump her words: ‘Bush’s war is ‘bleep’.’ But unquestionably, that detracts from the power of her statement and that is done only because the FCC threatens fines, presumptively, for use of the word.”

(Read the full article.)


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