In defense of bullshit

The FCC has outlawed the single most essential word in political discourse and protest: bullshit.

This is not only an absurd misinterpretation of our community standards and another perilous attack on our First Amendment, I also believe it is a violation of our civil rights worthy of court challenge. Get me to a lawyer, I think we now have the basis for a citizens’ suit.

In its latest batch of nannyisms, the FCC declared shit and all its variants, including bullshit, not merely indecent — which is where the case law stood after the Supreme Court washed the seven dirty words out of George Carlin’s mouth in 1978 — but also now profane. Since outmoded broadcast censorship legislation was passed in 1927 — giving the government this constitutionally dubious authority — the FCC had not once found any word to be profane until 2004, when it ruled against Bono’s joyful utterance of “fucking” at the Golden Globes. Now “shit” et al join this devil’s dictionary. And the FCC warns that they are not merely profane but “presumptively profane,” which means that except in “rare” and “unusual circumstances,” to speak these words on the air will guarantee you a penalty.

By declaring them profane, the FCC rules these words are “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, does not mean a dog barking; it means that the community finds this utterance universally disturbing, utterly unacceptable, and even intolerable. The FCC commissioners say that they “reserve that distinction for the most offensive words in the English language.” As I pointed out in an earlier post, even the FCC recognizes the uncomfortable and quite politically incorrect irony that they will not similarly ban racial and religious epithets because they may constitute political speech. Thus, in the offensive view of the FCC, the S-word and F-word are now worse than the N-word and K-word.

But bullshit is political speech. It is our single most precious means of expressing displeasure with the political and the powerful.

Without the word bullshit, we are left with far less satisfactory means of debate. Now don’t feed me the mothers’ bromide about curse words indicating a limited vocabulary. Bullshit is the most expressive word we have in this context. In his delightful treatise On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt finds the most equivalent word to be humbug and he acknowledges, “It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say ‘Humbug!’ than to say ‘Bullshit!’ ” Humbug’s synonyms, which he lists, are similarly unsatisfying: “balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, impostuer, and quackery.”

So now imagine a protestor at a televised rally against the war railing that “this war is humbug!” Doesn’t cut it. If, instead, she said that “Bush’s war is bullshit” and that were broadcast across the country, every station that carried it and the speaker herself could be fined per utterance, even into bankruptcy. If, fearing this, she censored herself, that is evidence of the chill the FCC has imposed on free political speech. If, because of that chill, a station decided to time-delay the news — a journalistically and constitutionally offensive but pragmatic necessity of the age — 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 the use of the word.

Thus, the FCC chills and censors political speech and warns that it will penalize and fine Americans for political speech. And that, I believe, is a violation of our civil rights and a violation of our First Amendment protections. Gotcha.

: When I attended one of the many confabs on news in the blog age — this one in an august hall at Harvard under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism — various leading lights of the news profession were pondering the question: Why does the nation trust Jon Stewart more than us? After considerable consideration, the group agreed that it could be summed up thusly: “He calls bullshit.”

Indeed, calling bullshit should be the highest calling of journalism.

But consider the experience of the premier show of journalism on journalism, NPR’s On the Media, when it tried to report on the FCC and its bullshit. (Hear the MP3 here.) I listened to the show’s cohost and chief wag, Bob Garfield, on the podcast version — which doesn’t sully our airwaves, merely my iPod — and so I heard him say to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein:

Garfield: Now, I want to talk to you about the word bullshit. Now this is commonly used to convey skepticism, but the commission found it to be explicitly excretory and therefore indecent, whereas dickhead as an insult is ok. But where I come from, bullshit is pretty much kidstuff and dickhead is pretty darned insulting. All of which is to finally ask how you go about finding standards on this stuff. It seems to be so arbitrary.

Adelstein: Well, are you going to edit that out?

Garfield: It depends. Are you on duty?

Speaking next to NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco, Garfield says, “You and I may agree that the ruling that bullshit is indecent is bullshit…”

I emailed Garfield and asked him whether WNYC, his host station, and NPR would have the balls to let him say bullshit. No, he said, it was bleeped from broadcast for fear of fines to the show’s 207 affiliate stations.

Next, I emailed Dean Cappello, WNYC’s senior vice president of programming, to find out why this decision was made. He said:

With respect to the issue in general, it feels as though we are involved in some Restoration comedy. As public radio journalists, we’re all about context. We’ve aired controversial material and rough language as part of a stream of programming that is probing and thoughtful. We hate being gratuitous. It’s just unsatisfying. And that has really been our standard… to illuminate and not just to shock.

But I don’t doubt that across the country producers are censoring themselves because they’ve heard something about something and assume certain things are forbidden. It’s been my experience that the further down the chain you go the more you uncover producers and reporters holding back.

In other words, Garfield, OTM, and WNYC thought “bullshit” was quite appropriate for my iPodded ears and not for my radio. The difference? The FCC. Government censorship. The chill. I asked Cappello then whether the recent fines had a direct impact on this. He replied:

…I think there is an absolute chill in the air. It may even be felt most keenly in cultural programs and documentaries where expression is at the core.

I would say we have the first case we need to demonstrate the chill on political speech and the the exercise of free speech in the press. Gotcha again.

: And that leads us to another issue with the FCC’s ruling: a subtle racism.

Step away from that keyboard until I explain. I am not saying that black people say “bullshit” more but that the FCC has ruled that “bullshit” and other allegedly indecent words are, in very rare cases — namely Saving Private Ryan and Schinder’s List — OK coming from the mouths of white people. But when black blues musicians say “bullshit,” the FCC rules them profane. That cultural apartheid is the net result of its new fine against the Martin Scorcese documentary on PBS, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons. Indeed, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein dissented in this part of the ruling, saying that “the course language is part of the culture of the invidivual being portrayed.”

In this, the FCC props itself up as not just our national nanny but our official national cultural critic. They decide what is appropriate and what is not. They decide what has redeeming social and artistic value and what does not. So in their view, films about white people in war — by Steven Spielberg, it so happens — are appropriate forums for bullshit. But films about black musicians are not of sufficient cultural value to allow it.

Now add to that the fact that “bullshit” is now ruled to be profane and offensive but “nigger” is not.

This slope couldn’t get slipperier. Gotcha again.

: Pulling back from the political absurd to the culturally sublime, it is also utterly ridiculous that the FCC contends it is enforcing community standards when it says that the nation as a whole finds bullshit to be among of the most offensive words in the language. Show me the man or woman — or, yes, child on a playground — who has not said “bullshit.” Show me one, and you will have found me a liar. Go to Google and you will find 30 million uses of bullshit. Bullshit is part of our language, part of our culture, part of our politics, part of our democracy. Those are not our community standards the FCC is enforcing. They are enforcing the fetish of the so-called Parents Television Council and their ilk. By stretching to make shit not merely indecent but now profane and by stretching again to include the s-word variants in that ruling — thus specifically encompassing bullshit — the FCC far overextended not only its dubious authority but also common sense. Gotcha again.

So let’s say the FCC reconsiders its foolish ways and decides that bullshit is, indeed, political speech and thus protected beyond even its reach. This, too, illustrates the absurdity of all this. What happens when that protestor yells the next time that Bush’s war is the byproduct of a rat or a monkey or an owl? Does the FCC has to decide which animals’ shit is protected? That is the level of absurdity we have reached here.

At the Foursquare conference recently, I questioned FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, saying that in the room we were hearing CEOs of major worldwide corporations calling on the FCC to pay attention to the urgent business of preparing our telecommunications infrastructure to protect us in case of disaster or attack and also the vital necessity to catch up to Korea and even France in broadband to protect our industry and our future. Yet, I complained, he was wasting his time instead, on farts.

And bullshit.

: I am no lawyer and don’t play one on TV, but I believe that the FCC has now violated my civil right to speak truth to power any time I am on TV or radio. They went too far when they banned not just shit but bullshit and banned it presumptively. Even Commissioner Adelstein acknowleges on On the Media that if the FCC “oversteps in these cases and the court knocks us down… it would actually take a Constitutional amendment, amending the First Amendment, to get the FCC authority back.” That sounds like an opportunity to me.

So I believe there is cause for action against the FCC. I would like to see the newsmakers who want to call bullshit, and the journalists who ought to call bullshit, and the broadcasters who think that stopping them out of fear is bullshit gang up to take on the FCC and the archaic and unconstitutional law that makes them think they can and do what they have done.

It is time to stand up in defense of bullshit.