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.

  • Rob

    Um, Jeff, I truly don’t get the angst here. George Carlin made a career out of the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV” (of which “shit” was one) about twenty years ago. What, exactly, has changed?

    I think the idea of “bad” words is stupid, but the idea of “polite” and “impolite” words is perfectly reasonable. No way, for example, am I going to tell my grandmother, “that politician is a bullshiter”. She knows the words (and no doubt used them long before I was born), but she has a strong, old fashioned sense of propriety and politeness that I would never violate. It seems sad to lobby for broadcast television to be able to violate that sensibility as well.

    What’s so wrong with having one arena of discourse (broadcast media) where civil discourse is required? It’s not like there aren’t perfectly good alternate words for “bullshit” that are, in their place, even more descriptive and effective. How hard is it to elevate your political discourse above the barnyard? It’s facile to argue that you can’t express yourself properly without certain vulgar words.

    There are plenty of places where speech is totally unrestricted (such as this blog), why not leave a few places in our society where our discourse is elevated? Did the founding fathers resort to vulgarities when they debated revolt and independence? Did the fact that they didn’t lower the quality of their speech?

  • ronbo

    I agree with you completely about the chilling effect of the FCC’s anti-indecency crusade, but did you really just use the phrase “speak truth to power” unironically? If I hadn’t been a long-time reader you would have lost me right there, both for the laziness of the cliche and the narrowness of the thinking. What’s next, “No justice, no peace”?

    Free speech, as you have eloquently pointed out on many occasions, has never been limited to political expression. You have as much right to call bullshit on Fox Network’s primetime programming as on Fox News’ politics, so you don’t need to wrap yourself in the smug mantle of “speaking truth to power.”

    Unless, of course, I’m just full of shit.

  • Jeff, this may be the best thing you’ve ever written — thoughtful, insightful, challenging and expertly crafted. I’m with you on the legal recommendation. Where do I sign up?

  • Brilliant writing Jeff. Count me on board for a suit against the FCC. In the meantime, I’m thinking about ordering a couple of copies of Frankfurt’s book from Amazon (about 10 bucks a pop there) and sending them along to a few Commissioners…

  • Joe

    I guess Howard Stern was more than prophetic when he chose “NO MORE BULLSHIT!” for his slogan on Sirius.

  • A woman in Georgia was fined $100 for a bumper sticker which said, “I’m Tired Of All The BUSHIT.”

    People should be able to display any words on their bumper stickers it would be legal for them to write on the internet.

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  • Martin Ostrye

    See “Which Is The Real Obscenity?” in Gallery 2 at

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  • John

    Way back in 1979, I did a double-take when I heard Howard Beale utter the word “bullshit” during the network telecast of “Network” on CBS (back in the days when HBO and Showtime were still in their adolecent stage and debuts of major movies on commerical television still meant something). As far as I know there was never any major controversy about the non-censoring of the word, and CBS never paid any FCC fine or penality for the broadcast.

  • You fail to convince, JJ, because no matter how lengthy and detailed you discuss the current outrages committed by the FCC, you always seem to fail to account for the fact that words like “bullshit” have *never* been considered acceptable on the public airwaves.

    You always debate this particular issue as if you are arguing for a prior status quo, but you are in fact calling for a wholesale dismissal of past tradition and practice. For this reason, you don’t just sound unconvincing, you sound downright demented, as if you just dropped in from another planet.

    Saying that bullshit shouldn’t be banned from TV because people say bullshit in real life — for fuck’s sake (when in Rome) since when did that have anything to do with it? If that has been the real criteria all this time, then the only banned words from TV, ever, would be stuff like “antelucan” and “lucifugous”. Nobody says “aught” anymore, so the FCC should have banned its use by Jethro Bodine in the Beverly Hillbillies back in the 60s.

    “Those are not our community standards the FCC is enforcing.” Community standards have never been based on extremes, and I submit, JJ, that you are most exposed to the extremes: urban centers and the internet. You are essentially arguing that because every third headline written by Atrios uses the word “bullshit” then there should no longer be any safeguards for families on the public airwaves. There is a huge disconnect there that you simply are not addressing.

    Upscale urban types and lots of vulgar writers on the internet are not the best representatives of the public at large, especially families who most depend on the “community standards” of public airwaves. What has changed to make this not so?

    BTW, I would be very willing to listen to arguments about the FCC. I would agree that they are behaving somewhat slipshod. But that slipshod behavior does not abrogate the traditional expectations of standards on the public airwaves.

  • Ravo

    Excellent, Rob!

    There are plenty of places where speech is totally unrestricted (such as this blog), why not leave a few places in our society where our discourse is elevated?

    Actually it is not even unrestricted here. Thus the question seems not that there is a bar, but where it gets set.

    Did the founding fathers resort to vulgarities when they debated revolt and independence? Did the fact that they didn’t lower the quality of their speech?

    Not only did it not lower it, but few orators today even approach such high quality.

    Imagine having to quote today’s pottymouths in the schoolbooks of tomorrow.

  • Rob said- “What’s so wrong with having one arena of discourse (broadcast media) where civil discourse is required?”

    Ummm, have you watched FOX News or any of the Sunday morning talk shows?

    But only slightly more seriously, I think you’re setting a false arguement by saying that use of the word “bullshit” as inheritantly uncivil. To quote St. Thomas Aquinas- “Nothing is intrinsically good or evil, Only its manner of usage may make it so.”

  • “What, exactly, has changed?”

    Historically, many different words were swear words and no longer are. Generally these fit in the category of blasphemy. “Dammit” for example, would not be acceptable two generations ago.

    The laws are not some sort of tidal wall against the water of cultural change. The laws have to change with the culture, because the laws have to reflect the will of the people. In this case the laws are not working in any way, because they have not reflected cultural changes and thus have become practically arbitrary and don’t really work.

    When the public airwaves were a critical public good, the public felt it was important to protect them, in the same way that it now feels it is important to protect public lands. Now that technology has expanded the number of channels we have to infinity, there is no public good there to be protected.

  • Suppose I say bush-it (a common blog construct) instead. Will the FCC ban that as well? How about BS? How about merde?

    I personally find the use of vulgar words on sitcoms inappropriate, but if it offends, then the proper approach is for the viewers (and not some astroturf organization) to complain to the station, network, program and/or sponsors.

  • Jim Wilson

    Re: Eric Jaffa’s comment
    More on the Augusta case from

    Profanities on Bumper Stickers:

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that a motorist was ticketed for having a bumper sticker that said “I’m Tired Of All The BUSHit”; according to the police officer, the county “had an ordinance about lewd decals.” (Thanks to Orin for the pointer.)

    The police officer unfortunately didn’t know that the state had a Supreme Court decision about lewd decals, too (though “profane decals” is probably the more sensible term here): Cunningham v. State, 400 S.E.2d 916 (1991), which struck down on First Amendment grounds an ordinance that banned affixing to a car “any sticker, decal, emblem, or other device containing profane or lewd words describing sexual acts, excretory functions, or parts of the human body.” The Georgia Supreme Court in Cunningham quite sensibly held that Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), which upheld Cohen’s right to wear a jacket that said “Fuck the Draft,” applied equally to bumper stickers; because of this, the court set aside a conviction for displaying a sticker that said “Shit Happens.”

    Seems to me that the DeKalb County Police Department owes someone an apology, at least.

  • The problem here is not that the law isn’t changing with the times or that no one cares for tradition or any other false theories. It’s that there is a law, it’s ambiguous, and the FCC imposes presumptive guilt on specific words. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law”. That doesn’t leave room for tradition, acceptability, decorum, or civil discourse. It means I can say what I want, and you can’t stop me. It also means the same for you.

    Ultimately though, the difference is in approach. I don’t think we’re going to rampant swearing if we strip the FCC of its censorship authority. The free market will impose a sanction on those who violate the community standard. Don’t like the word “bullshit” on the air? Boycott, write letters, protest. Just don’t think you have the right to impose your standard on me. When dollars walk, people listen.

    Instead, the nanny statists want government to force us to stop saying “bad” words. However polite the founding fathers may have been, they didn’t fight a revolution so that government could stomp on individual liberty to protect sensibilities. Ignoring that is the only aspect that’s profane in this discussion.

  • Eloquent, Jeff.

    Where do I sign up????

  • BW

    The biggest problem I have with all this is that no one’s really complaining. You constantly hear in the media that “due to overwhelming public outcry” or “the public has spoken” when meanwhile there are a few people that actually care about getting these laws passed and words labeled. It’s always been about holding broadcasts to community standards, but community standards are being ignored.
    It’s just really hard to sit back and have a tiny (and is is VERY tiny) portion of the community dictate that the rest of us should be punished (legally and otherwise) for things they don’t like.

  • And so much for owning a Shitsu…

  • It’s amusing — in Greek the word for shit (“skata”) is used much more freely than it is here in America. My in-laws use it all the time in casual conversation without giving it a second thought, whereas my parents would definitely hesitate before saying “shit” in mixed company…

  • qcontent

    If it smells like George W. B U S H I T . . .it’s BS !

    If it looks like George W. B U S H I T . . .it’s BS !

    It is George W. B U S H I T

    . . .and that’s BS !

  • thanks for this Jeff, and all kidding aside this is a great time to buy some more SIRI stock.

  • Wise One

    Street talk is low class. Most people utter colorful metaphores from time to time but we all should strive not to do this. Buy and use a good thesaurus. Or get an on-line thesaurus.

  • Oh yes, Jeff, the big problem in our culture is not enough profanity. Pretty much every day I’m thinking as a people, we’re just not crude enough.

  • Why not actually ask the community? Put a referendum on a ballot and let everyone have a say. And we agree to go with the majority. If they want bullshit off the airwaves, then so be it.

  • Peter Melia

    Some words have acquired meanings far beyond that which is superficially attributed to them. For instance, I was in Portugal, responsible for the installation of a turbo generator. The turbine was down and in place and the contractor was lowering the generator onto the foundation. It was late at night, I had a deadline to meet, and was resigned to another all-nighter. The Portuguese middle management, not being under any such constraints, had all long gone home. The Poruguese workmen remaining, as good as they come in their own way, didn’t speak English, and I, good as they come in my own way I suppose, didn’t speak Portuguese.
    But never mind, good will, technical competence, knowhow ensured that the language gap would be bridged.
    The foundation for the generator had some dirt on it, machine cuttings etc. Try as I may I simply could not get the workers to understand the problem, which was that the generator had to be lined up very exactly with the turbine, otherwise problems would ensue in the future. They ignored my repeated requests to clean away the debris from the foundation plate. They didn’t understand me.
    The generator was slowly being lowered, soon to crunch down onto the dirty plate, which would inevitably result in the whole thing being lifted up again next morning for rectification, after, of course, several hours of rancorous discussion with the contractor and a missed deadline.
    At the last minute, in despair, I clutched my head in both hands and shouted “SHIT”.
    The Portuguese chargehand looked up, glanced at the foundation plate, recognition dawned, “shit!!!” he said. With a wave of his arm the crane was stopped, then reversed and the generator lifted sufficiently to enable some cleaners to have access enoughb to clean the plate.
    The job then finished on time.
    In this case “shit” meant, simply, dirt, and nobody present that night had any problems with the meaning of the word.
    The point is, “shit” has long since ceased to be only a scatalogical term. Such is the worldwide growth of our language, men, especially, will clearly differentiate between the by now many different connotations and uses of the word.
    It is part of international English, in mainstream language worldwide and because of this all the kings horses and all the kings men will never put “shit” in the sin pen again.

  • Don’t forget that JACKASS needs defending as well

  • Ann

    How long until South Park reruns it’s shit episode? They did one a couple years ago with a counter seeing how many times they could say it in one program. The plot centered on an ancient curse being invoked by people saying the curse word so many times.

  • Clinton

    Lets have some civil disobedience. Proponents of bullshit unite. It’ll be the stuff of George Clooneys (maybe last) movie. Ill write the script. didnt the supreme court protect the free speech of the fellow with [email protected] the war on his jacket? we sure lost our way. Soon none of us will have to concern ourselves with our eternal salvation because all of the tennents of christianity will be written into law. Big brother owes us salvation (not just freedom to pursue happiness) and maybe health care too.

  • Why not actually ask the community? Put a referendum on a ballot and let everyone have a say. And we agree to go with the majority. If they want bullshit off the airwaves, then so be it.

    Because we’re a republic with a Constitution, not a majoritarian democracy. The only Constitutionally valid way to do take “bullshit” off the airwaves is through an amendment to the Constitution.

  • clinton

    Ask the community? that sounds rather extensive. As a “free nation” let us please err on the side of liberality. The problem with prohibiting things is that you cant do them anymore and pretty soon… public executions…. mass graves. The government should espouse the catholic idea of indulgences (pay a lesser fine in advance and give the public a little warning) and give the outraged a chance to get it out. Ancient Greece should be our model in this age of censorship. Dont we buy into the idea of catharsis anymore?

  • I could care about this debate, but my time contraints and laziness limit me to caring only about the top 10,000 important issues of the day.

    I pity some of you religous-phobes.

  • Joe

    I have two questions for anyone who believes that the FCC is within its power to fine people for broadcasting the world bullshit; if you believe they were correct for essentially banning some more words from the airwaves, how do you defend them not touching N****R and K**E with a ten foot pole? And: Why did Fuck, Shit, Piss, Cock, Asshole and Bullshit warrant the fast track to finedom before such racially, morally, and socially divisive (as well as oppressive) words like N****R and K**E?

  • Jim Parker

    You Americans are wonderful, generous people as individuals. But the double standards of your increasingly paranoiac society never ceases to amaze me.

    On the one hand, you champion personal “freedoms” that allow just about every crazy person to own a gun. Your television programs are full of violence. But then you baulk at the use of a quaint, and very effective, Anglo-Saxon term such as ‘bullshit’.

    Your legions of half-educated conservative, xenophobic commentators dribble on incessantly about ‘Big Government’ and the ‘Liberal Media’ conspiracy. Yet the ideals of liberalism are what made your country great in the first place – freedom of opinion, association, individual rights and the elevation of reason over superstion.

    You call yourselves ‘The Land of the Free’, but you increasingly look like the “Land of the Fearful’ to the rest of us. You are litigating your rights out of existence and surrendering your hard-won freedoms to wowsers (Australian term for prudish killjoys), religious zealots and other nutters of the radical right.

    Read The Decline of the Roman Empire for an insight. There are uncanny resemblances to what you are going through.

  • It must be obvious that everyone defecates on society, another way of saying that they crap on themselves too. If you want a somewhat civil society you find ways to do this. Potty training takes time. Not everybody likes it, or will even accept it. You know who you are, don’t you?

  • Kat

    Anderson Cooper: So what do you think are the chances of Hillary winning the Left?
    Guest: That fucking bitch is so full of bullshit that she herself doesn’t believe half the shit that comes out of her mouth.
    Anderson: So you don’t think the bitch has a chance?
    Guest: Shit no, that cold lesbian bitch is just a two faced bullshitter.
    Yes, that kind of freedom of speech is worth fighting for. Makes America look and sound great. Soon kids in school classes will start with the TV trash talk and we’ll be blessed with generations of bullshitters.

  • SC

    That sucks. Effectively, the FCC has outlawed you.

  • Jeff, please see my comments and thank you for this post.


  • Eileen

    Perhaps it’s time for a little house cleaning, then? The Rules of Engagement at BuzzMachine – as we speak – prohibit the use of the 7 dirty words including the “S” word (and presumably all derivations thereof, except perhaps for Shitsu), no matter how “quaint” a term it may be per Jim P., and particularly as the BS derivation is purportedly “the single most essential word in political discourse and protest”.

    Who knew?

    I will surely DIE if I cannot regularly hear the S and F words between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. on three networks out of 200.

  • Eileen,
    My policy remains because I don’t want the site to be banned by automated censorengines, as happened to Boing Boing. I’ll avoid words and pictures that do that for that reason. I use the words here for a higher cause.

  • Mike Z as in Jersey

    Jeff —

    I have been a fan of your blog for some time now. This is far and away the best piece you have written. I was particularly pleased to read how his media quasi-colleagues have mangaged to sum up Jon Stewart’s credibility in three words — “He calls bullshit.” They are right about Stewart — I love to watch his show even though I disagree with his political views precisely because he calls bullshit — and they could not have said what they were trying to get across as clearly and succintly using any other words.

    I think that the commenters below who are taking you to task express a valid concern, but I think they are short-sighted in accepting the current solution to their concern. Yes, “potty mouth” is something we want to avoid in our public discourse, and yes, it would be an ugly America in which our airwaves were full of what is commonly thought of as profanity. But using a federal agency to enforce arbitrary standards on particular media in violation of the First Amendment is not the only answer, nor is it the best answer.

    The day after you open the airwaves to all manner of obscenities, you will see the first commercial for “ABC, the family-friendly network,” in which Charlie Gibson and John Stossel will face the cameras and tell us with absolute sincerity that they, and the ghost of Walt Disney, have decided that enough is enough, and that ABC isn’t going to take it (or dish it out) anymore. And two days later, you will see SONY advertise its “family friendly” TV set that lets owners program out unsupervised access to particular stations and particular shows.

    The best thing about this free market solution is that it will prove for the umpteenth time that my Econ professors at the University of Chicago had it right way back in the ’70’s when those arrogant pricks at Harvard had it wrong. (Heh.) The second best thing is that a few networks will recognize that decency goes beyond the non-use of particular words, like s**t or f**K. The enlightened networks will rethink the promos for their upcoming shows and stop the stupidity of promoting T&A during the commercial breaks of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And, if they are really smart, they will even exercise some discretion in the commercials they accept from Madison Avenue. Once that happens (and it will), the posters here who fervently wish for American television to show some decency will get what they truly desire. Until then, I regret to say, they will get what their short-sightedness has wrought.

    Best regards from your Stirling neighbor,

  • Mike Z — i think you pegged the root of the problem with “rethink the promos for their upcoming shows and stop the stupidity of promoting T&A during the commercial breaks of “Everybody Loves Raymond” . . .exercise some discretion in the commercials they accept from Madison Avenue.” Speaking as a pastor from a liberal tradition, i’m basically with Jeff J. on the broader front, but i know from the people i work for, with, and among in middle America day to day that their beef, and the political pressure they generate, is not with cable talkfest/political news or movie channels — it’s that even ostensibly family oriented fare on the broadcast networks is filled with foul mouthed kids (talking back to unrelievedly stupid dads) and Victoria’s Secret ads with noir porn ambiance in between promos for Disney cruises.

    They’re frustrated — most of them don’t want to bn TV, perhaps out of laziness, but that’s another debate — and they are flailing politically, not minding who they’re smacking but wanting someone to react and give them a space on current broadcast entertainment . . . current meaning not just re-runs of “Little House.”

    Oh, and most of them favor some form of limited gun control, too, especially if they’re cop families. The demagoguing of gun control is, well, also another post. But this is a real, if slightly misplaced political/social issue that won’t go away. I also firmly believe that more government regulation/fines is NOT the answer, and will only trigger a morass of wacky unintended consequences.

    Peace, Jeff from Ohio

  • “Shit” is just an old Anglo-Saxon word for “Dung”… you can tell these Feds have never worked on a farm before…

  • Here is a nice audio mash-up that descibes just what this post is about. In the words of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce… FCC indecency

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  • Jeff in Ohio, I think you are correct. People don’t want to ban speech. But they want freedom from it in various places. Like maybe on certain television channels at certain times. Or maybe when they take their kids to the playground they don’t want to have somebody lounging on the park bench wearing a shirt that says Fuck You. They don’t want to ban the shirt. They just want the wearer to go elsewhere, so the children’s playground can be a space without that language.

    In that sense, there is a community view of appropriateness. Commentors have said that we’re a Constitutionally based, etc. But actually many states have have IandR that allows for a popular decision on many issues. (Interestingly, few East Coast states allow I&R, trying to keep the power in the hands of the officials. Midwestern and Western states are more populist in letting the people decide.)

    This issue is starting to look like a very pale version of the choice debate. Two extreme sides, hardening in their positions, while most people are in the middle somewhere.

    I’d like to ask Jeff Jarvis: should there any space in media, or in the public realm where I can take my kids and not hear the word bullshit? Or should bullshit be everywhere, all the time?

  • Mike Z. wrote- “And two days later, you will see SONY advertise its “family friendly” TV set that lets owners program out unsupervised access to particular stations and particular shows.”

    We already have these- they’re TV sets equipped with a V-chip. the special interest groups for years had been clamoring for them, so manufactuers made them available.

    The fact that they’re still complaining leads me to one of the following conclusions-

    1) They’re too stupid to know how to operate their television.

    2) They’re too lazy to read the television’s instruction manual.

    3) They’re using their concern for children as a smoke screen to impose their own rigid moral code on others.

    4) All of the above.

    The Brent Bozells of the world do not care about protecting children from “harmful” television. They want to limit what you, me, a television writer/producer or anyone else wants to say unless it falls neatly into their own narrowly defined worldview.

  • JohnnyL

    I have to say that this latest by Jeff is pretty much the biggest waste of space I’ve seen here and I usually enjoy his commentary. The FCC is within their authority to ban whatever words they see fit from the air. There is no disputing that authority.

    However, if a broadcaster disagrees with that authority then they can pursue a challenge through the courts, which I don’t think any have every done. This isn’t about nannyism by the government.

    Personally, I don’t get too worked up by this. Although others say that this type of restriction starts to chill other discourse. My take on that is if you don’t like it, then find a way to challenge the ruling in court. Everyone complains about the big, bad old government taking away our rights. Nothing has been taken away. challenge in court, which is what you are supposed to do. If there is no justification for banning “bullshit” or other words then you will win….maybe.

    I also find it very amusing when people from Austalia comment about Americans losing their rights when they have a government media censorship board of their own that is much more restrictive about what can be sold in that country.

  • Rob

    So, Jeff, it’s still not clear to me. Are you advocating the abolition of all standards? Just “anything goes” and anyone can say anything they like, no matter how vulgar or obscene, in any media?

    Or, are you arguing that the particular term, “bullshit” (and, one presumes, “shit” in general) is acceptable by today’s standards and should be allowed in all media?

    I find it hard to believe that you’re arguing the first point, since nearly everyone would agree that we don’t, for example, need porn in primetime or the full cornucopia of scatological speech in children’s programming.

    If you’re arguing that “shit” in particular should be exempted, you haven’t laid any groundwork for why this particular term should get an exception. I think there might be a number of such arguments to be made, but it’s certainly arguable.

    This would lead, one would hope, to a general policy that could be applied to any given words to decide if they were acceptable or not.

    Lastly, are you really arguing that you can’t “speak truth to power” without using vulgar words? Is truth, by its very definition, fully expressable only if you use every possible word in the language?

  • It is amazing all of the attention an insipid LCD post like this gets.

  • Rob, you get right to the hypocrisy of all this. If you were to ask anybody here, including Jeff, if the networks should be allowed to air film footage of bestiality (i.e., a woman shagging a dog or a horse, or perhaps a gent schtupping a sheep), they would promptly show you how reasonable they are by saying “no, of course not!” They pretend this is a free speech issue by claiming that the first amendment is an absolute in this case, when it simply is not.

    Teenagers don’t think there’s anything wrong with using “bullshit” in front of everybody. Every generation of teenagers think that they are more enlightened than the generation before them, and that they have broken taboos. The world revolves around those teenagers, so the fact that they know the word “bullshit” and that they are hence more enlightened means that the values and objections of everyone else not only isn’t important, the values and objections of everyone else don’t exist, except to giggle and sneer at.

    Some teenagers grow up and come to find that the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate having F bombs and “bullshit” yelled at them every few minutes. Some teenagers never stop being teenagers.

  • Of course, there are standards. We all have standards. But I do not want the government setting those standards. That is precisely why we have a First Amendment, because once the government starts deciding what we can and cannot say the slope is slippery: It will creep into our political speech and into government controlling that. That is the point of this post. I have the faith in the marketplace — which is to say, the citizenry: you, you, and you — that TV will not turn into beasiality; we the viewers would not tolerate that and advertisers would not support that and network exectutives protecting their brands, stock prices, and jobs would not air it. For God’s sake, look at the fuss over one not-quite-naked nipple: CBS is never doing that again. But “bullshit” on a Scorcese documentary about black blues musiciains? I did not hear any uproar about that; pressure groups and the government made it up. And in doing so, they have now made rules they must live with. So if I go on the TV news and say that Bush’s war is bullshit (or pick your topic), the government now has the power to fine me into bankruptcy. And that is unconstitutional. That is unAmerican. That is bullshit. This is about GOVERNMENT controlling what we can and cannot say. And so I quote: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That is the standard that matters. That is the standard out government must live by. We don’t need them to clean up “bullshit.” We can do that ourselves… or choose not to. And the choice is ours.

  • Clinton

    “the choice is ours” yes yes yes. when the government is allowed into one facet of our personal lives it does what it does in every arena ie expands. that should scare everyone who wants to live by standards they set for themselves as one day evangelical christians will not be in the majority (votes-wize) and the day will have long passed that we gave our moral agency to a seemingly trustworthy big brother. this is why the wise support the increasingly embattled idea of separation of church and state. but we need as a population to be defined morally by our legislation. my my how we distrust ourslves

  • I blame David Stern for this mess.

    Bullsh*t is the worst word you can say without getting a technical foul in the NBA.

    Go to an sports event and you hear the word 1000 times more than you hear it outside – probably even more than on a farm.

  • Martha

    I’m sure you saw this poll on profanity and people’s attitudes.
    I’ve pretty much given up on the current FCC and only hope 2008 will bring us back to the age of reason.
    And if only Janet Jackson had kept her shirt on, maybe this would have never become an issue.
    But keep up the good fight!

  • Regarding FCC’s authority of regulate broadcast content, should 1010 WINS be allowed to broadcast the graphic, violent and detailed audio of the final moments before a woman is murdered?

    It’s on their website (for some reason), but I don’t know if it was aired. If it was, should the FCC fine them?

  • clinton

    Hannity played the audio of a man being beheded on public radio. it was god awful give me shit any day

  • The FCC’s indecency rulings are actually racist or ethnically biased. I watched a movie on TV in which English-speaking Americans were fighting with some Spanish-speaking people. The curse words in English were bleeped out but the Spanish words were not. So what does that say about the FCC? Do they not understand Spanish? Do they think Hispanoparlantes are not offended by curse words? Or what? Perhaps the FCC needs to hire translators for most of the languages on the planet so that they can “protect” all of us from these damaging words. That would probably get the FCC into the big-time waste-our-money league.

  • Jeff: That is the point of this post. I have the faith in the marketplace — which is to say, the citizenry: you, you, and you — that TV will not turn into beasiality; we the viewers would not tolerate that and advertisers would not support that and network exectutives protecting their brands, stock prices, and jobs would not air it. For God’s sake, look at the fuss over one not-quite-naked nipple: CBS is never doing that again.

    Most normal people would not tolerate beastiality, and yet it exists on the internet sans enforcement. I’m pretty sure CBS wouldn’t throw their reputation away, but without the FCC, what’s to stop some independent station in a local market to switch to BEAST-TV? Why would consumer outcry matter if they figure out some way of making money from a pervert base? I don’t think that’s a slippery slope argument, either; with no regulation whatsoever, there’s no reason why some stations shouldn’t start airing outright pornography 24/7. Not a slope: the day the FCC shuts down. And that will be a very rough day for people who have TVs and children.

    Your argument concerning Janet Jackson I think contradicts much of what you’ve said in the past. Isn’t that one of the primo situations that you’ve objected to all this time? People protestd, but it was the FCC that put the muscle and the hurt on the networks *because* of the protests — and if I remember right, you complained at the time that the family organizations hyped objections — and yet you use the boobage here as an example of how the marketplace takes the *place* of the FCC. I don’t see how that follows.

    Much of the other objections from others here are about the unevenness of enforcement: this word vs that word, vulgarity vs racism, different languages. The funniest objection is vulgarity vs racism: “bwah! FCC bans bullshit but not ni**er!” — the n-word and other racial epithets bothers me more than vulgarity, too (emotion!) but arguably (reason) racial epithets are more closely related to *political speech* than simply saying bullshit, tits, or even semprini. So this objection actually reveals even more childish hypocrisy in this complaint. You aren’t out for political freedom; you want to be able to cuss on TV.

    The problem with all of those objections, though, is that unevenness of enforcement has absolutely nothing to do with whether there should or shouldn’t be FCC oversight. The FCC doesn’t exist to please college students or media experts, it exists to police the public airwaves for familes at large. So “unevenness” isn’t an argument for abolishing the FCC, it’s just bitching about the FCC.

    Hope I’m not sounding too mean — these are friendly arguments, even if put forcefully. I think there’s actually some common ground that could be found between conservatives and liberals on reforming the FCC, but calling for huge shifts like this only begs for polarization. You’re asking the nation to suddenly accept opening the network standards wider than they ever have been, and I think you’ll really need a better reason for doing so than simply saying that “everybody” says bullshit.

    One more thing… just an observation, not an argument… “bullshit” makes for *crappy* political speech (pardon the word “crap”). It makes the owner of a pathetic and weak argument feel and act like he’s won a debate, simply because he shouts out like a teenager. The person who “calls bullshit” loses the argument the second they say the word, even faster than if they say “Hitler”. If I weren’t in danger of falling into the same trap myself, I would be tempted to say here that I’m calling bullshit on calling bullshit. If you can’t debate without bullshit, all it proves is that you are *full* of bullshit.

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  • Bullshit! and for good measure, nigger and kike! And wop, too. And spic. And black faun (which, translated into Norwegian, is about the worst thing you can say).

  • Evan

    I’m surprised there’s been no mention of Penn & Teller’s excellent TV series, running on Showtime, which not only frequently uses but is actually called “Bullshit”.

    Yes, Showtime, a national TV network, is sending a program into the homes of millions and millions of viewers, a show whose very title is “so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance,” and yet I haven’t heard of anyone rioting or setting fires or even forgodsake cancelling their Showtime subscriptions.

    I’m in total agreement, Jeff; the FCC should be stopped. And you might want to ask Penn & Teller if they’ll kick in some support.

  • qcontent

    Bottomline, the fate of Bullshit, is somehow related to, or a result of George W. Bushit. His fingerprints are all over this stench.

  • Not all that many years ago, an American dictionary (American Heritage, maybe?) actually included “bullshit,” as a noun: it was defined as “nonsense.”

    Which prompted this from David Brenner: “Defining ‘bullshit’ as nonsense is bullshit.”

    As they say in the Porsche ads, “There is no substitute.”

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  • Regardless of what you think about the utility or legitimacy of the word “bullshit” in political discussion, the very simple and important point is that it should not be the job of a government commission to make this judgment. Some people thought this point important enough that they included it first, in very clear language, among some rights enumerated at the founding of the republic.

    An FCC that makes rules about media content is an odd artifact of a disappearing technological circumstance where broadcast communications reached people only though a few channels by means of a public resource — radio spectrum — allocated by the government. With that questionable justification effectively gone in this time of media proliferation, so too is the charter for FCC’s regulation of content.

    Though people may argue that continuing these restrictions on speech is necessary to protect children, whether or not a dirty word is said on TV let alone that a child might accidentally hear it is completely insignificant. If children could only be protected from things by force of government, protecting them from isolated words would be much less important than protecting them from the more dangerous complete sentence and the insidious whole idea. And we would first target ideas like those that brushed aside the fundamental principles of our nation with some made up scenario about weird pornography. Then with the airwaves sanitized, if nipples and curse words remained to torment our children we could consider completely eliminating the point at which these things enter the home, banning both mothers, and fathers with hammers and thumbs.

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  • From now on, if someone wants to see indecent material, they will go to the internet, cable, watch a movie in the theatre or on DVD, or look at some magazines. This legislation is not only heavy handed, its ultimatly pointless..

    Besides, when Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on homosexuals, femanists and liberals, I thought THAT was pretty obscene!
    I mean, who gets to decides what’s obscene, anyway?

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