The big chill of the censor
Monday April 3, 2006
Americans have been robbed of the single most essential word in political protest
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.
When he ran for president in 1992, Senator Tom Harkin was quoted on TV news saying: “George Bush and his fat-cat Republican friends say they are building a Conservative Opportunity Society. I’ve got a one word reply: Bullshit.” That is certainly political speech. But today, it would be censored or fined. Thus, the FCC chills, censors and penalises political speech. That, I believe, is a clear violation of our first amendment, which decrees, “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.” Perhaps we have the basis for overturning the commission’s dubious authority to censor. Gotcha, FCC.
Consider the experience of National Public Radio’s On the Media show last week, when it tried to report on the FCC and its bullshit. I listened to the show’s podcast – which doesn’t sully our regulated airwaves, merely my iPod – and so I heard co-host Bob Garfield say to FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein: “I want to talk to you about the word bullshit. Now this is commonly used to convey scepticism, 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 kid’s stuff and dickhead is pretty darned insulting.”
The commissioner asked whether they would edit that out. Garfield replied, “It depends. Are you on duty?” But edit, they did. Listeners to the broadcast heard bullbleep and Garfield told me this was done out of fear of fines for the show’s outlets. Station executive Dean Cappello added, “I think there is an absolute chill in the air.” So here we have a case to demonstrate that chill. Gotcha again, FCC.
Cappello said the chill is “felt most keenly in cultural programmes and documentaries where expression is at the core”. Indeed. The FCC just penalised a Martin Scorsese public-TV documentary, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, for its subjects’ language. Yet the commission earlier made exceptions for the Steven Spielberg films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. So when black musicians say bad words, it is a crime. But when white people in war say them, it is art. In this, the FCC not only enforces a cultural apartheid but also props itself up as both America’s nanny and its official cultural critic. They decide what has social and artistic value and what does not. This slope couldn’t get slipperier. Gotcha again, FCC.
Pulling back from the politically absurd to the culturally sublime, it is also ridiculous for the FCC to claim it is protecting community standards when it says all America cannot tolerate bullshit. Show me the man, woman or, yes, child in a schoolyard who has not said bullshit. Search Google and you will find 30m bullshits. Bullshit is part of our language, culture and politics. So the FCC is not enforcing our community standards. It is enforcing the fetish of religious pressure groups. Gotcha one more time.
At a recent business conference, I heard CEOs tell FCC chairman Kevin Martin to pay attention to the urgent business of preparing our telecommunications infrastructure for disaster or attack and to get America to broadband parity with Korea and even France. Instead, I told him, he was wasting his time, fining farts. And bullshit.
Even commissioner Adelstein acknowledged 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. 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 should take on the FCC and the archaic and unconstitutional law that makes them think they should save us from a simple word. It is time to stand up in defence of bullshit.