Breasts and Radioactive Words

While we’re talking about exposed body parts here, witness the following comments, part of a speech by FCC Chair Michael Powell to the National Association of Broadcasters:

It is not Janet’s nudity that is decried. It is the fact that “by god it was the Superbowl!” the largest prime television event of the year. An event for friends and family. People do not want to feel that they can be struck by lightning, or hit by a truck at any moment. Similarly, they do not like the sense they have no safe expectation of what they might see or hear during a given program—precisely the formula some are using to grab headlines.

In that one well-worded paragraph, Mr. Powell has summarized the reason for the general banality of North American popular culture.

The Hollywood Reporter sets out an even more bizarre tableau:

Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps has been the leading champion on the indecency front for years. If the Bono decision was intended to clarify the indecency regulations, it didn’t help. While the commission’s top mass media advisors at first told conventioneers that the “fuck” ruling was radioactive, they backed off when asked for specifics.
“They shouldn’t be saying the F-word. They should be taking precautions. If it’s a slip-up, I’m not sure that means it isn’t a violation,” said Catherine Bohigian, legal adviser to Commissioner Kevin Martin. “Do you really need to say the F-word before 10 o’ clock?”
But when asked if airing “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” an interview with mobster John Gotti or the airing of a French documentary that followed New York City firefighters during 9/11, where the word “fuck” was used extensively, would merit a fine, they wavered.
“The answer is, we don’t know. These are case specific,” said Jon Cody, a legal adviser to Powell. “I just think in this climate you need to make some decisions.”

It’s this kind of talk that wants me to shout “fuck” from the rooftops, and to rename my company “Reinvented Fuck Inc.”

My familiars will tell you that I’m not prone to swearing at the drop of a hat — to the point that when I do, people take notice. But I can’t believe that people would waste energy and resources on debating the merits of certain words appearing, or not appearing, on the airwaves. Maybe this is important in some Venutian bizarro futureworld when we have nothing else to worry about. Actually, probably not even then.

I’m all for preventing for keeping people from killing each other, for making the air and water clean, and for keeping the buses running on time. Otherwise, I’d rather be free to say whatever I want, whenever I want, and to use my own intelligent discretion to figure out what, when, where.


Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on April 23, 2004 - 00:27 Permalink

You’re for keeping air and water clean, I suppose, on the principle that polluting them can be bad for the health of people or the environment. Utterances can be hurtful too, though—propaganda that implants violence-promulgating memes, for example. It may be that we can counter unhealthful utterances with other utterances, but in principle we can counter pollution too with chemistry—using catalysts or engineered microbes, for example. Pollutants may take enormous resources to overcome, but certain ideas may take enormous resources to overcome as well. So what makes utterances sacred in a way that chlorofluorocarbons are not? (I mean besides that it says so in the constitution)

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on April 23, 2004 - 02:23 Permalink

The very fundament of my outlook on life is based on the notion that there is a difference between speech and action.

It’s not that words can’t hurt — we all know they can — it’s that the harmful effects of trying to limit speech far outweigh any harms words can do.

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on April 23, 2004 - 03:19 Permalink

So we regulate action to a greater degree than we regulate speech (“fire” in a theatre). But still how much to regulate is a matter of degree. Based on what principle or principles do we decide where to draw the line? The fact that reasonable people disagree suggests that it’s not a no brainer.