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I Know It When I See It

June 12, 2007

I’d like to say the following column was inspired by the recent court ruling rebuking the F.C.C. for its draconian efforts to purge profanity from the airwaves. This would suggest I’m rather well-informed and follow the ongoing struggle between media companies and the Bush administration over the latter’s efforts to enforce a stricter obscenity regime with great assiduity. But I must confess the truth: it was the Mets game.

Now, I’m not an avid baseball fan but I am a fairly committed drunk. So when, last week, a crony of mine suddenly found himself with some terrific seats and invited me on board, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drink overpriced domestic swill in a hot dog-friendly environment. There we were, enjoying the evening warmth and a fine athletic contest well in the comfort of our cups, waxing lyrical as good fellows like us are wont to do on such occasions, when a gentleman with the girth and facial features of an unlovely walrus turned to us from the seat in front and growled a quiet admonishment. The following conversation among us went something like this:

“This motherf-cker says we should stop cursing ’cause there’s kids around.”

“Wha?”

“There’s kids around. This guy says we should watch our language.”

“F-ck him.”

And so forth. Being the resilient types that we are we did not let the busybody’s interruption ruin our night, though it well could have. All children in earshot seemed unharmed by our words – no shattered ears, dropped fly balls or life-long emotional trauma (at least none that prevented them from cheering on Carlos Beltran, not that it helped). Thankfully, none of them appeared to be in that delicate developmental phase between when they’re too young to know a curse from a coo and when they’re old enough to want to start using naughty words themselves. Then again, the reason none of these tykes was in said phase is because it doesn’t exist.

Kids, in my experience, don’t care. They couldn’t care less. If they even notice, they giggle. That’s hardly child abuse. Controls on cursing and other “obscenity” are for the parents, in the same way that a funeral is for the living. Many people with children, and similarly minded adults like our walrus friend, wish to create an atmosphere that they find pleasing – something they identify as warm and cozy that is distinct from the coarse and uncouth. Creating an imaginary realm of innocence that has little to do with the mentality of actual children, such people impose a specific etiquette as a boundary on what can be considered appropriate, “family-friendly” behavior. I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t be entitled to this ethos or that it shouldn’t be accommodated, merely that there have to be limits on that accommodation in a free society, that the argument from harm to children is largely a fallacy and that “family values” are not so much a morality as an aesthetic.

The trouble is that “family” and “morality” are essentially presented as equivalent by social conservatives. The argument about obscenity is fundamentally presented as a moral one, the efforts of Bush’s F.C.C. as the fight against something degrading to core “values.” This, apparently, is why we need massive fines on broadcasters if profanity slips into Grammy acceptance speeches or Howard Stern gets too randy. But what are the values under threat? General “decency” is too vague to be a serious moral argument, and consenting adults are generally felt to have the right to make up their own minds about what they wish to watch or hear. And so we come to the children. If a puritan is a person terrified of the thought that someone, somewhere is having a good time, today’s modern social conservative – and I include in that category the ostensibly liberal Tipper Gore types eager to crack down on the media for perceived immorality – is a person knock-kneed at the notion that any child, anywhere will be exposed to a swear.

What real harm to children a momentary glimpse of Janet Jackson’s mammary gland or the words that they scream at each other on the playground from around the age of seven could possibly do I cannot quite fathom. Obscenity in our society – whether in word, sound or image – essentially comes down to the description of acts or anatomy related to excretion and intercourse. Certainly those things have been essential parts of the human condition since it started and undoubtedly have immense primordial power. But the argument from harm, to children or adults, has little rational basis. Again, it is that they disturb the imaginary realm that causes them to be banished, combined in many cases with the notion that swearing or sex displeases God (having never met Him, I have no basis on which to evaluate this claim).

So is there no moral argument for curtailing obscenity? Does anything go? Well, not exactly. Etiquette may be somewhat arbitrary, but this doesn’t mean it has no moral element. Being nice to each other and respecting others’ feelings, within certain limits, keeps civilization humming and presumably stops everyone from clubbing each other to death. Etiquette, in a broad sense, is deeply ethical. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with delineating an “elevated” aesthetic or level of discourse and separating it from the boorish and loutish. After all, what fun would all that boorishness and loutishness be without the dichotomy? Not swearing at formal occasions is akin to wearing a suit or dress to the opera. It’s just what you do to keep up standards.

But the family values mob does not need government enforcement to keep up its standards. Parents concerned about such exposure can buy V-Chips, supervise their offspring and forbid them access to media deemed offensive – they can always “change the channel” as the classic libertarian argument goes. Instead such advocates and Bush’s F.C.C. demand censorship, imposed on all for the sake of their “values,” indulging in an obsession with protecting children from the sexual and scatological that is not only futile but childish.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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