September 17, 1990… a day that will live in infamy.
Okay so I exaggerated… it wasn’t up there on a par with the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor or any other big dates in textbook history. However for those of us fascinated with words and the use and abuse thereof, that day ought to be enshrined in some sort of “Free Speech Hall Of Fame”. On that day on the CBS television network, actress Sharon Gless playing the title character of her new short-lived drama series “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” muses to her psychiatrist “I’m thinking about getting my tits done.”
The use of the word “tits” was as far as I can tell the first non-accidental breach of George Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television“.That famous comedy routine was recorded May 27, 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and appeared on Carlin’s live comedy album Class Clown. Carlin was once arrested for obscenity for performing the routine live. When a similar routine called “Filthy Words” was aired uncensored on a radio station in California, it led to a famous Supreme Court decision that has formed the basis for most broadcast obscenity cases ever since then. A Wikipedia article about the routine does a fairly good job of recounting its history and its consequences.
An illustration of the ridiculousness of banning words is the use of one of the banned words “piss”. Its past tense form “pissed” is perfectly acceptable in certain contexts on broadcast television when used to indicate a state of anger. You can say “I’m pissed off” but you can’t say “I was so drunk I pissed on my shoes.” I’m not really sure whether or not “I’m pissed” meaning a state of inebriation would make it past the censors or not. Carlin was quick to point out the hypocrisy regarding banned words when he notes that even your mother would say “shoot” when she really meant “shit”. The words are used identically in both meaning and context yet one is acceptable and the other is not.
Of course “fuck” is widely considered the dirtiest of dirty words yet television programs routinely substitute similar words with obvious identical meaning and get away with it. Police dramas such as “NYPD Blue” routinely substituted “freakin” for “fuckin” when used as an expletive. However such substitutions on broadcast television rarely extend from mere expletive all the way to the literal meaning as a sexual act.
I always admired the Sci-fi Channel series “Farscape” for its use of the substitute word “frell” because it used a variety of forms of the word. It wasn’t just “oh frell” when trouble occurs or a personally directed “frell you”. You would also hear it used in a context such as “Come on baby let’s go frell.” Hands down the ultimate substitute word is Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” which is probably my favorite. I have to admit surprise when I read a recent recent CNN.com article that reported the use of “frak” actually dates back to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica TV series and not just the current remake which as been running since 2004. The use of “frak” in the show is used in absolutely every conceivable way that you would use the original “fuck”. I’m certain I’ve heard everything including but not limited to “Oh frak”, “come on lets frak”, “get the frak outta here”, “frak you”, “hand me that frakin wrench”, “I don’t give a frak”, “frak off”, and probably others I can’t recall right now. The only version I don’t believe I’ve heard is “mother-fraker” or “mother-fraking” but I wouldn’t swear they’ve never used it.
Although Sci-fi Channel is cable, it is basic cable which usually adheres to broadcast standards and I’m pretty sure that reruns have appeared on NBC broadcast uncensored. The hypocrisy of banning the use of a word while permitting a nearly identical word with identical meaning in a variety of contexts just drives me crazy the more I think about it.
While I appreciate the desire to in some form shield young children from vulgarity, somehow society has gotten to the point where the word itself… the symbol and not the thing or concept which the symbol represents… is what gets banned. If we really wanted to protect their children from vulgarity then a phrase like “go frak yourself” ought to be just as a offensive as “go fuck yourself”.
I’m not suggesting that censorship ought to be stronger and that “frak” in all its forms ought to be banned as well. I’m saying that if we are going to regulate speech at all (which I would rather not do either) then we ought to regulate the ideas rather than the words themselves. Again let me be clear I’m all in favor of free speech under 99.99% circumstances. I could even argue that could go as high as 100% deregulation of words because I think there is something to be said for going ahead and exposing small children to real-world discourse no matter how bad it is. Such exposure can then be used as a teachable moment. We need to teach our kids that there are “bad things” in the world. There is evil, hatred, prejudice, injustice, intolerance, violence and all sorts of other things which they should avoid if they want to be “good little boys and girls”. But the words in and of themselves are not bad. The things which the so-called bad words communicate is where in the evil lies.
Another problem with the idea that we must use only politically correct words is that times change and what is the proper word for one generation is improper for another generation. Descriptions of race are the prime example. The scientific and technical term for a person with dark skin and African heritage is “Negro”. The use of such words today outside some sort of biology or sociology text is archaic at best is offensive to many. To some extent one can get away with using the word in those contexts on a limited basis. You can talk about the Negro race but you can’t call a particular person a Negro and get away with it. The word has stuck around as marginally acceptable simply because there are times when you need to describe that particular race of people as distinct from Caucasian, Asian, etc.
Next we come to “nigger”. I’m not going to argue in favor of its use because it has and always will be a “bad word”. But it is bad because of the concept which it denotes, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the word. It has always been a deliberate derogatory term designed to demean people and it is inextricably attached to the practice of slavery. So it really is a bad word if there ever was one.
For some time African-American culture especially comedians like Richard Pryor in reflecting his culture use the word liberally in an attempt to diffuse the power of the word. By co-opting the word and changing its meaning as a piece of slang used by African Americans affectionately to describe one another it power was indeed diminished. Co-opting the word for another use made my point that the word itself is not bad. I always felt it was a clever attempt to take the sting out of the word. Rap stars and others have tried to make a distinction between “nigga” and “nigger” with the former being the affectionate slang for intra-racial address and the latter being the derogatory term it had traditionally been. However recent use of abuse of the word has even got the hardest of hard-core rappers reconsidering its use. They are, probably correctly, beginning to realize that legitimizing one use of the word invariably legitimizes all use of it.
For decades the politically correct term for people of African descent was “colored” but even that word took on a negative connotation with signs like “no colored allowed” or “colored only”. “Colored” became as tied to the practice of discrimination as “nigger” was tied to slavery. The word “colored” gave way to “black” which is still in use of course. At one point “black” gave way to “African-American”. Technically a Caucasian from Africa… even a racist, apartheid loving South African… who moved to the United States is ironically “African-American”. So the term African-American is probably a little bit problematic from a technical point of view.
One of the problems with ever evolving politically correct terms is that certain anachronisms cannot be eliminated. The largest and most important civil rights organization in the country remains the NAACP which of course stands for the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”. There is a bitter irony in the fact that millions of black people proudly support the organization but would be highly offended if you called them a “colored person”.
In the end I appreciate and sympathize with people who are offended by insults. I’m not arguing in favor of maliciously insulting people. But I really think we’ve gotten much to sensitive and much too hypocritical about the use of words and their power to offend. I really wish people would go back to the “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me” lesson that used to be taught to children.
Unless you’re from another planet you didn’t need me to recount the history of derogatory terms for African-Americans. But I wanted to draw parallels between that terminology and another set of terminology that is much more personal to me. As a person who has spent their entire life in a wheelchair, I’ve had to deal on a regular basis with the variety of shifting politically correct terms to describe people like me. In the next installment we’ll explore terms like cripple, handicap, disabled, challenged, differently abled (yech) and a variety of other labels related to disabilities.