Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Steven Pinker - Freedom’s Curse

Steven Pinker has a cool article in The Atlantic on why Washington’s crusade against swearing on the airwaves is f*cked up. In case you are unfamiliar with his thinking, Pinker likes swearing, seeing in it our evolutionary heritage. Bur he also likes to puncture the idea that any word is anything more than a symbol -- words will not and cannot "corrupt the moral order."

Freedom’s Curse

by Steven Pinker

A word is an arbitrary label—that’s the foundation of linguistics. But many people think otherwise. They believe in word magic: that uttering a spell, incantation, curse, or prayer can change the world. Don’t snicker: Would you ever say “Nothing has gone wrong yet” without looking for wood to knock?

Swearing is another kind of word magic. People believe, contrary to logic, that certain words can corrupt the moral order—that piss and Shit! and fucking are dangerous in a way that pee and Shoot! and freakin’ are not. This quirk in our psychology lies in the ability of taboo words to activate primitive emotional circuits in the brain.

My interest in swearing is (I swear) scientific. But swearing is not just a puzzle in cognitive neuroscience. It has figured in the most-famous free-speech cases of the past century, from Ulysses and Lady Chatterley to those of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Over the decades, the courts have steadily driven government censors into a precarious redoubt. In 1978, the Supreme Court, ruling on a daytime broadcast of Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue, allowed the Federal Communications Commission to regulate “indecency” on broadcast radio and television during the hours when children were likely to be listening. The rationale, based on rather quaint notions of childhood and of modern media, was that over-the-air broadcasts are uninvited intruders into the home and can expose children to indecent language, harming their psychological and moral development.

George Carlin expounds upon the seven words you can't say on TV.

In practice, the FCC recognized that the impact of taboo words depended on their context. So in 2003, when Bono said in a televised acceptance speech, “This is really, really fucking brilliant,” the FCC did not punish the network. Bono, they noted, did not use fucking to “describe sexual or excretory organs or activities.” He used it as an “adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.” This usage differed from Carlin’s “patently offensive” routine, with its “repeated use, for shock value,” of taboo words.

Read the whole article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is kind of ironic how the U.S. is supposed to be so "free", and yet even watching a movie on television can be an exercise in picking out the dialogue between the bleeps.

In Canada, swearing on TV is much more liberal. It's not done during the dinner hour, of course, but you can hear some lovely swears during some prime-time movies. I quite prefer that to the censoring.