A few years back, I published a novel that had some bad words in it. It wasn’t an X-rated book, but the characters spoke the way people in real life do, which is to say they occasionally dropped the f-bomb and the s-bomb. In the weeks and months after publication I received many reactions. These ranged from “I couldn’t put it down” to “Give me my money back,” but most bafflingly common were the number of people who felt the need to ask me, in a slightly wincing tone, “Exactly why did you feel it was necessary to put the f-word on page 73?”
I soon gave up literary justifications and took to engaging in that most Canadian of social responses: the profuse, if mildly disingenuous, apology. Sometimes, if the complainant happened to have a copy of the book handy, I’d even scratch out the bad word. It’s not that I believe in censorship, just that I dislike offending people. “There,” I’d say, handing the book back, “now it’s perfectly safe for your 11-year-old daughter.”
The issue of what sort of language and imagery is or isn’t appropriate for children (and indeed the general public) was at the heart of debate in the U.S. Supreme Court this week. The case, which has been crawling through the American court system since 2002, centres around multimillion-dollar FCC fines that were levied against the broadcasters Fox and ABC for, respectively, prime-time swearing and nudity. The first instance involved Cher, and later Nicole Richie, dropping the f-word on Fox during the live broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards Show; the second was in response to a lingering bare bum shot on the then-hit ABC series NYPD Blue.
The broadcasters’ lawyers argued that the FCC’s current no-naughtiness-in-prime-time policy is vague and unfairly prevents them from competing with the unregulated world of cable and satellite television. While the court isn’t expected to have a ruling until June, transcripts of the debate made for interesting reading. Chief Justice John Roberts, the only judge with small children, argued vehemently in favour of upholding the FCC ruling: “All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where… they are not going to hear the s-word, the f-word, they are not going to see nudity.”
Here in Canada we like a good wardrobe malfunction, by which I mean getting our knickers in a knot over foul language. Last year, classic rock fans were outraged when the CRTC suddenly banned the Dire Straits song Money For Nothing from radio play because a listener in Newfoundland noticed (presumably for the first time since the song was released in 1985) that the lyrics contained another f-word, a derogatory term for gay men. Several months later, NDP Pat Martin caused a furor when he sent out several obscenity-laden tweets about the Harper government. The issue, according to some offended parliamentarians, was not the language but the fact that Martin tweeted from the House of Commons. But when CBC.ca later surveyed site visitors on whether they thought Martin was out of line, a whopping 69 per cent of respondents said no. Despite this, the Ceeb (like this newspaper and others), did not print the swear words in question for fear of causing offence.
But to whom? In censoring themselves, broadcasters and newspapers seem to respect some universal standard of propriety. Likewise in the United States, the FCC is tasked with protecting “community standards.” Yet by the time the Supreme Court defines those standards, the issue will be all but moot. Today, nearly nine out of ten American households subscribe to cable or satellite television; the first amendment case applies only to over-the-air transmissions. In the digital landscape, there is no censor – self-regulation is the only way to avoid infinite possibilities to be offended. Unlike the days when we all sat down and watched what was “on,” today we actively connect to entertainment and choose – and un-choose – all manner of uncomfortable or titillating material.
I actually find it sweetly quaint that in an era of free on-demand digital porn, Kardashians and Facebook suicides, most of the mainstream media (this newspaper included) censors itself to the extent that we do. This self-repression, for the most part, comes from a genuine unwillingness to offend rather than any kind of deep-seated cultural repression. I see the need for a good cuss word in real life as much as the next gal, but, as I learned with my book, it’s often hardly worth the trouble it causes. Unfortunately for Fox, Cher and Nicole Richie can’t eat their words, but as a novelist I still have my trusty pen. It’s not an efficient system, but I’ll continue to scribble out my swearwords one offended reader and retroactive bleep at a time.