Swearing swearers and FCC's new rulebook

With once-verboten swears and raunchy lingo peppering not just water-cooler conversations but the public airwaves, there's a growing question among the linguistically proper: Has "polite society" become an oxymoron?

Twenty years of record labeling and monitoring airwaves for profanity haven't exactly made for a less vulgar society - quite the opposite, experts say. Profanity and suggestive themes have proliferated, from television to children's books: For the literary-minded under-12 set, there is, for instance, "Day My Butt Went Psycho" and "Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy." Now, two more bastions of proper English - the airwaves and politics - have taken pages out of the Locker Room Dictionary.

Critics of Big Government say a recent FCC decision to OK the "f-word" on television (in nonsexual contexts, at least, and only as an adjective) means society hasn't coarsened so much as changed: New proprieties are replacing those George Carlin spoofed in his 1970s skit, "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television."

But for many, it's a turn toward the tawdry - one that complicates the lives of parents coping with a new generation of giggling potty-mouths.

"There ought to be great insecurity [among parents] that what flows over the airwaves does legitimize incredible behavior and themes and language that are destroying the moral fabric of this country," says Bill Johnson, president of the American Decency Association.

Sure, Al Pacino took the creatively-placed expletive to new heights in the 1970s and 1980s, but that was in R-rated movies. In January, when U2 frontman Bono greeted his Golden Globe Award with an exclamation of "This is really, really [expletive deleted] brilliant!" the FCC - which monitors the bandwidth of radio and TV - ruled that the utterance was not obscene or indecent.

Saucy adjectives

Granted, local standards still apply, and often keep a tighter rein on profanity. But increasingly, saucy adjectives are sanctioned from drive time to prime-time. In an age when "the bird" is nearly as ubiquitous as pigeons, even some who would be president don't see it as a liability to swear like a sailor: John Kerry has refused to apologize for his epithetical censure of President Bush's policies in an interview in Rolling Stone.

"When I grew up, there were words you did not use in polite company and never used with women. All of that has changed," says David Kelley, president of the Objectivist Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which espouses the free-market ideas of Ayn Rand. "But on the other hand, there are words that used to be fine but are no longer used: Publishers are afraid to speak of people who are crippled, even handicapped, which in turn has given rise to new jokes about short people being vertically challenged."

Parents' groups, especially, are upset by the FCC's verdict on the Bono remark, and have called on Congress to investigate. Now, members of both parties are pressing for a crackdown on the FCC.

"I have three kids, 16, 14, and 11, and it's hopeless," says Michael Cromartie, a Washington, D.C., dad, and a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "With a coarsening of society, there isn't a way of keeping ahead of it - interpreting it to the family as opposed to everyone buying into it."

Market rules

Increasingly, the FCC is seen as allowing the market to dictate speech codes, and as unable to keep up with transgressions. But its laxity has limits: While acknowledging a "limited role" in protecting citizens, Chairman Michael Powell wrote in a Nov. 25 letter, "I am personally disturbed by the continued proliferation of profanity, violence and sex in our daily lives." (The FCC has warned licensees not to interpret its f-word decision as a buckling to vulgarity.) Still, many say the FCC's role has changed with market pressures and an emboldened entertainment industry.

"There was a time when the airwaves were seen as a public trust, when stations were given bandwidth in exchange for a public service," says Philip Klinkner, a US government professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Now is the FCC going to yank Clear Channel's licenses? Absolutely not."

Overall, experts say, entertainers and politicians simply don't see a liability in "wink-wink" humor anymore. And to some critics, the FCC ban on profanity was nothing but an Orwellian throwback to begin with, impossible to apply fairly.

One drive behind the lowered bar is a desire to be "real" and "one with the people." Recall the question posed to Bill Clinton on boxers vs. briefs - and his willing answer. What the public wants, experts say, is what reflects society: Workaday heroes who don't always ride in on a white horse, and may cuss freely. Today's discourse may even be a backlash against PC speech codes of the '90s.

Not for the faint of mouth

Indeed, neither entertainers, nor politicians, nor journalists are known as paragons of purity. Reporters "winked" at Lyndon Johnson's tawdry outbursts and descriptions, even when delivered in a drawl.

And Richard Nixon's vernacular gave rise to the phrase "[expletive deleted]" on White House tape transcripts. With repetition and reruns, experts say, the shock value of a swear simply wears off.

Still, not everyone finds it charming to swear for swearing's sake, and whether the f-word will become common on TV remains to be seen. Here in Raleigh, where some stations have refused to carry controversial programs, a DJ recently sounded panicked when a guest used the f-word on-air twice in rush hour.

All of which raises the question: How many of Mr. Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" can you still not say on television? With the FCC giving a pass on Bono's utterance, the list has dwindled to (drum-roll here) three.

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