writing bio research bagatelle home

Indecent Exposure

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 6/13/07

Whichever side of the issue you were on, you might have been disconcerted by the language of the statement that the Federal Communications Commission chair Kevin Martin posted on the agency's Web pages last week -- this after the New York Court of Appeals threw out the FCC's indecency rulings against the Fox network for broadcasting what the court called "fleeting expletives."

Martin's statement began, "I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that 'shit' and 'fuck' are fine to say on broadcast television…"[1] He went on to warn the decision would give Hollywood free rein to say anything they want to whenever they like, managing to repeat shit and fuck half a dozen times in the course of five short paragraphs.

It's hard to imagine an FCC chairman from some earlier era using those words with such brio. Traditionalist or no, Martin is clearly not a man who has much use for old-fashioned demurrals like "decency forbids me" or "I blush to repeat." It puts you in mind of those cable news shows where the host and guests fulminate over the coarsening of American culture against a backdrop of strategically blurred "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

On the surface, Martin's indignation seemed disproportionate to the rather technical legal point at issue. The court held that when you use a word like fucking as a mere intensifier, the way people had on the Fox programs, it doesn't have any sexual meaning, so can't be indecent in the legal sense of the term. Nonsense, said Martin and the FCC. The f-word has a sexual connotation whenever it's used.

The agency's critics had a lot of fun with that position. The political blogger Daniel Drezner asked, "If I say 'F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on,' am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality?"

Still, Martin does have a point. Even when the words aren't literally indecent, they have lubricious overtones that can make them offensive. After all, it isn't simply a phonetic accident that that the words we use as insults and intensifiers sound just like the ones we use to talk about sex and elimination. This isn't like being put out simply because you hear somebody on the radio describing Glen Gould as a pianist.

None of that should blur the legal distinction. Overtones or no, there's still a difference between indecency and cussing, between the obscene and the merely vulgar. But as Martin understands very well, this has a lot more to do with symbolic politics than with legalities or practical consequences. It's not as if anybody really believes that the youth of America are going to be corrupted by hearing an occasional f- or s-word on a broadcast. In fact the members of my own generation managed to achieve linguistic depravity with virtually no help from the media at all.

But Americans are widely troubled by what they correctly perceive as an increase in public swearing and profanity, whether it's indecent or merely vulgar. (In a 2002 Public Agenda survey of attitudes about civility sponsored by the Pew Foundation, 84 percent of respondents said that it bothered them when people use bad or rude language out in public, and three quarters wanted parents to teach their kids that "cursing is always wrong.")

There's no shortage of theories about who deserves the blame. As Martin and other culture warriors tell it, foul language is just a stand-in for all the depredations that Hollywood, the media, and the cultural elites have been visiting on the American families since the sexualization of America got under way in the 1960's. From that point of view, this is just the latest episode in what the historian Rochelle Gurstein calls the "repeal of reticence," as people abandon the old inhibitions about the public discussion of sexuality, the body, and the intimate details of personal life. Trace those expletives back to their source, the idea goes, and they'll take you to Oh Calcutta! and Fear of Flying, Jerry Rubin and Lenny Bruce, and all books, records and movies that encouraged people to discard their linguistic prudery at the door, along with their sexual hang-ups.

But 40 years after the sexual revolution began in earnest, you still don't hear these words used much in the media in their literal sexual meanings, or at least outside of a Chris Rock routine or an episode of Deadwood on pay cable. What you hear instead is the parallel vocabulary of vulgarisms that emerged over the last century, as people transformed all the venerable English obscenities into terms of abuse. The a-word became a name for an arrogant jerk, the s-word for a nasty creep, the bs-word for meretricious humbug. And the infinitely versatile f-word was deployed not just as an all-purpose intensifier, but as the basis for new verbs meaning "cheat," "meddle," "tease," "betray," and "bungle," to name just a few.

But the spread of that vocabulary owes nothing to the media or the cultural elites. It was invented early in the century by working-class men, and it took root in American speech when millions of middle-class inductees brought it home after World War II.  And though it too entered the linguistic mainstream in the 60's, it ultimately had no more political significance than long hair or rock music did. Whoever uses it, it's simply a way of signalling attitude, street, or as  "a demonstration of earthy authenticity," as one columnist approvingly described Dick Cheney's anatomically challenging imperative to Pat Leahy on the Senate floor a few years ago.

This language really belongs to all of us, as Kevin Martin more-or-less acknowledged when he laced his statement with it. And unlike the explicitly sexual vocabulary that it followed into the open, it doesn't really threaten old-fashioned sexual values. On the contrary, the words can only work in their figurative meanings if they remain dirty in their literal meanings. If there's still an aggressive intensity to calling somebody a fucking asshole it's because we haven't abandoned our conviction that sex and the body are something to be ashamed of. You'd hope the champions of decency would take some comfort in that.

1. In the broadcast version of this piece, these came out as "f-word," "effing" and so forth. RETURN

Copyright © 2007 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.