We have come a long way.
Early in the 17th century in Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in the New World, cursing was considered a crime. For a first offense, a person was to suffer “severe punishment.” For a second offense, he was to have “a bodkin [a small, pointed instrument used to make holes in cloth or leather] thrust through his tongue.”
There would be no fourth offense; for the third, a curser would be put to death.
Now, early in the 21st century, the Federal Communications Commission (search) has decided that the most common, if also most crude, four-letter synonym for the sex act may be uttered on television---if, that is, it is used “properly.”
How do you say “f***” properly, you ask?
First, the background. On Jan. 19 of this year, on the nationally televised Golden Globes Awards (search) program, the singer Bono, (search) accepting an award, said either “this is really, really f***ing brilliant,” or “this is f***ing great.” As a result, 234 complaints were filed against the TV stations that carried the show, one of them from a watchdog group called the Parents’ Television Council (search).
As the FCC itself stated in something called a Memorandum Opinion and Order, “The complainants contend that such material is either obscene and/or indecent, and they request that the Commission levy sanctions against the licensees for the broadcast of the subject material.”
The FCC decided not to levy sanctions. In fact, the FCC decided to allow the word in question to be uttered on television without sanctions in the future. Here is the explanation, and I offer it at some length. The FCC used the actual word; it was my decision to add the asterisks:
“The word ‘f***ing may be crude and offensive, but, in the context presented here, did not describe sexual or excretory activities or functions. Rather, the performer used the word f***ing as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation. Indeed, in similar circumstances, we have found that offensive language used as an insult rather than as a description of sexual or excretory activity or organs is not within the scope of the Commission’s prohibition of indecent program content.”
So it was that the FCC decided to “reject the claims that this program content is indecent.”
In other words, it’s okay to say f*** on television if you’re not talking about f***ing.
It has been four centuries since the American colonists stuck a sharp object through the tongues of the foul-mouthed among them. Perhaps, in another four centuries, the word f*** will be so frequently uttered as to be inoffensive, virtually meaningless, and the FCC’s decision will seem a nadir of triviality. After all, when I was a child the word “piss” could not be spoken in polite company; these days, people who are polite company often confess, both on the air and in private, to being “pissed off.”
But in the short run, the FCC’s decision seems, at the very least, another victory for the dull-witted, scatalogically-minded men and women who run the entertainment industry in this country. For many years now, they have been confusing coarseness with creativity, their idea of a bold new program being one in which the characters swear more than characters in previous shows.
It is not original ideas they prize, not original dramatic situations or more profound examinations of the human comedy, not more literate and challenging scripts. It is, rather, old ideas, familiar situations, continued superficiality and vapid scripts---with a few more f***s thrown in for spice.
The FCC might have thought that it was simply allowing a curse word to be used in one particular setting. But the effect of the ruling will be to encourage all manner of curse words to be used in a greater variety of on-air settings than ever before.
Perhaps the commissioners should be sentenced to the bodkin.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).