May 18, 2006
We interrupt our regular programming (Pat Robertson’s most recent chat with God, how evangelicals are corrupting kids,* that kind of thing) to bring you one of the more inspired scholarly papers of the past few years—Christopher Fairman’s Fuck:
Word taboo is irrational. It is one thing to ban certain acts; as a society we are probably better off. But to proscribe naming those same acts makes no sense. Yet that is precisely what we do. In the case of fuck, the taboo is also unhealthy. Emerging from an unhealthy attitude about sex, fuck is an example of what [Professor Allen Walker] Read calls a “word fetish.” The extreme emotional response to the word only serves to perpetuate negative attitudes toward sex. Yet the taboo is so strong many engage in individual self-censorship. Some overzealous adherents extend their own sense of “good words” and “bad words” to limit the use of fuck by others. The taboo effect is institutionalized when offensive language leads to legal prosecutions or censorship.
… [The] taboo effect is so strong we engage in self-censorship. However, refraining from using the stigmatized word doesn’t reduce the taboo effect. Deliberate silence actively abets the taboo rather than ignores it. Even those of us with the tools to understand the taboo effect often capitulate. For example, teachers who avoid using shocking words in the classroom when the topic involves speech certainly perpetuate taboo, as well as shirk their pedagogical responsibilities. How can you teach the “Fuck the Draft” case without using the word? But there are those who do.
Professor Fairman is particularly pissed at the FCC’s attitude towards fuck—for example its inexplicable outrage over U2 singer Bono’s use of the phrase “really fucking brilliant” at the 2003 Golden Globe awards:
Word taboo drives the FCC’s final conclusion that Bono’s single use of the phrase “really fucking brilliant” is indecent because any use of fuck is per se sexual and patently offensive; it is patently offensive because it is per se vulgar and shocking. It is also profane because it is vulgar and coarse. Luckily, the broadcasters, while subject to an enforcement action, escape a penalty because of a lack of notice. But there is nothing fortunate about what is really going on here. To enforce their preference, the Commissioners engage in bizarre word-play. “Indecent,” “patently offensive,” “vulgar,” and “profane” are loosely defined in an interlocking fashion that blurs any real distinction except the obvious one. The Commissioners censor fuck because it’s a word that they don’t like to hear. That is, unless it’s in a good movie or on cable.
… What then does the law permit? Fuck the Draft. Fuck Hitler. Fuck the ump. Fucking orders. Fucking brilliant. Fucking genius. Fuck the FCC. The easier question is what should it protect—all of them. However, the powerful effect of word taboo is at work. There is no accurate way to gauge where Everyman is on the scale of indecent language. Nonetheless, five unelected FCC Commissioners—each individually affected by word taboo—police our radios and televisions supposedly in our interests. They are empowered by a procedural system that exaggerates a handful of complaints into a frenzied mandate. The FCC then institutionalizes the taboo through an arbitrary process that either censors fuck outright or chills broadcasters into self-censorship. What the regulators don’t appreciate is that fuck, as taboo, is only strengthened by their actions.
… Regardless of its source, when taboo becomes institutionalized through law, the effects of taboo are also institutionalized. If we want to diminish the taboo effect, the solution is not silence. Nor should offensive language be punished. We must recognize that words like fuck have a legitimate place in our daily life. Scholars must take responsibility for eliminating ignorance about the psychological aspects of offensive speech and work to eliminate dualistic views of good words and bad words. Taboo language should be included in dictionaries, freely spoken and written in our schools and colleges, printed in our newspapers and magazines, and broadcast on radio and television. Fuck must be set free.
I’ve hosted the (PDF-format) paper here.
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