Watch Your Language

Posted: Jun 12, 2007 12:01 AM
Watch Your Language

A federal appeals court panel in New York used President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- if you can believe it -- as a lever to pry open a little wider the passage to free speech of the no-holds-barred variety. When I say no holds barred, I mean every *$!!#$% word of it -- as we used to write in quainter times.

The court told the Federal Communications Commission it couldn't punish broadcast television for letting fly the same kind of language our leaders use now and then in unguarded moments. One such moment came when Cheney growled to one of the less clubby Senate Democrats, Pat Leahy, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that Leahy would do well to ... oh, well.

The word the vice president actually used is called a "fleeting expletive." Instead of saying, "Dear, dear," the speaker -- maybe he's accepting an award on television -- produces an earthier word choice. It falls on ears not necessarily accustomed to such language. Ouch! For which offense the FCC has been levying fines. To which the federal appeals court says, enough of that.

"We are skeptical," their honors wrote, "that the [FCC] can provide a reasoned explanation for its 'fleeting expletive' regime that would pass constitutional muster. We question whether the FCC's indecency test can survive First Amendment scrutiny."

Many will find the court's reasoning weird merely on constitutional grounds -- e.g., when caught in the act of using non-parlor language, the president and vice president certainly didn't count on their word choices circling the globe. Maybe, in the Perpetual Communication Age, that was a naive assumption. On the other hand, intentionality and non-intentionality are different things.

The point is larger still. It is that the coarsening affects of what we used to call bad language, but now, I guess, are coming to see as just plain speech -- such affects, I submit, drag down first the speaker, then the audience, then the language itself. Last, coarseness and belligerence (because coarseness is nearly always belligerent) in ordinary speech drag down the society with the custody of the language.

No neutral commodity is language. A word choice signifies, helping to frame an idea, however simple. Better, wouldn't you think, to give ideas at least a patina of class and common civility, defined as respect for others' rights. Instead, the users of obscenities and expletives lay down a constant barrage on our eardrums.

Do rappers know any normal words? is one question. A related question: What's "normal" these days? Can a movie or TV series -- say, "The Sopranos" -- qualify as relevant without language such as we never heard, on screen at least, from Bogart and Bacall? The obscenity, the expletive -- there's no other way to do it?

That's ridiculous, of course, what with English offering the richest vocabulary choices of any language on earth. A better explanation for the linguistic dirt of the past 40 years is the anger, contempt and disdain of those who shove it in the faces of others who never asked for it. Want to give odds the raw hostility that prevails in present-day American life has nothing whatever to do with the coarsening of language? When you get used to coarse, you start to expect it. When you expect it, you start to do it.

And the FCC -- should it be expected to save us from ourselves? About as much, I'd say, as any government agency may be expected to save people from themselves. A democratic government eventually ratifies our wishes. If a federal court thinks all this obscenity stuff is no big deal, one big reason is that the social waters in which, inevitably, even judges swim have grown so foul and polluted. They won't get cleaner until ordinary Americans -- for reasons that might be a hard sell these days -- start to clean them up. Meanwhile, let's hope the U.S. Supreme Court delivers a nice, civilly worded rebuke to the judges who precipitated this present legal foofaraw -- the dear misguided so-and-sos.