As a big fan of the First Amendment, I'm as reluctant as anyone to urge curbs on speech. But as an even greater fan of civilization, I'm having a hard time mustering sympathy for shock jock Howard Stern, whose show has been suspended from several stations for obscenity infractions.
Or to find common cause with comedian George Carlin, the "go-to guy" these days when talk-show hosts need someone to express righteous indignation about potential speech infringements.
People like Stern and Carlin have built careers out of making obscenity "funny," that is, if you're emotionally trapped in a 7-year-old boy's psyche. No offense to boys, but anyone who has served a tour of duty as a Cub Scout leader knows that those endowed with the XY chromosome find great hilarity in body functions and are prone to uncontrollable giggles upon hearing vocabulary referent to human anatomy.
Carlin is most famous for a comedy routine some 30 years ago in which he regaled audiences with the seven dirty words we're not allowed to broadcast. His point then, as now, was that censorship of certain words is a function of "religious superstition."
"The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things - bad language and whatever - it's all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition," he explained recently when asked to comment on the Federal Communication Commission's and Congress' recent moves to tighten restrictions on broadcast speech.
This sudden interest in obscenity standards is partly in response to the infamous Super Bowl halftime show, which included behavior one usually associates with adult nightclub acts, as well as to Stern's abusive potty-mouth. The U.S. House recently passed legislation to increase fines from to $500,000 for offenders, while the FCC is investigating ways to staunch the flow of broadcast effluvia.
Monitoring reaction to these moves is something like listening outside a 7-year-old's door after he's been sent to his room for saying bad words. Lots of whining, complaining and kicking the door. Meanies!
Meanwhile, anyone opposed to "anything-goes" is supposed to feel ridiculous. If you're offended by hearing graphic descriptions of sexual acts while station surfing during carpool, you're a "hand-wringing right-winger." If you prefer not to be subjected to others' infatuation with their own libidos - or Janet Jackson's fondness for her own mammaries - then you're a uptight church lady with "issues."
Of course you could be a grown-up, but in a nation culturally locked in perpetual adolescence, that's a dubious and increasingly alien distinction.
Carlin's invoking of "religious superstition" as the reason people object to certain words is a clever way of making any objection seem like the silly protestations of unsophisticated, sexually repressed people.
"There's an idea," he says, "that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body."
Wrong. I can't speak for "religious superstitionists," but there's a difference between Carlin's assumption of "fear, guilt and shame" - perhaps he's projecting? - and an evolved preference for privacy, one's own and that of others. What we're really talking about is manners, civility and respect for others at a certain level of generally acceptable conduct.
But aren't manners just the old-fashioned trappings of fogies? Well yes, and no. They're old-fashioned by today's vulgar standards, but they were once revolutionary in an evolutionary sort of way. It took a few thousand years for humans to elevate themselves above the rest of the animal kingdom. Being thoughtful of others, in fact, may be the highest expression of human evolution.
In the coming weeks, we'll tie ourselves into knots as we try to define obscenity - which is fine. When we stop wrestling with definitions or caring about community standards, we'll really have something to worry about. In the meantime, we shouldn't be confused by the inevitable laments about the erosion of free speech.
In the free marketplace, you're welcome to say whatever you like, but if people don't want to buy whatever you're selling, no whines. As long as the airwaves remain in the public domain, the public has a right through its government to stifle the profane rants and juvenile outbursts of our lesser-evolved brethren. Ain't democracy grand?