Coffee and Filthy Words – by “Frances D”

I didn’t drink coffee until the end of high school. I had actually listened when my mom said, “Coffee will stunt your growth.”  Even though I was staying up late and waking up early, I wanted to be tall.  Put more articulately, I didn’t want to artificially constrain my growth.1 I feel similarly about language and culture, which develop through fluid, indirect, and subtle means.  Likewise, efforts to control verbal expression only artificially hamper the development of culture. Any legislative attempt to create a list of inappropriate words is like coffee to language—it stunts growth.

In FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to regulate the afternoon radio broadcast of George Carlin’s monologue “Filthy Words.” 2 Its indecent content was broadcast during a time of day when children might overhear. What exactly made this 1,751 word monologue so offensive? To illustrate, I’ve removed the filler – the acceptable words of polite language – this is left3, 4:

Fuck…bitch…bitch…bastard…hell…damn…shit…piss…fuck… cunt…cocksucker… motherfucker…tits…fuck…motherfucker…fuck…cocksucker…sucker…cock…cock…cock…cock…cock-fight…shit…fuck… shit… shit… shit…shit…shit…Shit…shit… shit…shit…shit…shit …shit…shit…shit…shit…shit-house…shit’s… shit… shit… shit… shit…shit-eating…shit-eating…Shit…shit …Shitty… shitty…shitty …shit-fit…Shit-fit…shit…shit… shit… shit…shit… shit… shit… shit… shit…shit…Shit… shit-load …shit-pot …Shit-head… shit-heel… shit … shit…shit-face…shit…shit-face…Shitface …shit…fuck …fuck…Fuck. …Fuck…FUCK FUCK…FUCK…fuck …fuck…fuck…fuck…fuck… fuck…fuck…Fuck …fuck…Madfuckers…fuck …Fuck… fuck  …fuck…fuck …fuck…fuck… shit …shit…shit. …shit…shit…shit …shit …shit …shit …shit…shit …ass…shit… …fart…turd…twat…Fart…tits… Turd…twat… Twat!… twat…Twat…snatch, …box…pussy…snatch…pussy…box…twat…ass …ass

This monologue was created to be offensive in 1975. Yet in its offensiveness, it betrays its temporal nature. True, some words are still considered incredibly rude, but many no longer pack the same punch as they did in the 1970’s. Words fall along an acceptability spectrum. Over time, American culture relocates words within the spectrum. While words such as “colored” have become unacceptable with time, many swear words have transitioned towards acceptable. This transition along the acceptability spectrum occurs in one of two ways. First, a general exposure to a word can accustom a society; this method led to butt, ass, hell, and damn to be generally accepted.  The second method is the reclamation of the offensive word by the offended group.  The gay community has successfully reclaimed the word “queer” from its historical roots as a derogatory term for gay males. “Queer” is so widely accepted now that few people bat an eye at the show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

The fluidity of language will be fettered by legislative attempts to define what is acceptable and unacceptable for broadcasting.  Supreme Court and lower court rulings in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation and FCC v. Fox Television Stations have created a foundation upon which government can control offensive language in broadcasting.  The only stipulation is that these regulations must not be as vague as the regulation contested in FCC v. Fox Television Stations.  This possibility for future legislation could quickly lead to television and radio broadcasting that are permanently stuck in the time period that the legislation’s last amendment; it would be as if current television could only air Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy–esque dialogues. Therefore, the Supreme Court missed a great opportunity in FCC v. Fox Television Stations—namely, the opportunity to create the foundation for cultural fluidity by overturning FCC v. Pacifica Foundation and declaring the regulations unconstitutional, instead of leaving the constitutionality to be determined by a lower court.

1) I’m aware now that coffee does not actually stunt growth. Looking back, I realize my mom probably just didn’t want to deal with a twelve year old hyped up on caffeine.

2) “Filthy Words by George Carlin.” UMKC School of Law. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. <http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/filthywords.html>.

3) No modification was done to the transcript besides replacing the polite words with ellipsis. All emphasis is original.

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