Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Seven Dirty Words" Revisited

Numerous celebrities, journalists, media figures, and lovers of comedy have mourned the death of one of our great comedians, George Carlin. In news media broadcasts reporting his death and paying tribute to the man, he is often identified as best known for his “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit which was first introduced on a comedy album he released in 1972. Ironically, thirty-six years later, these news broadcasters still can’t repeat those words on television.

Carlin first faced trouble for performing "Seven Dirty Words" in 1972 at a Milwaukee concert, where he was promptly arrested on obscenity charges (he later jokingly called the bit “The Milwaukee Seven”). But the worst of his troubles came when the bit was broadcast on a New York City radio station the following year. Once a man complained about his son hearing the broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission gave a citation to the radio station. The station appealed, leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in the FCC’s favor, thus giving the FCC (who are also, of course, responsible for there being “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” in the first place) unprecedented authority over the type of material that can be broadcast.

Carlin is often cited along with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce as part of the triumvirate that every aspiring American standup venerates, and the immediately obvious similarities between these three comedians are not coincidental. These three never solely intended to make people laugh, but to use language in a way to break down social boundaries and comment upon normative, but absurd, social behavior. Often we laugh not just because it’s funny, but because it’s true. And Carlin was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most cunning of linguists and the most gifted of orators. Carlin knew language like no other, and he observed the arbitrary boundaries language barred between certain people. He often achieved miraculous revelations about American culture and society merely by placing words, “dirty” or not, into unexpected contexts. Carlin’s thorough understanding of the English language was, simply put, Shakespearean. And he was an impeccable performer to boot, never once stuttering or slipping over his words, and never faltering from perfect delivery and comic timing.

Often in America we confuse bad words for bad speech, or objectionable content for artistic inferiority. (Not me, but trust me, many people do.) So to complain about the “Seven Dirty Words” bit is not to object to its content, but merely to object to what it immediately contains. For if the man in New York heard the bit for its content, rather than what was on the surface, he would understand the exercise Carlin was attempting to execute, which was to illustrate that these “dirty” words merely hold weight solely because we as a society allow them to.

Words are inherently meaningless. For example, if I use a made-up word to describe my dog continually over time, eventually it will mean “dog” to me the same way any other word describing a dog means to somebody else. Words, then, have no inherent relationship to what they describe, and have also been seen to drastically change meaning over time. Thus, when certain words offend us, it is only because we allow ourselves to be offended. Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” points out, appropriately through humor, how hilariously absurd it is that we allow ourselves to give such words such weight.

Carlin, when talking about the Supreme Court case in later years, stressed the importance of the on/off and channel-changing dial on radios and televisions. If you object to something being broadcast, Carlin argued, show your objection by moving on to something else. No individual should have the power to have something banned simply because they found one potentially offensive broadcast amongst a multitude of options. The notion that the content of all media should appeal to the values of all people is both absurd and impossible. But if the Janet Jackson 2004 SuperBowl scandal is any indication, we Americans would sooner take the effort to pick up our phones and make a complaint rather than simply changing the channel—and this power of the individual gives power to the FCC.

Carlin can never be described as a vulgar comedian, or one that deliberately sought to shock his audiences. He can, however, be described as “profane,” because of the incorporation of profanity into his act. But he never used dirty words for gross-out comedy—his work and his linguistic aims would only be cheapened by giving into the weight of such language by using it to shock an audience. But that “Seven Dirty Words” was created at a time when words could be seen as a challenge to authority, or as a criticism of mainstream American culture, or as a threat to the status quo (as proven by the Supreme Court case) gives it great temporal significance.

I have witnessed adults who are often shocked by the frank depiction of violence, sex, and language in films of the early 1970s. Giving into the conventional “wisdom” that codes of ethics only worsen as time goes on, many are mistaken in thinking these films are tamer than those of today. But these films were made in an era where free speech was safely guarded and utilized to its fullest extent. But rather than depictions of violence, sex, and even profanity in 1970s cinema, I’m surprised most by the very frankness of speech utilized, which give many of these characters remarkable complexity that has hardly an equivalent today. For example, I can not think of a recent movie in which there has been an overtly racist protagonist who was not 100% demonized, yet Best Picture-winner The French Connection (1971) contained just that—not because the spectator is asked to endorse the (shockingly casual) racism of the cops, but in order to realistically depict the racial conflicts of the time that often involved such prejudiced authority figures (furthermore, even FCC-regulated television had Archie Bunker). So the powerful personality of a Carlin and a Pryor (both indebted to Bruce) were necessary to, if nothing else, start a conversation where one was otherwise not taking place.

Ironically enough, “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” was broadcast on television…on HBO in 1978 (and even then was accompanied by a disclaimer). But by the late seventies, the culture war had mostly died down, and a new age of religion-fueled conservatism was about to sweep America, one that still wields enormous power in 2008. And while Carlin may have spent the last several decades of his career mostly without threat of censorship or controversy, the lesson of “Seven Dirty Words” is still valuable. We live in an age where words still hold enormous power. And while the seven “dirty” ones may not have the muscle they did in 1972, there are, without a doubt, facets of language that continue to cause barriers in our social interaction. And, as I said before, words evolve. Like in 1972, words like “criticize” or “disagree” have evolved into “disloyal,” and “patriotism” has evolved into “unquestioning support” or “symbolic decoration.” And political correctness, with all its necessary and well-meaning sensitivity, has created a nation averse to having a frank discussion about any real prejudices going on around us.

With the recent death of George Carlin, we must remember that the most frightening and destructive form of censorship is not the FCC, the MPAA, or the government—it is self-censorship.

Rest in Peace. 1937-2008