Thirty years ago, a young comic named George Carlin released an album that listed the "seven words that you can't say on television." Last week, Congressman Doug Ose (R-Calif.) introduced a bill that would ban seven words from television. The Seven Dirty Word List might be the only thing in this country that hasn't been affected by inflation over the past 30 years.
Six of the words are the same on both lists, but Congressman Ose has removed one of Carlin's words and replaced it with another one. Does that mean that now it's okay with the Congressman to say @%*&, but it's no longer okay to say @#!+? (I've chosen to spell these words using these symbols rather than their actual letters because I don't think they're appropriate for this column. CBS didn't tell me I couldn't say them, and neither did the federal government. It's also fun to type words in silly symbols).
To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment about obscenity, I can't define bad legislation, but I know it when I see it. And this is bad legislation.
I don't like everything I hear on television either, but Congress shouldn't get involved in protecting us from hearing specific words. Years ago, you couldn't say "pregnant" on television. Language and tastes evolve. If Congress adopts this resolution, I guarantee you that a few years from now it will be amended. Some words will be more acceptable, and new words will be considered offensive. Do we really want to waste Congress' time and our money every few years by having them discuss which seven words should be banned from television?
And why seven? When Congressman Ose was sitting at his kitchen table making his list, what words didn't make the cut? What was Naughty Word Number 8 that he almost included, but finally said, "Oh, what the, h-e-double hockey sticks, I guess it's not that bad?" Do the "Sleazy Seven" only offend him, or did he poll his wife and kids, or go to his neighbors with a longer list and cuss at them until they slammed the door in his face?
If this thing is actually debated in Congress, it's going to be ridiculous. Everybody has a different opinion about what words are and aren't okay to say on TV. Some members of Congress will want to ban blankety-blank, and others will find blankety-blank-blank more offensive. Some will want a shorter list, and some will want a longer one. And to make their case, they will have to say these words in the hallowed hall of the United States Congress. And the proceedings will probably be televised. So, we'll be able to watch our elected officials swearing on television regarding how terrible it is to swear on television.
Imagine that debate. "While I agree with my honorable colleague from Georgia that !@& is a bad word, I would like to nominate ##%@!, which I have found offensive ever since I heard my big brother, Harold, use it when we went skinny-dipping with the Randolph twins."
Then, of course there is the Slippery Slope. (Don't worry, Congressman, that's not the brand name of a lubricant). If Congress has a right to outlaw seven words, what's to stop them from outlawing 27 words next year, and 127 the year after? Or maybe they'll feel like outlawing all words having to do with a certain subject matter.
In language, context is crucial. This is probably why the FCC has wisely refrained from banning specific words for the past decade or so. And Congress shouldn't start now, especially considering that there is an alternative. Since Congressman Ose should be able to predict pretty accurately which programs are likely to use language that might offend him, all he has to do is not watch those shows. Shouldn't the same people who are theoretically capable of "pushing the button" to authorize a war be capable of pushing the button to turn off a television set? Congressman, your proposal is a bad @#!&* idea.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.