Seven Dirty Words

November 1, 2013

Last night, I discovered (with glee) that almost all of George Carlin‘s specials are on Netflix streaming. Without hesitation I decided to start watching and I began at the beginning, with his first HBO special, which aired in 1977. I was shocked when it began. The head of programming at HBO was addressing the camera, warning HBO (then called by its full original name, Home Box Office) viewers that what they were about to watch contained strong language that some might find offensive. She continued, saying that HBO is committed to freedom of expression and supporting artists like Carlin. Then the special began. Carlin was hilarious, as expected. About an hour into the 90-minute special, the frame froze, and for a moment I thought something was wrong. Then a title card appeared, laid over the frozen frame, once again warning viewers that the final segment contained explicit language (Carlin was about to get into a variation on his “seven dirty words” routine) and that viewer discretion was advised. 

I couldn’t believe it. It had never occurred to modern sensibilities that such a warning would need to be given – repeatedly – on HBO. And when Carlin started saying the seven words, it was jarring to recognize how frequently we hear many of those words on broadcast TV these days. In only about 35 years we’ve come quite a long way. 

I love language and I support people’s right to express themselves with, as Carlin would say, all words available to them. Yet I wonder if it’s progress that crassness and vulgarity has become an accepted norm, that we seem to have lost any sense of decorum and ability to distinguish between what is an is not appropriate.

Yet context certainly matters, as Carlin has argued. Remember The King’s Speech and the fact that it was given an R rating because of a series of expletives yet other movies, with gratuitous sex and violence get off with a PG-13? I rarely use Carlin’s seven dirty words but, just as their use in The King’s Speech proves, sometimes they are necessary, powerful and satisfying. 

Where do you stand on the issue? Should anyone be allowed to say any word they want on broadcast TV, or do broadcasters (and the FCC) have a responsibility to shelter viewers from content that could be deemed offensive?




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