The F-word goes to the Supreme Court

At least one thing besides the election is scheduled to happen tomorrow: The Supreme Court will hear FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, as yesterday's New York TimesWeek in Review section pointed out. The crux of the case is whether ... I can write the word here, "fuck" falls afoul of indecency regulations because it necessarily refers to "sexual or excretory activities or organs."

I'd agree that "fuck" is indecent - but that's not why. The usages that the Supreme Court will be learnedly considering include Bono's remark in 2003 that winning a Golden Globe award was "really really fucking brilliant" and Nicole Richie's assertion that getting "cow shit out of a Prada purse" is "not so fucking simple." What's sexual about either of those? "Nudge nudge wink wink" is a lot more prurient than either of them. So are certain kinds of eyebrow-raising. So are many, many ways of expressing oneself.

In the instances in question and many others (say, 99 percent of the 10 zillion times "fuck" turned up in the conversation of Tony Soprano and his guys), the word is just an "intensifier," meant to establish the speaker as aggressive and contemptuous of ordinary social norms. Part of its purpose is to offend to decent folk, should they happen to be reading or listening.

So of course we shouldn't welcome such a word into everyday conversation. (If we did, it would lose its impact, and aggressive, contemptuous people would need to find a new word.)

Peter Chernin, the president of News Corporation, which owns Fox, has complained that forbidding people from swearing on network TV puts the networks at "an inexplicable competitive disadvantage." I don't see that. As things stand, viewers know the networks won't assault them with language that's offensive on purpose. This could just as easily be a competitive advantage, if the networks treat it as one.

To sum up: I'm not eager to hear "fuck" on network TV. What's usually objectionable with the word, though, isn't that it's sexual but that it's crude.

UPDATE: Forgot to note previously that The Atlantic published Steven Pinker's take on this subject in the November issue. 

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