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2008-06-25
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Offensive Language Versus the Community Standard and an Illusion of Decency

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Part of the test for obscenity defined by the Miller vs. California case requires that a work or behavior fall outside the accepted norms of a community standard. In the past, lawyers would have to build their own statistical model defining a community standard. A new Florida case is relying upon Google Trends to define the community standard by comparing popular local activities against various terminologies to establish their client’s production of orgy films. Using Google Trends, the lawyers have established the community searches for orgy more often than they search for wholesome things like apple pie. They further include statistics showing the community’s favor for boobs over surfing despite being a beach community.

On another note, the passing of comedy genius George Carlin resurfaced perhaps his most famous routine regarding the Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television (YouTube). Although he was arrested that evening for offending members of the audiences, the routine’s transcript went all the way to the Supreme Court as evidence in the FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation case regarding decency on public television. Yet in the thirty years since those words were famously grouped together, it’s no longer uncommon for prime time shows to include shit, piss or tits and the remaining four (slightly more extreme) can be heard by listening in the hallways of any school or metropolitan street corner. While words are defined as offensive, they are part of common parlance and therefore part of the community standard.

With that bit of contemporary background established, it is quite clear that ignoring smaller homogeneous pockets, society as a whole has no issue with swearing and has been doing so since the beginning. Curses can be heard everywhere from television, PG movies, common outbursts and casual conversation. Is it the word itself or the intent that is offensive?

Let us consider Harry, a construction worker installing roofing on a new home. He fumbles and drops his hammer over the side where it falls through the windshield of the foreman’s brand new F-150 whereupon:

  1. the highly conservative Harry grimaces and exclaims, "Oh FUDGE!"
  2. Harry defaults to the lingua franca of the job site and exclaims, "Oh FUCK!"

If it’s simply the word that is offensive, then obviously only the second scenario would cause a mother to cover her child’s ears as they pass by on the sidewalk. And if it’s simply the word that is offensive, one really must ask – why? What is so offensive about the verb to fuck that is not offensive in to copulate? Perhaps another classic example would have been the famous tire-changing scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie looks back upon having had to eat soap [again], "Only I didn’t say "Fudge." I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the "F-dash-dash-dash" word!" The simple substitution of the word fudge would have saved Ralphie from a mouthful of soap, despite the utterance of the phrase carrying the same connotation.

Let us now consider the act of cursing where Jamal, Joseph and Piérre have decided to insult your mother.

  1. Jamal says, "Yo mommas a bitch!"
  2. Joseph declares, "Your mom’s a jerk!"
  3. Piérre eloquently states, "Ta mere c’est une grosse putain!"

Again, is the offensive quality of the statement the words themselves or the meaning behind it? It’s obvious Jamal has spoken using both insulting intent and colloquially accepted terms of offense. While Joseph has the same intent, he cannot bring himself to say the word bitch but does that make the meaning any less offensive? Just as the Matrix’s Mirovingian described swearing in French as "wiping your ass with silk", Piérre’s commentary is effectively more insulting than Jamal’s. But the word putain is not amongst the common parlance of an American so it, in and of itself, does not immediately inspire offense. For that matter, hearing the equivalent of any swear in a foreign language would not offend the layperson simply due to their own linguistic ignorance. Does that mean phrases like arschloch [german], baise-toi [french] or kus umak [arabic] are non-offensive acoustical noises if you do not know what they mean? If a person becomes suddenly offended to find out the meaning of arschloch after hearing the term applied to them, why are they not equally offended at being called a jerk in the same context?

I am of the opinion that any particular word is innocuous and generally meaningless without the context of both its surrounding words and the context with which it was used. When conservative Harry exclaimed, "Oh FUDGE!" it was done in the same context of accident, self anger and brooding worry. It would seem certain words have an offensive connotation simply because society has trained itself to forbid them throughout so many generations. If a curse or swear is considered offensive by intent, there should be no wiggle room for a social conservative to simply exchange word X for word Y and continue to proclaim themselves righteous.

My rant is not to be read as an abdication to run amok using all the words and phrases on a whim leading to some sort of cataclysmic event where the secular advocates are ruining society. Rather, it is to look at the reality of the community standard that lies covered up by the white sheet we publicly describe as defining our community standard. It is to consider George Carlin’s original statement from three decades ago – they are just words that were assigned an arbitrary stigma of "badness" while arbitrary substitutions are somehow "okay."


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