The Slippery Slope of Indecency
Haters of sin rejoiced this week when the FCC, under pressure from righteous politicians and their outraged constituents, announced that broadcasters would be subject to fines of as much as $500,000 and a reevaluation of their licenses should they transmit “indecent” programming to the innocent ears and eyes of the American citizenry.
Believe it or not, there’s actually a guy who’s paid by the FCC to evaluate all the naughty things said on radio and television, decide how badly these utterances violate someone’s sense of decency, and mete out monetary disincentives. Thus far, “fuck” employed as an adjective or adverb costs nothing; used as a verb or noun, you’re looking at a five-figure punishment. No word yet on the price of on-air blurting of “shit on the Constitution.”
Our society’s vulnerability to bad words, bad pranks, bad sexual positions, and bad glimpses of uncovered skin, was first brought to our attention when, a couple of years ago, the tireless Attorney General, John Ashcroft, ordered that the pristine hallways of the oxymoronically named Justice Department be cleansed of foul sights like classical statues depicting a woman’s breast. Since that moment, the defenseless populace has had any number of self-appointed defenders, whose implicit mission has been to protect our dainty sensibilities from the omnipresent badness found in pornography, scatological humor, and the specter of unclothed pop singers. (Thus far, we remain completely vulnerable to daily doses of death, destruction, and suffering proudly broadcast over our airwaves by otherwise morally upstanding media conglomerates, who package their violence as “drama.”) The protectors of our sanctity seemed to have been doing a fine job until this year’s Super Bowl.
On that notorious Sunday, hundreds of millions of people, many of them easily wounded Americans, were exposed for one second to the vile image of Janet Jackson’s right breast. (And her singing.) Since that infamous moment, the smut-fighters have reconnoitered, and now they battle foulness with renewed vigor. Last week, Congress, that paragon of ethical and moral clarity, seethed with indignation, outraged that our country was open to such horrific attacks, not to mention the more usual terrorist methods. They voted to levy huge fines on the purveyors of radio and television filth, and the smut peddlers at Clear Channel promptly dropped Howard Stern from six of their stations.
The National Association of Broadcasters, envisioning money escaping from their tills like water from a leaky faucet, declined to defend the free speech rights that we Americans allegedly hold so dear. Instead, they issued a pandering statement that said, “We hear the call of legislators and are committed to taking voluntary action to address this issue.”
I’ll translate that for you: “We’ll broadcast what the government says we can, and when we’re not sure if we’re slipping into that dark realm called indecency, we’ll play it safe.”
The more we become like China or Saudi Arabia or North Korea or Zimbabwe, the less we can take the moral high ground when proclaiming ourselves leaders of the free world. Once we step upon the slippery slope of “decency,” we have nowhere to go but straight to the bottom.
I don’t listen to (or care for) Howard Stern. I don’t listen to (or care for) Rush Limbaugh. Or sports talk radio, or self-help call-in shows, or religious charlatans collecting money from the ignorant and deluded. But I celebrate a country where all this crap can be heard — if people choose to tune into it. (The Indecency Fighters apparently imagine a populace so hypnotized by their radios that changing the station is no longer possible.) What I find indecent is probably very different than what many of my fellow citizens find indecent. For instance, I find the EPA writing mercury emission standards at the direction of energy companies far more indecent than hearing on-air stripper spankings, but, hey, that’s just me. The beautiful thing about America is that we are furnished with so many choices, and we’re allowed to make bad ones almost constantly.
What’s really obscene is not the puerile antics of most “shock jocks.” What’s obscene about the current state of our culture is that the Enemies of Sin, keen to grandstand upon an issue that the voters seem to think threatens our Puritan way of life, have so little regard for the principles upon which this great country was conceived. Newsflash: Everything is lewd and “indecent” to someone. As recently as 60 years ago, sanctimonious protectors of our moral fiber were warning anyone who would listen that the music of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington was fit only for savages, and that allowing normal, God-fearing people to be exposed to such dangerous sounds would result in a debased and primitive society with little differentiation from the animals that Negroes resembled. (Hmm. Maybe that’s a bad example. Based on our nation’s most successful movies, records, and TV shows, the doomsayers might have been right.)
I’m not frightened of my nephew and nieces hearing someone say something “indecent” on the radio. I’m frightened of them growing up in a country where powerful institutions determine what can (and cannot) be said in public. We’re on a dangerous path, and I hope we turn off it soon.