Language Paranoia, or the Demise of Discernment

Dire Straits and Huckleberry Finn are only the latest victims of misguided moralizers.

January 14 th 2011

In happier times, it would have been natural to guffaw at those broadcast industry moralizers who censured a Newfoundland radio station for allowing the word "faggot" to be aired.

There is little room, alas, for laughter in matters of language these days. Words are now considered almost exclusively to be weapons of mass eruption. Speech is now prima facie a form of provocation to offense, to discrimination, to spreading hatred, to—pick your poison.

So, for example, we awoke two weeks ago to learn that a hypersensitive U.S. book publisher would be washing out Huckleberry Finn with soap for mouthing "nigger" once too often. Once, it turns out, was once too often for current taste. Huck's 125-year-old use of the vernacular n-word will be replaced by "slave" in future, sanitized editions of Mark Twain's 1885 classic of American literature.

No sooner had the literary hubbub over that tomfoolery begun to subside than we were plunged into the gruesome, real-world debacle of debating whether toxic political rhetoric led to last weekend's massacre of innocents in Tucson, Arizona.

Loaded words and loaded guns are (serious people suddenly suggested) causally connected. Or at least they have enough of an appearance of correlation, if not causality, that we all should dummy up, lest another mentally-ill 22-year-old with an automatic weapon is waiting to hear just the right word.

Against such travesty and tragedy, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council's loony-tunes treatment of radio station CHOZ FM in St. John's, Newfoundland may seem almost too trivial to remark upon. Yet precisely because it is too inane to be incendiary, and because such issues are no longer laughing matters, the Council's decision is worth taking seriously.

For starters, it typifies the single-source outrage syndrome that feeds so much of our anxiety about language. The Standards Council investigated a single complaint in February 2010 from an anonymous woman who identified herself only as a "member of the LBGT community."

The LBGT community listener in question was deeply offended because CHOZ had aired Dire Straits' 1985 hit "Money For Nothing," which contains three iterations of the f-word. (Not that f-word. The other f-word: the one that's a synonym for a bundle of sticks.)

The station took the complainant seriously enough to advise her in writing that "Money For Nothing" has aired several million times around the globe since it was a Billboard #1 single, a winner of nine MTV awards, a winner of an American Music Award for Record of the Year, and a Grammy award winner for Record of the Year lo these 25 years ago.

The logic failed to satisfy the LBGT community stalwart. She persisted in her upset. Ergo, the Broadcast Standards Council weighed in, probed and pondered and, in October, ruled that the CHOZ had indeed violated the Canadian Association of Broadcasters's (CAB) code of ethics by letting "faggot" go to air as part of a popular song. (It's not known why the October decision was publicized only this week.)

Now, the Broadcast Standards Council is a bit of an odd duck as industry associations go. Membership is voluntary, and its nominal sanctioning power is limited to compelling offenders to humiliate themselves by announcing on air a specified number of times that they are sinners who've transgressed, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Those who know, however, tell me its ability to punish goes far further. Canada's federal broadcast regulator, the CRTC, views very dimly those deemed non-compliant with the broadcast code of ethics, and therefore offside with the Broadcast Standards Council. License renewals (read: economic survival) can be at stake if the non-compliance is considered serious enough.

It's an extremely powerful stick to hold over individual station managers, one that was, no doubt, crafted with the expectation of only judicious use. What the decision in the CHOZ case makes evident is just how far we are in the current panic-stricken linguistic environment from a basic level of discernment—let alone fully-realized judiciousness.

Bluntly put, the panel that adjudicated the complaint, while they canvassed in their ruling such lofty topics of the evolution of language and the etymology of the dreaded f-word, missed the entire point of the song. They could not discern the intention of that which they were called to decide upon. They spent time, if not money, for nothing.

As all are aware who remember the song in the original—or are familiar with it from classic rock radio—it was a lampoon of the very people who felt the need to call other people faggots. Consistent with the intelligent writing that was Dire Straits' musical signature, it was a bi-level spoof of both the trivializing effect of what was then the novelty of MTV and the hardened working-class attitude that creative work is not real work at all.

The narrator of the song spends his days installing microwave ovens and moving refrigerators, so naturally scorns the MTV-glorified guitar players who get their money for nothing, their chicks for free, and suffer only a "blister on your little finger/maybe get a blister on your thumb."

In the stanza that the single-source LBGT complainant found so outrageously discriminatory, however, the song's narrator actually moves from scorn to envy to grudging admiration of the target of his words:

The little faggot with the earring and the make-up,
Yeah, buddy, that's his own hair.
That little faggot got his own jet airplane.
That little faggot, he's a millionaire.

Elsewhere, the narrator acknowledges "them guys ain't dumb" and admits he "shoulda learned to play the guitar/I shoulda learned to play them drums . . ." Despite his laddish pride in being capable of brute, grunt work, and his class-based derision of musicians and other artists, he has enough self-awareness to confess that the "little faggot" is not merely richer, but smarter than the narrator and his mates will ever be.

The "little faggot" with the big hair, earring, and make-up knows how to play the guitar but, much more importantly, he knows how to play the culture for everything it's worth. The song's lampoon lies in the ironic function of the word "faggot" not as a sword threatening the MTV artist, but as a shield for the working class narrator's ego.

In happier times, before our current language paranoia took root, such routine discernment of the sense of a pop song such as "Money for Nothing" would have been the minimum expected of the occupants of any black '86 Camaro cruising Main Street on a Friday night. Yet a panel of industry insiders responsible for safeguarding the ethics of Canada's broadcasting system is incapable of understanding what joy-riding teenagers would have intuited 25 years ago. The same incapacity is obvious in the impulse to ignore the historic context of Huckleberry Finn's use of "nigger," or in the willingness to confuse and conflate harsh democratic political rhetoric with the urge to gun down a group of human beings.

It's what happens when fear drives out the laughter from language. We lose the discipline of discernment that lets us distinguish the weaponry of words from the music of full meaning.

 

Peter Stockland is Senior Writer with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium.

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