FTRW 2007 – Day 6 – "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

As a bit of a follow-up to yesterday's FTRW post about an attempt to ban “Fahrenheit 451” in Texas last fall, here's an earlier essay by Ray Bradbury, on various attempts to censor his work over the years. 

In other news, my appearance on the “Book Chick” radio show a couple nights ago talking about FTRW was great fun and not just because I managed to say “scrotum” a couple times as well as “nut sack” at least once!   Podcast hopefully to follow in the next few weeks.

Some of our discussion during the show inspired me enough to go back and add a couple more points to my list of “What Freedom to Read Week is not”, especially since she's probably going to have a chat with the manager since I said “nut sack” on the air and, whether you agree or not, there are restrictions on your freedom of expression including what can be said during the daytime hours on a Canadian radio station (neither of us were sure if “nut sack” crossed the line or not.) 

The “Book Chick” radio show is a legacy of an SPG program called “Sask Books Go Public” that the Book Chick started and I took over for a few months in 2005 when she was on maternity leave.  There was some controversy when she started it because the station obviously has their regulations and yet, by booking authors (poets being the worst offenders! ), there's a good chance you'd have the occasional “bad word” slip out during a reading or whatever, especially since the show airs at noon on Wednesdays when many are listening during their lunch break.  In the end, a language disclaimer that played at the start and mid-point of the show seemed like a reasonable compromise on both sides. 

Speaking of, anybody have any thoughts on “bad” words?  What are they?  And more importantly, why are they?

On the radio show,  I talked about the movie “The Aristrocrats” and how the whole point of that documentary is to show various comedians telling the same insider joke with the same set-up and the same punchline with the jazz-like beauty being the improvisations they do in between to make it as foul and offensive as possible, yet while also capturing their own individual styles.  In fact, in some ways, the show reaches a point where the words the people say doesn't even matter as much as how they say it. 

I agree with this commentator (halfway down for their review) that the best versions of the joke are from the comedians who twist the standard set-up/improv/punchline in some unique fashion.  Sarah Silverman's performance, where she blurs reality and fiction by describing herself as part of “The Aristrocrats” act as a child, was called “Oscar-worthy” by some.) 

(Some people have a NSFW – not safe for work – note on links like that last one.  I think I need to invent “NSFMIL” – NotSafeForMotherInLaw.  Joan, if you're reading this, please don't click that link!)

Anyhow, another great twist was one comedian who told the middle part of the joke in a very G-rated, straight-laced fashion then inverted the standard punchline (which is always something like: “Wow, that's quite an act.  What do you call yourselves again?”  The Aristrocrats!)  except this comedian tells it, “Wow, that's quite an act.  What do you call yourselves again?”  The Nigger Cunts!  By using what are often considered the two most offensive words in the English language,  the comedian distills the joke to its essence, subverts it, and shows the incredible power words have over us.  (It is notable that the commentator I linked to earlier admits to enjoying some of the jokes, being offended by much of the movie but was especially outraged by this particular telling.) 

So if I have a point, what is it?  One of the things that you have to keep in mind with Freedom of Expression issues is that if you believe in Freedom of Expression, it is an all or nothing proposition.  You can't draw the line by saying “well, I support Freedom of Expression except when it involves sex scenes (or Neo-Nazi propaganda or blasphemy or violence or whatever.) 

This quote, from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, is appropriate:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And although that last quote would make a beautiful finale for this post, because of the subject at hand I thought it might be more appropriate to link to the Bob Saget (yes, wholesome father Danny Tanner on “Full House” and the one-time host of the innocuous crotch-shot follies that was and are “America's Funniest Home Videos”) version of the joke, widely regarded as the most obscene of any of them in the documentary. (Again, NSFMIL.)

Comments 4

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    When I tried to access the Sarah Silverman clip, YouTube made me login and agree I was 18 years or older. I love these kinds of 'restrictions', because clicking on a button, while surfing the internet, definitely makes people confess their trespasses. šŸ˜›
    I tried to watch the Bob Saget one but had to turn it off halfway through, However, Bob should be able to say whatever he wants, it is up to parents to monitor what their children access online (note to parents: watch for videos featuring danny tanner) šŸ˜‰
    As for “bad” words…there are certain words I won't say, but that doesn't mean I deny their existence, we need to have a dialogue about these words and what makes them “bad”. If we understand where people are coming from on an issue, there is greater opportunity for acceptance and knowledge. Reading a “bad” word can't affect you negatively unless you allow it to do so.

    Posted 03 Mar 2007 at 5:25 am
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Is it “18 or over” on the button or just “warning: this clip may be offensive to some people?” (I obviously never read the disclaimer – just clickety-boo)
    Well, that's another point about FTR – if you try something and find you don't like it/it offends you for whatever reason, turn it off/shut it down/close the book. I started “Mein Kampf” is grade seven or eight but never finished it (not because it was offensive, because I thought it was stupid.)

    Posted 03 Mar 2007 at 6:41 am
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    The radio show doesn't actually have a 'language disclaimer' that plays before and during it. There is a generic 'spoken word' disclaimer that all spoken word programmes get stuck with (“the owners and operators of this station do not *necessarily* agree with the points of view expressed in this program”, a la PBS in the 80s). The management of the radio station have approached the Book Chick a handful of times to ask if there *needs* to be a 'language warning' put on at the beginning of the show, but to date, that hasn't been an issue.
    Visiting guests and co-hosts of the show are reminded that the show airs during prime-time hours, and that the CRTC has regulations against obscenity, and that the station is regulated by the CRTC, and while the hosts don't in any way agree with or condone censorship, when choosing a reading or a discussion, to choose passages or language responsibly. There has never been a problem, so far as this host knows, with any of the language the radio show has broadcast.
    Now. That being said, there have been the odd 'four letter words' that have got through, but not anything super offensive, and neither the station nor the CRTC has said anything other than “remember that you're on at prime time”…
    *I* don't think either 'scrotum' or 'nutsack' crosses the line; they're just funny words. But then again, there are no words that I find offensive, so maybe my scale is out of whack.
    Thanks again for co-hosting, Jason. It was one of my favourite shows of late. I will try to podcast it when it's available.

    Posted 03 Mar 2007 at 6:36 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Thanks for clarifying – you'd think I'd know what it said after hosting for what, six months? But I guess, even as I heard it, my brain always translated it into “you might hear swearing on this show” more than “you might not agree with the opinions on this show” since we were more likely to have swearing than anybody saying anything too controversial.
    Glad to hear the show was fun for you too. I look forward to hearing it again when you get a copy. (I'd also love to get copies of some of the old shows I did sometime if you still have them. There were a few that would be nice to hear again.)

    Posted 04 Mar 2007 at 8:10 am

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