Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Clueless, the sequel

Posted by metaphorical on 8 June 2007

KTK over at the blog Lean Left rightly takes me to task for not noting the more fundamental (fundamentalist?) issue at hand in the Julie Amero case, which I wrote about earlier today. Amero was on the verge of going to jail for 10 years for not stopping a school computer infected with spyware—a computer that the school didn’t protect with a firewall or anti-virus software—from spewing a few pornographic web pages during a 7th grade class.

The problem is stupid, backwards, and clueless authorities who are beside themselves at the thought that some kids saw a pop-up ad on a computer, and think that’s worth 10 years of someone’s life. (I’m glad they didn’t find the father of my friend from 5th grade, whose stack of Playboys we found in his garage one day. Christ, the guy would still be in jail.) Technology problems will always be with us. Confusing systems and obnoxious malware are a pain, and will likely be so for some time, but they are nothing but an annoyance. Letting panicky prudes throw people in jail because some kids saw the words “Triple XXX Action!” on a computer monitor – forget that it was by accident, that’s the least part of the issue – is a vastly greater danger. We don’t need computers that are better at protecting us from sex. We need people in charge who aren’t so completely unhinged about sex.

I’m going to take KTK and myself to task for not connecting this up with this week’s surprisingly favorable decision by the Federal 2nd Circuit Court in favor of the broadcast networks and against the FCC over the issue of “indecent” language.

The FCC has recently been holding broadcasters to an increasingly strict standard where every instance of words like “fuck” and “shit” leave them subject to fines that start at $325,000, not exactly chump change even for FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS, which was fined when, as Variety put it, “a bluesman use a colorful colloquialism” Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Blues.”

During the 2003 Golden Globes, Bono uttered the word “fucking,” Cher and Nicole Richie uttered an expletive during a Billboard Music Awards show, and then, of course, there was the mother of all indecencies, Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl.

The FCC commissioners purported to fine these diverse events under the aegis of their indecency standard. But that standard concerns material that “dwells on or repeats at length descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities” or “appears to pander or is used to titillate.” The Commission was therefore left arguing before the court that every instance of an expletive, even these “fleeting expletives,” as they are being called, are instances those things.

As the NY Times noted in its coverage,

the judges said vulgar words are just as often used out of frustration or excitement, and not to convey any broader obscene meaning.

That frustration or excitement was on full dress parade over at the commission. Variety quoted FCC Chairman Kevin Martin as issuing a statement that said,

“I find it hard to believe that the New York court would tell American families that ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are fine to say on broadcast television during the hours when children are most likely to be in the audience.”

Let’s leave aside the surly reference to a “New York court” (as Toby on the West Wing would point out, “he means liberal”) and note that in a terrific piece of irony, the Bush-appointed commissioners were hoist on their puritanical presidential petards. The court said, presumably with Cheney’s use of “fuck” on the floor of the U.S. Senate in mind,

“In recent times even the top leaders of our government have used variants of these expletives in a manner that no reasonable person would believe referenced sexual or excretory organs or activities.”

Now if we can only get Connecticut parents, schools, cops, prosecutors, and lower-court jurists to understand the ephemeral nature of what we might call “fleeting pornography,” we can start to breathe a lot easier and worry less about 10-year jail sentences for innocent mistakes.

7 Responses to “Clueless, the sequel”

  1. JoAnne said

    Well, two things.

    1. We don’t need to be protected from sex. However, I think there is a point in protecting us from the toxic depictions of sex that a lot of porn consists of. The Playboys you saw as a kid showed women that at least looked fairly real, and you probably learned what to do sexually by trying it, or talking to other guys or girls about it, not by seeing pictures or videos of sexual circus acts. The models then didn’t generally have the bodies of boys with basketball boobs, and they weren’t portrayed giving blowjobs to horses while being raped anally with a fireplug, and loving it.

    2. I think Toby said that “New York” is code for Jewish, not Liberal.

  2. JoAnne said

    Not that I think that those who were punished here needed to be punished. I just want to make that totally clear. The teacher, the school, the students, no one is guilty of sexually assaulting the kids that saw this stuff.

    I’m talking about a societal response in general, not a legal one.

  3. Toby certainly did say Jewish, which is what “New York” was code for in the episode. For Martin though, it meant what I said it did.

    Your point about Playboys is well-taken, though you have it exactly backwards. The airbrushed 20-something fashion-model-attractive centerfolds of my youth were not at all “real,” while today’s Internet pornography–where you can see any age group you want, or genital hair if you want, and not if you don’t, or close-ups of genitalia, or breasts in any size, shape, and color, and so on–shows people who are very real. Which is one reason the religious right is so concerned about it.

    And of course Internet porn is intended to titillate. However in the context in which it was shown in that classroom, no one brought it onto the screen to titillate. It was an accident, as if someone fell down and split their pants. It happens.

  4. digglahhh said

    Not to gang up on you, Joanne (insert porn joke here), but not all porn is so deviant. Then, of course, there’s the pro-sex feminism arguments, which, granted, I think are usually misapplied when they are used in relation to porn. But, regardless, it’s a much more complicated discussion than “getting raped anally with a fireplug and loving it.” Though here at metaphorical, we always appreciate descriptive imagery in our posters’ comments.

    The issue of being “real” is a rather interesting one. The trend in porn today is similar to that of television. There’s a lot of staged “encounters” that are portrayed as real, especially in the way the are filmed. The interplay between fantasy and (perceived) authenticity in porn leaves plenty to analyze.

  5. JoAnne said

    It’s true you can find any kind of body type.

    But the main type is still the skinny woman with artificially big boobs — that’s what you see in the popups, because that’s considered universally sexy. And pornography is unapologetically aimed towards *male* titillation. That’s not because women don’t like sex or looking at sexy things, it’s because pornography is just another thing under patriarchal control.

    Most porn is “deviant” in the sense that it has little or nothing to do with female pleasure. The acts portrayed typically don’t have the effects that the women in them emulate. Put an average guy in a porn scenario and he will probably get off. Put an average woman in a porn scenario and she will probably not get off.

  6. digglahhh said

    I guess there are numerous ways to interpret the word “deviant.” The way you used it wasn’t the sense in which I used it. In the sense that you refer to above, just about every romantic comedy is “deviant.” You are likening deviance to exploitation.

    In fact, one could make the argument that sex, as a male-defined experience, in which his gratification is paramount, and so forth, is the polar opposite of “deviant,” in the sense of differing from the (social, cultural) norm. Sex and porn are very difficult issues to discuss from a sociologically feminist perspective because any argument one can make regarding porn has a feminist-accepted counterargument.

    But most porn is marketed to men, therefore it is going to indulge the male-fantasy. That doesn’t really strike me as a problem, in and of itself. I mean, even cleaning products sell a fantastical image of the cleaning process and depict our dream houses, etc. That’s basically the skeleton for any marketing campaign.

    The problem is that sex is such a taboo subject and young people learn about it from these kinds of sources. When our young people learn their values from television, people blame the parents for not imparting the correct values themselves. Leaving aside how feasible these claims are in various settings, teaching our children about sex isn’t really even included under that value umbrella at all; it is too taboo. Young people have no standard to compare porn to, as they do to, say, compare their family to the one on a sitcom, or their home and their friends’ homes to that on the Lemon Pledge commercial.

    Selling fantasy is okay, its the non-existing depiction/education of the real-life counterpart that really fuels the problem.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that if we left our children to learn about anything from those who are trying to market a product, we’d be setting ourselves up for disaster. Sex just happens to be something we are uncomfortable talking to our children about, so that’s how a lot of kids are (mis)educated.

  7. And I keep wondering what the sentences would have been for the chess club guys who where going to show a film about chess in the school aula, the audience consisting of all the 7 to 10-years old in the school, but instead got a full-blown porn movie on.

    Death row?

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