Tuesday, March 01, 2005

About Saving Private Ryan and censorship

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The FCC announced today a decision about the inherent “indecency” or “obscenity” of the movie Saving Private Ryan, which was famously pulled from 66 affiliate stations for a special Veterans Day showing. The stations were afraid the FCC’s recent fine-heavy crackdown would head their way.

I said yesterday that i don’t like cusswords. Further, i generally don’t use them – the exception being when i play a character on stage or in film that cusses. And as a writer i have used them for characters that i think WOULD cuss. But i don’t like the things, generally thinking them unnecessary.

[My deeper viewpoint, expressed many thousands of times over the years to kids i worked with or coached, is that cusswords have a place in our culture. They are used as a sort of major punctuation, an uber-yelling of a sort to indicate extremeness in some situation. And for that reason, when folks use them we tend to become hyper-aware and focused on what is being said. They have a use – an important use.

Of course, like sex, drugs and alcohol, when kids first discover these things and build up the courage to try them, they tend to get a bit too comfortable and overuse them. Kids like to cuss. But they also have antenna alerting them to when and where they can get away with it. If they don’t develop that skill then what they think of as being attention-getting use actually is the opposite. While a kid who never seems to cuss and then lets one fly gets everyone’s attention, a kid who cusses constantly will quickly be ignored as just a kid with a foul-mouth. Constantly cussing adults are the same. We consider them vulgar (which really means common, not profane) and remove them from the range of our listening.]

Quite a long time ago i spent a lot of time thinking about stuff like this. I was always a rebel of sorts, and may be more so today. So i had my wild times. And that involved the adolescent ritual of cussing whenever there were no adults in sight. In my day, word was you could get arrested for it.

Probably most red-blooded Americans have drawn some line at some time about where censorship should begin versus where it actually is. And most everyone knows that it differs from place to place. Not only is the cuss-quotient in New York different than in Waco, it also differs in Ingram, Texas from the middle school courtyard to the math classroom to the youth group at First Baptist to the ragged bar on highway 39.

What has begun to bother me (again) are the whys and hows of censorship. In the decision, the FCC declared that Saving Private Ryan was okay because the context of the vulgar language was war and there it is okay (thereby negating the great sweeps week panic of Fox, and unjustifying the loss of advertising dollars from all those local stations – and remember that these stations pulled the shows NOT because they themselves considered the language too raw to broadcast, but becasue they wanted to avoid fines).

I actually believe the argument is correct -- to a point. The context of war is obscene itself, and we know that soldiers in the worst situations of their young lives can be quite linguistically graphic. And that, further, not many people would begrudge a kid using the f-bomb when he’s being blasted by Nazi machine-gunners. (As an important aside, the FCC ruled that, despite the many complaints about the violence in SPR that violence is not covered in its indecency standards and was thus a non-issue. That conundrum is probably where the greatest arguments, and i predict the ultimate demise of the standards, may lie.)

The problem (and the hypocrisy) comes here: The commission determined that the language WAS NOT indecent or profane. I’d like that to settle in for a second. Because of the context, it was NOT indecent or profane. Okay, context is this. If you say, “I bought an ass to guard my herd of goats,” i say context keeps the admittedly mild “ass” from being profane. But if some bloke is in your living room watching your TV and you say “I got some ass guarding my remote,” well the context has edged itself toward a more vulgar reading. If however, you tell your father to “Kiss your ass” and weren’t talking about your goatherd or your couch-potato friend then you’ve slid even farther. If you ask him to take the remote and shove it up there (see i’ve crossed one of my own lines here) then it is even more so, i think. And oddly enough, when used as a descriptor for the human anatomy in its realest sense that may be the worst offender yet, though perhaps the most benignly correct besides the one in the pasture.

On the other hand, i can’t think of a way in which you could use the big f-word that would not be profane. It can be a useful word, mind you. But it is always profane, in that i have a thousand friends in front of whom i would dare not utter the word IN ANY CONTEXT. (A couple of scripts i’ve written – Neanderville Balks at the Millennium and Junior High – both have scenes dealing with folks having difficulty relaying the word. In one, a teacher just can’t bring herself to say or write the word which she has heard a student utter and thus can’t get him disciplined because she can’t articulate the problem.)

My point, you’ve been waiting a long time for this, is that some things, in their linguistic context, are profane or indecent or obscene no matter where or when or by whom they are uttered. As far as i’m concerned, using the f-word in war is still profane. I might even argue that it’s a comment on the profanity of war itself. In any case it’s still a cussword, a particularly graphic and/or brutal one, and (generally) whenever it’s used it’s making that hyper-statement that makes it so useful.

Why then deny it’s overall use, except by soldiers in war. Part of the issue, is that kids were awake at a time the movie was being viewed. Fine. If it’s okay for kids to learn/understand that soldiers cuss in difficult circumstances (and by extension that it’s OKAY for they themselves to cuss in those situations), and perhaps even to learn that war is obscene, then why can’t that be extended to other situations?

Why can’t a kid learn that a detective coming into a vicious murder scene can be equally forgiven for emphatically expressing his disgust with the same word. Or that a young lady realizing she’s about to be shot or raped can utter that same exclamation with forthright justification.

The slippery slope, is that the argument?

Perhaps my biggest curiosity in this (really it’s a sort of anger, but i’m trying to calm down) is that what we really are doing is teaching kids to lie. To teach them that it’s okay to cuss as long as they don’t get caught. As long as the teacher doesn’t catch you, as long as your parents don’t hear it, then okay. Or if you’re a soldier, okay.

Or why else not have TV shows where junior high kids are spouting off every three seconds. And all you old fuddy-duddies hold on to your indignation, your “not when we were kids” hypocrisy. Yes we did.

I’m tired of our society being geared toward teaching kids to lie and cheat. I can trace an awful lot of the ugly things we do to this. And this is no anti-social screed. I’m talking about other folks’ complaints about what’s wrong with youth. I think our kids are just fine, if we’d just stop TEACHING them to do wrong under cover of "the way to get ahead," "competition," and "the American way".

Some time ask me about current educational “technique” teaching kids to cheat, or about tattoos on employees where i work (and this is not what it seems either).

I gotta stop before my head explodes.

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