Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Words?

At around 2PM on Tuesday, October 30, 1973, a New York radio station played a monologue by the comedian George Carlin, enumerating and exemplifying in rich detail the seven words ostensibly not allowed on the public airwaves. Soon after, the F.C.C. placed sanctions on the radio station for the broadcast, which it deemed to be "indecent" and "patently offensive." Five years later, the United States Supreme Court upheld its decision. In other words, the highest court in the land judged certain words to be so dangerous that even the constitutional right to free speech had to be set aside. But why?

The children, of course. It was to protect the children. According to the Supreme Court, the problem with Carlin's routine was that the obscene words, words describing sexual acts and excretory functions "may have a deeper and more lasting negative effect on a child than on an adult."

Many of us are afraid of exposing children to taboo language, based on this same notion—that somehow certain words can damage young minds. And the well-being of children—were it indeed on the line—would most certainly be a justifiable reason to limit freedom of speech. But the problem is that the Supreme Court's premise, that children can be harmed by selected taboo words, does not survive the test of careful empirical scrutiny. In fact, there are no words so terrible, so gruesomely obscene, that merely hearing them or speaking them poses any danger to young ears.

Taboo words carry no intrinsic threat of harm. Simply referring to body part or actions involving them harm a child. Indeed, the things taboo words refer to can be equally well identified using words deemed appropriate for medical settings or use around children. And there's nothing about the sound of the words themselves that causes insult to the child's auditory system. Near phonological neighbors to taboo words, words like "fit" and "shuck" do not contaminate the cochlea.

Indeed, which particular words are selected as forbidden is an arbitrary accident of history. Words that once would have earned the utterer a mouthful of soap, expressions like "Zounds!" or "That sucks!" hardly lead the modern maven to bat an ear. And conversely, words that today rank among the most obscene at one time were used commonly to refer to the most mundane things, like roosters and female dogs.

No, the only risk children run by hearing the four-letter words prohibited over the public airwaves is the small chance of broadening their vocabularies. And even this possibility is remote, as anyone can attest who has recently overheard the goings-on in an elementary school playground.

So when the Motion Picture Association of America forbids children from watching the South Park movie; when parents instruct children to put their hands over their ears in "earmuff" position; and indeed when the FCC levies fines on broadcasters, they aren't protecting children. But they are having an effect. Paradoxically, it's these actions we take to shield children from words, with censorship foremost among them, that gives specific words their power. And this makes perhaps the best argument that we shouldn't be afraid of exposing children to taboo words. Doing so is the best way to take away any perceived threat they pose.