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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Vulgarity Bites

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

One thing that can be said about the popular media -- ALL of the popular media: newspapers, magazines, music, TV -- is that they serve as a barometer of the changes we go through as a society. Changes in thought, philosophy, behavior and even language are seen first in the media, and the media's use of certain images, ideas and even phrases seems to OK their use in our society.

What brings this fairly philosophical thought to mind is an ad in TV GUIDE a few weeks ago. A full-page ad for "The George Carlin Show" showed George on a park bench, saying, "Chocolate sucks."

When formerly taboo words make it into polite society through the media, it's an event worth noting. The use of "bad" words by major media giants helps pave the way for their use by others. Even *I* remember the Kingston Trio's song "Greenback Dollar," where the chorus was "And I don't give a damn about a greenback dollar." On record, the singers clapped their hands instead of using the forbidden word.

Last week I heard a radio talk show host in Boston exclaim, "Goddamn it!" Andy Rooney on Sixty Minutes called the Oklahoma City bombers "Bastards." Things seem to change so quickly, don't they? Years ago, the Boston Globe kept typing out the full name of the Boston Redevelopment Authority because the editors thought it would be inappropriate to use the acronym BRA in a family newspaper. Yet in 1994, the Globe uses the colloquial expression for "bovine excrement" (but only if it's within a quotation).

Nowadays there is very little that's forbidden in the media. You can probably come up with as many examples as I can of stuff that used to be shocking (or at least inappropriate) turning up on TV, on the radio, or in print. Images, topics, and even words once considered taboo are now used nearly everywhere.

The good news is that there are still SOME things which are forbidden. My teenage rock-music sources are familiar with the practice of "bleeping out" certain words, so some radio stations presumably still prohibit a few expressions. And there are vulgar words which will not be printed by newspapers like this one.

There are about a dozen questions that revolve around this issue. Does the media's use of a vulgar or inappropriate word somehow make it respectable? Does the media shape our perceptions and reactions to things? Or does the media merely reflect changes that are constantly occurring in society?

The Supreme Court used to define obscenity based on something called "community standards." Although LOCAL media can be responsive to community standards, what standards should the all-pervasive NATIONAL mass media adopt? What is the difference between what is obscene, what is vulgar, and what is inappropriate? Can these terms even be defined and codified, or are they more a matter of taste?

There are probably a lot of people out there who are like me in that we don't want to think of ourselves as prudes, but who also get a vaguely uncomfortable feeling as we watch one taboo after another fall by the wayside. What seems to be worth noting is the sense that the taboos are being jettisoned not by ourselves or people we know, but by the media -- the apparently faceless, depersonalized media.

This is not about bad words necessarily or even about censorship. The issue seems to be (for me) that sometimes the media shape and even push our perceptions about what is acceptable and what is not.

Many of us would rather make those decisions ourselves.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.