July 22, 2006

War is profane

This article in today's NYT discusses a particular issue concerning the future broadcast (on PBS, in Sept. 2007) of Ken Burns's documentary "The War" ("a soldier's-eye view of World War II") -- they may need to censor some of what the soldiers say in the documentary. PBS apparently has a new policy for content aired between 6am and 10pm, "to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the [FCC]":

[I]t is no longer enough simply to bleep out offensive words audibly when the camera shows a full view of the speaker's mouth. From now on, the on-camera speaker's mouth must also be obscured by a digital masking process, a solution that PBS producers have called cartoonish and clumsy.

What really caught my attention, though, was this:

In addition, profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety so that viewers cannot decipher the words. In the past, PBS required producers to bleep only the offensive part of the compound word.

I'm trying to figure out what is meant by "compound words" here. I'm sure that really common compounds like asshole and bullshit are what the policy writers have in mind, where only the ass or shit part might have been bleeped in the past ([bleep]hole, bull[bleep]), and which must now be "audibly bleeped [as opposed to inaudibly bleeped?] in their entirety".

I wonder about the intent here. The idea is supposed to be that innocent children may be watching PBS between 6am and 10pm (not if they have any control over the clicker, I would say, but that's a whole nother can of worms), and we don't want to expose those kids to profanity. However, the new rule about compounds presupposes that kids will be able to figure out asshole and bullshit from [bleep]hole and bull[bleep]. So we're assuming that they've already been exposed to the relevant language -- how else would they be able to figure it out?

(This reflects a deeper problem I have with bleep-censorship in the first place. In my view, bleeps just highlight profanities and make them mysteriously interesting to kids; furthermore, I don't think they have any really positive effect on how much kids will themselves curse or think about cursing, because every bleep they hear just adds to the tally of instances of cursing by adults. But I digress.)

I'd like to see what the PBS policy actually says about compounds and other "containers" of profanities. I assume that the policy is intended to make it harder to identify particular profanities, as noted above, but is this intention really achieved by (a) extending the policy to all compounds and (b) limiting the policy to only compounds? Let me explain what I mean.

(a) First, the "all compounds" issue. Compounding is about as productive as anything else in English, the result being that there exist many profanity-containing compounds in which the profanity won't be easily identifiable if you bleeped it on its own, simply because the compound is not as commonly known as asshole or bullshit. Some of my favorite examples of these kinds of compounds come from the character named Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) in the movie Office Space. Here's a passage including just one example, in which Michael explains why he hates his name; the compound is highlighted in boldface.

Samir: No one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It's not that hard: Samir Na-gheen-an-a-jar. Nagheenanajar.
Michael: Yeah, well at least your name isn't Michael Bolton.
Samir: You know there's nothing wrong with that name.
Michael: There was nothing wrong with it... until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.
Samir: Hmm... well why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael: No way. Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.

(The no-talent part may be a separate modifier, but ass clown is definitely a compound just like asshole is -- don't be misled by the typographical space between the two parts of the compound. I would have written them together, but I just copied this from imdb.com.)

Unless you've seen Office Space like a million times (or know someone who has), I think you're highly unlikely to figure out ass clown from [bleep] clown. But should the whole compound be bleeped just in case?

(b) Now the "only compounds" issue. There are quite a number of (largely idiomatic) phrases containing profanities in English that should probably be bleeped in their entirety, if the intent of the policy is really what I think it is. Consider the following small handful of such phrases. I've bleeped out the profanity, and I'll bet most any English speaker, kids included (or maybe in particular), will be able to fill in those bleeps without a problem. (See the key below to check your answers.)

  1. the [bleep] is gonna hit the fan
  2. I don't give a [bleep]
  3. [bleep] it
  4. [bleep] you
  5. [bleep] off
  6. what the [bleep]?

Would these phrases need to be bleeped in their entirety? In thinking of your answer to that question, note that any exceptions granted to phrases would have to take into account phrases that are profanities but whose individual parts are not (e.g., blow me).

In thinking of all of the above, I've found it a little hard to put aside the fact that the following clause from the article is worded a little funny:

profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety

The noun phrase subject here is "profanities expressed in compound words", the head of which is "profanities". So, the objects that "must be audibly bleeped in their entirety" are the "profanities" which are "expressed in compound words" -- not the intended reading, which is that the relevant objects are the "compound words" that contain the profanities. So, the noun phrase subject should be rephrased such that "compound words" is the head ("compound words in which profanities are expressed", or better "compound words containing profanities"). Maybe it was that way originally, but an editor got to it?

A couple more interesting quotes from the article:

  1. Margaret Drain, the vice president for national programs at WGBH in Boston, said her station was already examining how it would probably have to edit references to sexual activities in a coming "Masterpiece Theater" production, "Casanova."
  2. I imagine that could take a while ...

  3. As for "The War," Ms. Drain called it "the perfect test case for the F.C.C., because who's going to take on veterans of this country who put their lives at risk for an honest, just cause?"
  4. I hope that the "honest, just cause" bit is just the icing, not the whole cake ... I don't think veterans of wars more questionable than WWII (such as the current one, IMHO) should be any more or less vulnerable to censorship.

[ Comments? ]


  1. shit
  2. shit, fuck, or rat's ass
  3. fuck
  4. fuck
  5. fuck (also piss or sod for some speakers)
  6. fuck


Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 22, 2006 01:44 PM