An Obscenity Crisis?

Jeffrey Rosen has written thoughtfully about indecency and the rise in foul and degrading language and images. I’m broadly sympathetic with his approach, and this blast from the past suggests the difficulty of doing much after the horse of coarseness is out of the barn:

Before they won the rights to use Spider-Man, the PBS educational show The Electric Company introduced a new hero called Letterman in 1971, in a series of animated cartoons. Letterman – “faster than a rolling O, more powerful than a silent E, able to leap a capital T” – would fly to the scene of a problem a fix it by plucking letters from his sweatshirt, changing bad words into good words. He would change “gun” to “bun”, or “tickle” to “pickle” (revealing, presumably, that “tickle” is a bad word). If he had enough letters, no doubt he could change “superhero” into “what a ridiculous superpower.”

As Chris Fairman notes, the regulation of social meaning can be a very difficult task; a “process of silenc[ing can] enable[] small segments of the population to manipulate our rights under the guise of reflecting a greater community.”

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