I was fortunate enough to travel abroad last semester. I visited museums across Europe, each of which exposed me to something I find particularly deplorable: censorship. Statues that had their penises or breasts either removed or covered by past iconoclastic Popes and governments adorned most exhibits. I found solace, though, in the belief that censorship of art and expression no longer exists, especially not in America where the First Amendment reigns supreme, or so I thought.
Upon arriving home from Europe I hopped in the car and turned on the radio. What I found disturbed me. It wasn’t the lyrics themselves that were unsettling; rather, it was the noticeable lack thereof. Our government believes its responsibility is to keep radio and television stations from using “… obscene, indecent or profane language …” Therefore, media outlets censor content so as not to incur fines that regularly reach $325,000. This is thanks in part to the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 that was signed by President G.W. Bush and cosponsored by Cornell’s soon to be guest and perennial nutbag, Senator Rick Santorum.
Coercive censorship such as this is an affront to the ideals of the Enlightenment, upon which America was founded.
What legitimate reason could exist for censoring any creative outlet? Children might hear bad words? So what, why should the government prevent that? Let’s not pretend as though government censorship ever kept any one of us from hearing profanities or trying our best to determine what exactly the censored word was.
Someone’s sensibilities might be offended? The First Amendment exists precisely to protect unpopular speech no matter how offensive. There is likely to be at least one person who will find any image or word objectionable. In this case it is the individual’s responsibility to avoid the display, not the government’s to punish she who exercises her right to free speech.
Like it or not, music and film are art forms. The government would not go into a public museum exhibit and cover nude art or crack the penises off of statues (hopefully). Why then do they castrate music and television over public airwaves?
What’s particularly disturbing about the government’s censorship is its sexism. Scenes overflowing with sexual expression are shown so long as the woman’s body is not exposed. This is disdain for the female form masquerading as reverence. Our male dominated government allows its sexual preferences to determine what constitutes “obscene.” If sexual arousal is the criterion by which obscenity is judged then muscular male arms should be next on the banned list, or so I’ve been told. Just because legislators have a sexualized view of women’s breasts that borders on fetishism, does not mean a woman’s entire body is a sex organ worthy of paternalistic censorship.
Why can’t Alanis Morissette say bitch but Jack Bauer can be seen murdering people on Fox TV? I think neither of these should be censored. Adults should be free to decide what their families enjoy and media outlets should be able to tailor their programming to consumers’ preferences. These distinctions do illustrate the absurdity that is censorship. A kid can turn on the television and witness murder — both fictionalized and real — and no one thinks twice. Yet if he is exposed to the word “shit,” the station doing so is levied with a nearly half-a-million dollar fine.
Most importantly, censoring music is counterproductive. It allows otherwise disturbing content to become mainstream. If people were to hear the unedited words to “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by the Ying Yang Twins — a misogynistic chart topper — the messages it conveys would likely be absent from popular radio. Its unedited words are so explicit as to make the average listener too embarrassed or offended to listen. And radio stations don’t play music people won’t listen to.
When music is overly explicit people turn it off. When overly explicit music is edited they turn it up.
What might be more disturbing than the censorship itself is Americans’ acceptance of it. To be mistaken by our own government as children in need of coddling is one thing. To accept this characterization is another altogether. It is a sign of a country that readily accepts rampant contradictions. One in which citizens are trusted enough to own automatic weapons but not to choose whether to broadcast or listen to bad words. The philosopher Antisthenes had the right idea when he wrote, “I had rather be mad than delighted.” It is better to have the option to be offended than to limit art and discourse to placate the easily offended among us.
Shane Seppinni is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Letters from a Young Curmudgeon appears alternate Mondays this semester.