In my college class on humour, we begin our unit on comedy and censorship with a discussion of Lenny Bruce’s 1961 arrest for the use of the word cocksucker. My students find this quite shocking -- the arrest, not the word.
In comedy, the line of acceptability is there to be crossed. Once the line is crossed, of course, it moves. What was once unacceptable becomes merely risqué, and eventually, with repeated crossing, mainstream and safe.
In its recent decision declaring the song “Money for Nothing” unsuitable for broadcast because the lyrics contain the word faggot, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council argues the reverse -- what was formerly safe (a 25-year-old song) is now unacceptable.
The CBSC argues that the acceptability of the word has changed:
...like other racially driven words in the English language, ‘faggot’ is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so. The Panel finds that it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
And if the lyrics disparaged sexual orientation, I would agree. But they do not. They disparage the bigotry of the oafish character spouting the words. He scoffs at the bands he sees on television, calling them yo-yos and yes, faggots: “That ain’t working,” he proclaims. “That’s the way you do it: you play the guitar on the MTV. “
In its decision, the Panel did acknowledge the legitimate artistic usage of an offensive word: “Individuals who are themselves bigoted or intolerant may be part of a fictional or non-fictional program, provided that the program is not itself abusive or unduly discriminatory.”
The Panel goes on to say that while the song may fall under this category, legitimate artistic use is apparently not enough to make it acceptable for broadcast.
The Money for Nothing Guy is the Archie Bunker of 1985. We are meant to laugh at him, not with him. (In fact, you can hear Mark Knopfler cracking up as he sings “banging on the bongo like a chimpanzee.”) The lyrics satirize a discriminatory attitude, and as in all satire, we align ourselves not with the speaker and the literal or surface message, but with the implicit moral code underneath.
In my humour class, we discuss instances of satire being misread, that is, where readers or listeners mistake literal words for implied message. So sorry, CBSC, that you missed the message, and are now on my list of Examples of People Who Just Don’t Get Satire.
It's a good thing no one in Canada is broadcasting "A Modest Proposal."