Well, I'll be bleeped

Government censorship poses a dangerous "slippery slope," but a little self-censorship might be just the ticket for our society.

I'm thinking here of what's quaintly called "cussing" or "rough language." This form of speech consists of "bad" words that in ancient times, such as the 1950s, were considered inappropriate in mixed company.

I'm certainly guilty of such language. I practically grew up in newsrooms and, back then, rough language was a tool of the trade. Your typical gang of drunken sailors, exposed to everyday newsroom conversation, would clap their hands over their ears and flee weeping into traffic.

(These days, newspaper offices tend to be as sedate and politically correct as dental labs, but that's another column.)

Reaching maturity -- more or less -- in such a social climate, I learned to resort to "bad" words, particularly when elbow-deep in stressful situations. My sons insist they heard every cussword in the English language "the day Dad tried to fix the toilet."

Yet it's my children (and their generation) that I think of now when I hear such words, and I hear them everywhere. People bray them into their cell phones in public places. They refer to each other affectionately in terms that would've generated a fistfight a generation or two ago.
Popular music is chock-full of very bad words, not to mention racial epithets, misogynistic lyrics and poor singing. Television blares so many bad words these days, they might as well use them in place of "laugh tracks."

All this ear pollution fills our children's heads. And the bad words then spill out the little ones' mouths at the worst possible times, such as at Thanksgiving dinner.

Common usage devalues "bad" words, making it ever more difficult to be a parent. When I was a boy and my dad let a bad word slip out, I knew he was very, very upset, and I should go hide in the treehouse. I blurt the same word to my kids, and they think it's "funny." If I want their attention, I must invent new, more complicated cusswords, which isn't as easy as it sounds.

A little self-censorship would go a long way toward solving this societal ill, but we Americans aren't big on self-restraint. And, even if we could get human beings to stop talking this way, we couldn't put the quietus on subhuman species such as "shock jocks" and Eminem.

The answer lies in technology. What we need are personal "bleep" boxes, like those censoring devices still used on TV for very bad words. The "bleep" covers up the word, forcing viewers to keep their eyes on the screen to read the actors' lips.

Using computer-chip technology, scientists could develop a tiny bleep box, which could be worn around the neck like a tasteful amulet. When the wearer spouted a cussword, the box would emit a "bleep" to protect young listeners.

Such devices could even be modified to protect against other social gaffes. For example, you might say, "Martha, that's the bleepiest hairdo I've ever seen." Martha might still know you meant something unkind (particularly if she's a lip-reader), but the bleep would give you a moment to reconsider your words and perhaps find a path of "deniability."

Would such gizmos keep our children from cussing? Probably not. But they might preserve the impact of bad words for times when it's really needed.

I can already hear my kids: "Dad said 'bleep.' He's so funny!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rest assured, Steve. Air in the newsroom is still blue. We just aim at the computer screen. A new next-desk neighbor just moved in - fresh faced lass - so I curbed myself. Then I heard her using the same salty phrases I was chewing back, just in Spanish. Situation fkn normal!
- Jas.