a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Censorship for nothing, futility for free

Pop music stations in Canada aren’t known for daring programming. But some of them might be on to an important principle by defying a censorship order.

As any Canadian reasonably conscious of popular culture knows, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ordered radio stations across the country not to play Money for Nothing, a big hit in 1985 by Dire Straits, without editing out a certain word that is insulting to gays. The order was made in a response to a complaint from a radio listener in Newfoundland.

But a growing number of stations across the country are defying the order with support of their listeners.

There is no point in repeating this word. We all know what it is. But most of would agree it is insulting, much like the N-word is to blacks.

But should the F-word be stripped out of a classic rock song about a bigoted and alienated guy working in an appliance store who thinks musicians don’t have to work for a living? The same question has been applied to whether the N-word should be stripped out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

I would argue the answer in both cases should be no.

Twain’s book was controversial the moment it was published because of its scathing look at racism and entrenched bigotry in an era when racial slurs were common vocabulary. This is probably why it was first published in Britain in 1884 instead of Twain’s native U.S.

Even though Twain was describing a slavery-based southern society that no longer existed 20 years after the Civil War, it can be easily argued the book was an important step in eventually ridding the U.S. of institutionalized racism. To fully understand that era it is important to understand the vernacular of the period.

Money for Nothing was actually written by lead guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler while he was in an appliance store in New York. There was a guy delivering boxes while MTV was blaring on a wall of television sets. Knopfler says he used the guy’s actual words like ``that ain’t working’’ as he composed the lyrics on a piece of paper.

The song is a narrative on working class alienation in the 1980s and the vernacular of the time – a time when the F-word at issue was common in everyday conversation.

``The societal values at issue a quarter-century later have shifted and the broadcast of the song in 2010 must reflect those values, rather than those of 1985," the Broadcast Council said in its ruling. That amounts to retroactive censorship.

If the Broadcast Council wanted to, it could find hundreds of recorded songs with the potential to offend. There are songs on the airwaves today that glorify violence, advocate law breaking and use sexist language.

But the council’s policy is not to act unless there is a complaint. That means its stewardship of the airwaves is uneven at best.

Public taste shouldn’t be arbitrated on the basis of one complaint. Nor should the past be purged to suit political correctness today.

1 comment:

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