If like most Americans you're a longtime watcher of television, you've probably noticed a loosening of language standards over the last decade or so. You can now hear a number of words on TV that used to be bleeped out; we won't go over the list, but you know what they are. They're a subset of the broader category of taboo words that have to do with what the Supreme Court refers to in obscenity cases as "sexual or excretory organs or activities." Cable has loosened the standards considerably -- the FCC operates on the somewhat outdated theory that while broadcast is ubiquitous and therefore able to infect children's minds willy-nilly, your affirmative decision to get cable means you've agreed to hear a higher level of naughtiness.
But there are two notable exceptions. The first is the word we now call "the N-word," which used to be offensive to call someone, but not necessarily obscene to speak aloud. Today, however, it is taboo to utter it, regardless of the context or intent. While it used to be heard on television, these days it is bleeped out (and you won't be seeing the famous "Word Association" sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase on any Saturday Night Live clip shows).
The other notable exception, and one whose bleeping always sounds oddly anachronistic, is "goddamn." It is bleeped out on television, but not on NPR, though the network's ombudsman thinks it ought to be. This isn't a matter of legal culpability, but a choice broadcasters make - the FCC has specifically said that "goddamn," though offensive to some, is not one of the indecent words whose use they can punish. NPR apparently gets complaints, mostly from listeners in the South, whenever someone says it on air.
So should they bleep it? Well, it's not an insult directed at any person or group. The arguments for censoring it don't have anything to do with context or intent -- no one seems to be arguing that it's OK to say it in some contexts but not others, or that it depends who the speaker is. While some religious people find it objectionable, it's not meant to insult them in particular. Presumably, they don't have too much of a problem with "damn," which is much less shocking today than it was in 1939, when audiences were scandalized by Rhett Butler telling Scarlet O'Hara, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." No, it's the "god" part that seems to be raising the hackles.
So why is "goddamn" objectionable, while "damn" is less so? "Damn" is a shortened version of "damned." If you say, "My damn transmission is acting up again," you're saying that your transmission is so vile that for its sins it has been damned to eternal hellfire. And if you say "My goddamn transmission is acting up again," you're saying exactly the same thing, just specifying that God is the one who has damned your transmission to hell. But it can also be used as a simple interjection without any implicit reference to God, as in "Goddamn, John Boehner's tan is looking fine today!"
It's one thing to say that one should not "take the Lord's name in vain," but it's something else to say that one must be protected from hearing others do so. NPR, being a news organization, reports a lot of nasty stuff -- war, murder, rape -- without censoring the details. It's not like they say, "Today in Afghanistan, a bleep bomber bleep 12 people at a checkpoint." Television too shows us people violating commandments all the time -- stealing, failing to honor their parents, coveting their neighbor's goods, making graven images -- without demanding that we avert our gaze.
That isn't to say that broadcasters should let any and all language through -- if there were no situations in which swearing were inappropriate, swears wouldn't be swears anymore, with the hint of transgression that attends to their use. But goddamn? I think in 2010 we can probably let that one pass the tender ears of our children without too much concern that hearing it will turn them into serial killers.
-- Paul Waldman