Decency, Obscenity and Freedom of Speech

In the wake of the Don Imus scandal, there has been much debate regarding decency, obscenity and freedom of speech. Many, citing a double standard, turned their attention to rap impresario Russel Simmons including the May 14th issue of Time. To his credit, Simmons has called for hip hop artists and media to stop using certain words on the air that many find derogatory towards African Americans and women. It’s a start.

It is, of course, unfair to only focus the microscope on rap music when examining pop culture’s influence on society. Many heavy metal and alternative bands such as Blink 182 and Green Day rarely release a CD without a parental warning sticker. Pop and dance music has never been less innuendo and more in your face.

And, what of television? Programming on MTV and VH-1 (both of which play about as much music as C-Span) such as “I Love New York” and “Flavor of Love” seem to aim at the lowest common denominator with viewers exposed to censor beeps in rapid fire succession and more bed hopping than a Washington, D.C. escort service. The same can often be said of daytime television soap operas and “talk shows” such as “Maury Povich”—only a dermatologist is exposed to more skin each day. As for violence, you could write a book on its perpetuation in today’s popular video games, movies and cable TV shows.

As I have written before, I am as much to blame as anyone for this mess. I purchase 50 Cent and Blink 182 CDs (although normally the censored versions) and am a sucker for a good “shoot-em-up” flick. I just sometimes wonder how we have become so laissez fare about it all. Once, we debated whether married-in-real-life TV couple Lucy and Desi should be shown in the same bed, while, the Everly Brothers’s “Wake Up Little Susie,” which implied Susie was not awakening from her own Serta, was banned from radio airwaves. Today, not even the “700 Club” would give either a second thought.

Is this right? Wrong? I would argue it is what it is. Parental guidance, as always, is paramount. Yet, I would also suggest that those making the decisions about what to air, print and publish exercise greater responsibility and be held more accountable. Though art is subjective and freedom of expression is important, we should not be so tolerant when the messages being exported by media are potentially harmful. As Peter Parker/Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said to him so famously: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Truer words were never spoken.