Comedian George Carlin's "7 Filthy Words" routine became the standard to determine indecent speech on the airwaves after WBAI-FM aired the bit, leading to a complaint to the FCC and a court battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the ensuing decades, shock jocks from Howard Stern to Opie and Anthony have been pushing the envelope, to see just how far they can go before getting in trouble.
Now others are pushing back. Rev. Al Sharpton's condemnation of Don Imus' on air description of the Rutgers women's basketball team led to the "I Man's" firing. Two New York radio shock jocks have been suspended after an Asian American group complained about their on air prank call to a Chinese Restaurant. Ann Coulter was recently criticized as well for using the term "fag" on MSNBC. And Hispanics are starting to speak out about Bill O'Reilly and others calling illegal Mexican immigrants wetbacks.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines wetback as a disparaging and offensive noun used to describe, "a Mexican laborer who enters the U.S. illegally, as by wading the Rio Grande."
Apparently the term wetback is, or at least was, officially endorsed by the U.S. government. The INS conducted a round up of illegal immigrants in 1954 called "Operation Wetback."
Uncivil speech is nogthing new. Keith Allan, reader in linguistics and convener of the linguistics program at Monash University, and Kate Burridge, chair of linguistics at Monash University co-authored "Forbidden Words", described by the publisher, the Cambridge University Press, as a "fascinating insight into taboo language and its role in everyday life."
A dialogue over words that some find hurtful and offensive is healthy. But a rush by ethnic, racial, religious, gender and sexual preference groups to grab the spotlight and bring down people who use them can be unsettling. Such pressures can stifle the very discourse that could lead to greater understanding. And things can get out of hand. Today radio hosts are worried that their words could lead to their downfall. Tomorrow it could be musicians, poets, authors, commentators and, yes, even university linguistics professors.
Books were burned in Nazi Germany. People are jailed in communist Cuba and in Vietnam for expressing themselves. Gay pride parade participants are attacked Jerusalem. Women are arrested in Iran for not wearing religiously sanctioned clothing. Discussion about hurtful rhetoric is good. Capitulating to self-appointed thought police, is not.