Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Group or Societal Verbophobia

"Verbophobia" means "fear of words." It is a real phobia that with symptoms common to other phobias like breathlessness, excessive sweating, nausea, etc. It also can result in a full blown anxiety attack leading to detachment from reality and an inability to think and speak clearly.

All phobias are an irrational, intense and persistent fear accompanied by an excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared stimulus. Phobias are linked to the amygdala, an area of the brain located behind the pituitary gland. The amygdala triggers secretions of hormones that affect fear and aggression.

"Verbophobia," then, is an irrational, intense and persistent hormonally based fear of words accompanied by an excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared words which may result in aggression caused by the hormones.

Groups of people from a relative few to whole societies can be affected by phobias. Xenophobia is the most commonly known. A group or societal phobia can create collective behavior or even mass hysteria. In the case of xenophobia, in the group it can result in collective behavior that ranges from discrimination to genocide, from tribalism to nationalism.

At most of the time in our history, America has struggled with verbophobia. In 1793 one pundit commented:

‘The United States’, instead of the ‘People of the United States’, is the toast given. This is not politically correct.

A large number of groups of Americans in the political left, most common within academic institutions, began to be affected by verbophobia in the 1970's. The result was a cult-like movement with that term "politically correct" at its core.

Freedom to use words is fundamental to the United States. The first provision in the Bill of Rights - the First Amendment - clearly states:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

And yet, America seems to have a split personality. Because of a large variety of personally subjective, culturally related and historically changing values and attitudes, at various times specific words have been attacked as indecent, un-American, and/or politically incorrect.

Group verbophobia can get so bad that collective behavior becomes detachment from reality. Ironically, the following philosophy is a children's recitation in the English language but frequently seems not to be effective:

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

But as we all know, American parents don't believe what their children recite.

Words are not indecent or politically correct. Applying such labels to words and then "being offended" when they are used is essentially offering up a prejudice to justify acting in a discriminatory manner to impair freedom of speech.

Censorship and ignorance go hand-in-hand. George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue dealt with that in a straightforward way. Today an appeals court noted the District Court ruling on the case about his aired monologue, later overturned by the Supreme Court, commenting:

In finding the FCC’s order both vague and overbroad, the court pointed out that the Commission’s definition of indecent speech would prohibit “the uncensored broadcast of many of the great works of literature including Shakespearian plays and contemporary plays which have won critical acclaim, the works of renowned classical and contemporary poets and writers, and passages from the Bible.”

What Carlin was saying, in effect, was decency has nothing to do with words, it has to do with behavior. And though he was not the first to point this out, he did frequently note that those in politics who protest about indecent language the most frequently are discovered to be persons who engage in questionable behavior.

We need to keep in mind that this is not about nude sunbathing in a public place or yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. This is about broadcasting.

"Community standards" in this context should be handled by the community within the private sector, as an alternative to government enforcement actions which can range from reasonable to illegally hamfisted and which, within this context, clearly risk violation of the First Amendment right to free speech - you know, the one that our founding fathers number first before that really important one on guns.

Here in the "good ole USofA" our government did put in place a Television content rating system. The TV Parental Guidelines system was established in 1997 as a voluntary-participation system, with ratings to be determined by the individually-participating broadcast and cable networks and designed to be used with the V-chip, which was mandated to be built into all television sets manufactured since 2000. That mandate seems reasonable.

Yes the guidelines themselves have no legal force, and do not apply to news or sports programming. Nonetheless, most television programming is voluntarily rated by the broadcasters. If you don't like the way a channel uses the ratings system, you can not turn that channel on or get your TV from a signal provider like Dish Network that allows you to block channels.

So, in addition to an on/off switch and a channel switch on the TV, the government working with the private sector endowed Americans with the ability to limit what they might see on their TVs. Unfortunately, some members of the public apparently don't make the V-chip work in their homes because they are incompetent, lazy or scared of their kids. That's their problem and it shouldn't ever be mine.

Some paranoid Americans worry about what I watch. Particularly with this V-chip tool in place, I detest the idea that any American would want the government to prevent my access to information and entertainment they don't approve of.

Americans need to be vigilant that within our society the basic rights of individuals as agreed upon in what we call our Bill of Rights are never lost simply because of the current majority opinion, which is constantly changing and frequently whimsical.


We now hold that the FCC’s policy violates the First Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here.

So perhaps once again the Bible and Shakespeare could be broadcast verbatim in the United States and, for a moment, the verbophobes won't rule our airwaves.

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