Friday, January 14, 2011

The Power of Words, The Weakness of Context: Offended for Nothing

I will start with a short confession: I am not a fan of Dire Straits’ hit song “Money for Nothing” (1985, from the album “Brothers in Arms”). In fact, I would not consider myself a huge Dire Straits fan at all; Mark Knopfler’s later work—his solo career—speaks much better to me. I would further dare to say that, while my playlists play along, the brilliant nasally Gibson Les-Paul tone strumming that G5 chord at the beginning of Money for Nothing is, more often than not, countered by an instinctive hit on my BlackBerry’s “next” button.

Yet, if there was one moment in my last eight years of Canadian residency which made my brain yank a silent, yet thunderous “WTF”, it was in the morning of January 13, when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC)—a council that practically rules what can be played on public radio and what cannot—ruled that Money for Nothing—in its original studio version—cannot be played throughout the country’s countless radio stations which are, by vast majority, bound by CBSC rulings.

My initial response to this entire matter was of extreme disgust, blended with a fair bit of concern. The reason had very little to do with myself being a fan of Knopfler’s music; instead, it has a lot to do with myself being a citizen of that wonderful North American country. I was not born here—my being Canadian amounts to approximately 25% of my life so far—yet I feel an unprecedented urge to voice my opinion about what I consider nothing less than an extreme manifestation of hypocrisy and tasteless political correctness.

It did not take long before Canadian and worldwide media started rambling on and on about that ruling, objecting to it from an endless range of angles. Name a Canadian newspaper (available online) which did not write about it, and I’ll show you a newspaper who nobody really reads. The response was overwhelming.

Unfortunately, though, many of the articles I had read ended up missing the point, focusing on symptoms and circumstances rather than on the underlying problems themselves. Even sadder was to realize how pathetic and useless was CHOZ-FM’s—the Newfoundland-based radio station who originally received the complaint—response to that very complaint (see http://www.cbsc.ca/english/decisions/2011/110112.php).

The “25 Years” Argument

There was virtually no news article, about the subject, that did not mention the fact that it has been 25 years (time flies, huh?) since the song first burst into the airwaves, implying that the long time that had passed since then serve as any sort of reason to “validate” it.

Pardon my apparent ignorance, folks, but I’m not buying it. Elapsed time has nothing to do with it; if something is morally and profoundly wrong, its existence for 25 years doesn’t serve—in my opinion—as an excuse to validate it. True, it makes some sort of superficial sense but yet it contributes very little for invalidating the basis of the ruling.

For those who think that this argument can hold water, please answer this: what is your “cut-off” line? If 25 years make an immoral thing moral, how about 24? 23? 12? 9? Can you quantify it?

The “Awards” Argument

“Money for Nothing” has its share of awards (although a few of the awards mentioned by the radio station, in response to the complaint, were not awarded to “Money for Nothing” but instead to the album in which it was included, “Brothers in Arms”. Good job, CHOZ-FM). That song was a milestone in many aspects, and truly deserves the awards and worldwide attention that it had received—and, mind you, back then in 1985, receiving worldwide attention was much harder than it is nowadays.

However, does this fact really matter? Unless the song was awarded “1985 Gay-Friendliest Song”, the awards it had received imply nothing about its “Gay-Tolerance”. Awards are given by various organizations and associations, and are given based on specific, pre-determined criteria—often, not necessarily on a democratic basis.

Therefore, I consider this argument just as weak as the “25 Years” argument.

The “One Complaint” Argument

Another argument that many articles bothered to tout was the fact that it was one complaint by one listener that ended up binding countless radio stations—implying that, essentially, one individual has caused grief to millions.

This argument also doesn’t “hold”, sorry. Accepting such an argument would imply that:

  • A complaint filed by one individual should not be judged, evaluated and / or taken with the same amount of seriousness as a complaint filed by 5, 10 or 15 people.

    True, the more complaints are received, the better the “hint” to the deciding entity that something’s really wrong here, but when that same deciding entity comes to evaluate a complaint, the number of complainants should not matter in the slightest.
  • The fact that one person complained, implies very little about the number of listeners who are actually concerned with the issue. When a few same-sex rights organizations (say, EGALEEquality for Gays And Lesbians Everywhere) were asked about this ban, they agreed with the ruling.

One newspaper—a prominent one, I should add—had an article about the issue, focusing entirely on this argument alone. Claiming, basically, “Is that really all it takes? One complaint?”. YES. One complaint should be enough.

So…?

I think that, when approaching this latest CBSC ruling, dealing with “Money for Nothing” specifically is useless because, really, the ban of “Money for Nothing” is not the problem but a symptom. Fighting the decision to ban “Money for Nothing”, while focusing on the ongoing meaning of the word “faggot” and the various awards that the song had received, may make “Money for Nothing” be played again on the radio (very remotely possible) but wouldn’t really solve the underlying foundations on which this ban was based—and, undoubtedly, more bans will be based in the future.

Three examples:

CBSC’s Mandate

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC; Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Broadcast_Standards_Council) is an independent, non-governmental organization.

Read that again: Independent. Non-governmental. Read the organization’s name: Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

There is no law in Canada that forbids radio stations from airing the word “faggot” anywhere.

The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) is another Canadian entity, regulating telecommunications in Canada in general. Often, you would find the CRTC annoying Canada’s Internet users with all sorts of insanely-obnoxious rulings such as the “ingenious” idea to allow Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) to charge Internet subscribers based on bandwidth. Take my word for it folks; the CRTC isn’t the most adored governmental (yes, this one is governmental) entity in the Canadian landscape.

The CBSC has received the CRTC’s blessing for self-governance. What does it mean? Well, in layman terms, the CRTC felt like it would be a great idea to let private Canadian broadcasters to regulate themselves—make up their own rules, enforce them and so forth. The CBSC is comprised of representatives of the broadcasters themselves.

Once the CBSC rules something, that ruling cannot be appealed with the CBSC; that’s where the CRTC gets involved, as if “hey, that CBSC monster you had created is making no sense at all; please kick its arse”. All CBSC members are bound by its rulings, as long as they are members.

It begs the question, then: If the CBSC is a non-governmental entity, and is comprised of representatives of radio/television stations that are its members, then what’s the big problem? The answer: the vast majority of Canada’s radio stations are members of the CBSC. They don’t have to be; but they are. That is because the CBSC does provide at least some useful services and guidelines that, for most purposes, make sense. In other words: it is not an entirely useless entity.

That fuels the following argument: It should be possible for Canadian radio stations to exist and succeed in the Canadian radio landscape without being members of the CBSC. Simple as that. In other words: if there is no Canadian law prohibiting the airing of the word “faggot”, then Canadian radio stations should be able to exist and function even if they air that word repeatedly (now how is that for a business plan).

An additional argument that can be drawn is this: CBSC’s process of handling content-oriented complaints must be revamped, in a way that will allow greater influence by CBSC member stations, perhaps even in a democratic way. Having a handful of people, in a self-regulating entity, make decisions that (practically) impact 32,000,000 people is outright nonsense.

Disconnecting Words from Contexts: Promoting Ignorance, Narrow Mindedness and Intolerance

A short glance south of the border for a minute: in the USA, a new edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (first published in 1884) has been published by NewSouth Books, with the word “nigger” replaced by the word “slave” and the word “injun” (referring to the red shade of Native Americans’ skin) omitted altogether.

Back north: “Money for Nothing” is required by the CBSC to be altered, in order to replace one word that carries negative connotations.

There is a rather distressing common factor for the two cases: individual words have been disconnected from their context, and sacrificed on the holy, now-trendy altar of political correctness. And that, folks, smells bad.

One source for the stench is that this practice takes the “easy way out”; it is much easier to erase the words “faggot”, “nigger” and “injun” from wholesome artistic creations than to educate people what those words meant in the context in which they were used. Pardon my (perhaps too evident) elitism and arrogance, but I consider this very practice to be extremely intolerant.

Is it really too much for me to expect fellow Canadians to be a bit deeper than the span of individual words? What good is political correctness, if it comes in the price of ignorance and narrow-mindedness?

Would I be wrong if I said that, when you base policies on the expectation that people are ignorant, you are not going to get far better results than your expectations?

To illustrate the second reason for why this practice smells so bad, a short look east, to the UK: very recently, “Pink Floyd” were convinced to agree for individual tracks from their albums to be sold “a-la-carte”, rather than forcing digital music buyers into buying the entire enclosing album. For years, the band’s stand has been that their albums’ value lies not within the individual tracks but rather within the album as a whole. If you find this last sentence tricky to understand, pop “Dark Side of the Moon” into your CD player and listen to it, start to finish. Repeat until you get the point; eventually, you will.

One of the beautiful things about art is that it is open for interpretation (I should mention that, for Knopfler, understanding this trait is paramount to understanding what art is all about. Should you ever wish to see a frustrated Knopfler, ask him to explain his songs to you. May I suggest you start with, say, “Tunnel of Love”). The interpretation of art is a subjective, not to say intimate, process, and involves a wide range of factors.

For art to “move” you, it has to… “move” you. This can be done in all sorts of ways: lyrics-wise, for example, the sound of the word “faggot” may make you laugh, or maybe feel sorry for the character portrayed in a song/poem; tone-wise, the opening B flat cry of Knopfler’s Gibson Les-Paul in “So Far from the Clyde” may either annoy you or—such as in my case—punch a hole right through your soul.

Is one factor, or element, more important than another? Absolutely nonsense.

To get art, you need to absorb it. To get an artistic creation, you need to absorb all of it, upon all its ingredients—before you make a judgement, let alone when your judgement affects millions of people. Is it really that much to ask?

Does the Ruling Effectively Protect Canada’s Gay Population?

The complaint filed against CHOZ-FM for “Money for Nothing” was based on the premise that the inclusion of the word “faggot” implies, and encourages, intolerance towards gays. The CBSC, when pondering upon this seemingly-simple premise, failed to consider yet another aspect of the complaint: does accepting the complaint really achieve the objective of protecting Canada’s gay population?

Canada is one of the world’s most gay-friendly nations, if not the friendlier of them all (sorry, erase that; as a heterosexual, I may not be very up-to-date but something tells me that The Netherlands rightfully deserves that title). Significant progress has been made over the last decade or two with respect to the acceptance of homosexuality in Canada—in virtually all aspects.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005 when the country’s Civil Marriage Act was enacted, making Canada the fourth nation in the world, and the first in the Americas, to give people the complete freedom over choosing who they want to get married with. There is not even one single law that discriminates people based on their sexual orientation, period.

Discrimination against homosexuals—whenever manifested (which is very rare)—is extremely frowned upon, deprecated and, when applicable, ends up in the courts. In a sense, this is another example of Canadian mentality: live happily and let me live happily. After all, this is one of the major reasons why Canada is such a great place to live in—you don’t have to be ashamed in who you are, what you are, where you came from. Harmony actually works here.

But just like everything else in life, balance is key. Sometimes, overdoing something does not result in wasting resources, but is also counterproductive altogether.

The CBSC had to ask themselves this: in the current Canadian landscape, given the great achievements Canada has had with the acceptance of same-sex preferences in all aspects, does the usage of the word “faggot” in a song really endangers gay people’s stand in the Canadian society, to the point that it is worth limiting free speech for?

Not only the CBSC should have asked themselves this question, but their ruling ought to have been clear on why they answered the way they did.

Something tells me they did neither; and by doing neither, they actually ended up inflicting damage to the general public’s opinion about gay people—of course, not without the help of organizations such as EGALE who couldn’t afford missing the opportunity to make things even worse.

Judging by the literally hundreds of opinions and comments I had read concerning the subject, I can’t avoid noticing: Canadians, who pride themselves on being tolerant, calm and polite, appear to have been insulted by the ruling, as if saying “hey, come on now; I care not what anybody’s sexual preference is, and claiming that Canada’s gay population is still discriminated against and should be protected even for the price of freedom of speech is absolute and utter nonsense”.

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January 15, around 4:30am. I should get some sleep now. Today is, after all, my birthday.

Until the next time around,

Isaac

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The crux of the situation is the consolidation of media ownership allowed by the CRTC in the past decade-and-a-half. When companies were limited to one AM and one FM station per market, we had a healthy variety of concepts, approaches, and styles of radio. A scenario like this would be faced with protest and dissent from independent member stations across the country.

Not now.

Now is corporate groups like Rogers and Corus that act in concert. As their stations are standardized, so do they want the playing field.

As a gay man, I'm offended that history as it affects me is considered to be an offence. I can understand a ruling based on context, but here, the word itself was the issue. Really? I live in a country where Me'shell Ndégéocello's "Leviticus: Faggot" can't be played on mainstream stations? Then I am what's being considered offensive.

Your opening surprised me. I always found the song good, but having gotten too much attention. It's no "Walk of Life" or "Brothers in Arms". However, it was much more culturally significant, very much suiting its place and time and as such is a significant artifact of its time. Burying it is burying history.

Anonymous said...

That was Kyle Hawke, BTW.

Anonymous said...

http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/01/13/comment-censors-in-dire-need-of-context/

Anonymous said...

great article - similar point of view

Isaac said...

Kyle - thanks for the enlightening comment. Note I didn't underestimate Money for Nothing's role in its time. It was a groundbreaking song; I guess I rarely am in a mood that makes me enjoy listening to it.

Anonymous: Thank you for the link. I have just read it; makes a good point indeed, however delves a bit too much into analyzing what, in my mind, need not be analyzed that much.

Before editing my post, I had the "Disconnecting Words from Contexts: Promoting Ignorance, Narrow Mindedness and Intolerance" section broken into "the axis of time" and "the axis of language". Not very far off from your quoted article's "historical context" and "narrative context". Interesting.