A lot of you youngsters may not know about this, but comedian George Carlin debuted a brilliant routine about free speech and censorship in 1972. It was called the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and you can see what they are in the meme above. Like a lot of people my age, I was inspired by Carlin’s on-point social commentary about a lot of issues, and I used him and my musical idol Frank Zappa as inspiration for a speech I gave to my college English classmates at ASU a decade later in 1985. Carlin was arrested for delivering these words in a comedic routine to an audience in my hometown of Milwaukee (how embarrassing for Milwaukee, imho!), and the case actually made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1978 where the court ruled against Carlin, and the uptight crowd embarrassed itself yet again! The topic of my speech was freedom versus censorship, and what more relevant issue could I possibly come up with for a college Public Speaking class?! (And you know how I feel about freedom!)
In 1985, the idea of censorship again caught the public eye when a group called the Parents Music Resource Committee (PMRC) reared its ugly head. It was led by Tipper Gore (congressman at the time Al Gore’s wife), and they actually held congressional hearings about rating so-called “obscene” records similar to the way movies were (and still are!) rated today. Heavy metal was big at the time, and the religious poser types in Congress hated all that “satanic” crap about sex, drugs, and “the Devil,” and they didn’t seem to like Prince too much either. Of course, my musical idol Frank Zappa was front and center at the congressional hearings speaking out against such anti-freedom foolishness, and that put the issue of freedom versus censorship on my radar as a particularly relevant topic for a speech I was assigned to give in my Public Speaking class at Arizona State.
One of the things you were graded on was your ability to come up with an attention-getting opening for your speech, and boy did I have the perfect one in mind—Hahahaha!!! I must confess that I considered several possible openings before deciding on the one I really wanted to give. On the one hand, a more perfect opening than Carlin’s “seven dirty words” could not possibly be had since his routine and story were quite well known in 1985, and it perfectly illustrated the theme of my speech. But on the other hand I had to consider whether I would flunk the speech, fail the class or suffer some other disciplinary action if the teacher didn’t like it. The English teacher was an older dude, but he appeared pretty socially liberal to me, so being the WTF kind of guy I was, I decided to go for it. After all, they were only seven words, and if you listen to the entire George Carlin routine, he actually defends the idea of verbal freedom quite well and makes censorship of mere words look pretty absurd. So I already had a defense prepared should things go south with the teacher; and I knew that I was taking a bit of a chance, but I think you know by know that I’m pretty much wired that way!
The day of my speech arrived, and I was starting to feel pretty nervous (not about public speaking like most people, but about doing something banned by the U. S. Supreme Court in a college classroom instead of in a nightclub or a theater!) I had actually written an alternate “wussy” opening in case I lost my stones at the last minute, so I could wait until I got up on the podium to decide. A few speakers were scheduled before me, and as you might expect in an undergrad Public Speaking class which was required for all English majors, most of the kids dreaded public speaking, had no experience doing it, and just wanted to get their 6-8 minutes over and done with! Consequently, the few speeches preceding mine were boring as hell in terms of both topics chosen and the utter lack of passion or interest that went into writing and delivering them. In fact, they were so lackluster that half the class wasn’t even listening to the speakers and were staring down at their desks reading or writing something unrelated (we didn’t have cell phones then–Hahaha! In spite of the fact that the speakers were pretty boring, there was something almost rude about ignoring them, and this just didn’t sit right with me.
I was becoming increasingly annoyed and said to myself a few minutes before my speech that I sure as hell wasn’t going to be ignored like that! Unlike the English majors taking the class because it was required, I was a Journalism major and took the class as an elective because I actually enjoyed public speaking and thought it would be an easy A. I was on the debate team in high school, had been onstage many times in bands, and I had written what I thought was a pretty good speech on a topic I was quite passionate about (freedom versus censorship), and there was no fucking way I was going to let my fellow students just ignore me. I don’t even care whether anyone agrees or disagrees, or loves or hates what I’m saying, but if I’m standing up there talking, I’m damned sure doing my best to not waste your time and make you want to listen! And that was really the assignment anyway—To write and deliver an interesting speech that grabs the audience’s attention and interest. So with all those thoughts congealing in my head, I took the podium, gave myself a few seconds to become annoyed at being ignored by my classmates, and said without any introduction or explanation: “SHIT, PISS, FUCK, CUNT, COCKSUCKER, MOTHERFUCKER, AND TITS.” And I said it loud so that I made sure even the people at the back of the room heard it.
There were about 30 students (and the teacher) in the classroom, and the gentle buzz of whispered conversations and rustling papers immediately gave way to dead silence as everyone looked up at me in utter disbelief. I can still remember it to this day–The open-mouthed looks on the other students’ faces silently screamed: “DID HE REALLY JUST SAY THAT IN ENGLISH CLASS?” After an appropriate pregnant pause, I think my next line was something like: “Now that I’ve got everyone’s attention I’m going to talk about the important issue of free speech versus censorship, and I’m pretty sure you know which side of the issue I stand on.” I smiled and got a few laughs on that line, and I can say with absolute certainty that the entire class listened to my entire speech and even applauded at the end—Hahaha!!! I also remember concluding my speech by pointing out that even if some of the audience were offended by some of my language, their discomfort was a very minor thing when compared to the importance of a free flow of ideas and discussion in a free society! I also made the point that a college classroom was an ideal venue for the free flow of ideas so that we could all learn as much as possible.
I must admit I was concerned about what the teacher thought, and he was cool enough that he was smiling a bit and at the end of the speech jokingly pointed out that I had certainly gotten everyone’s attention! And since I know you’re all wondering, I did get an A on the speech and an A in the class. As I said in another essay: “No Guts, No Glory!” Unfortunately, I’ve heard from some friends that have kids in college now that things aren’t quite so free anymore. My speech likely would have emotionally “triggered” someone and violated the “safe zone” policy of universities, and I’d be lucky if I weren’t thrown out of school.
So much for the free flow of ideas and all that “old-fashioned” stuff, but it makes me more than grateful that I grew up in the freer era that I did and that the English teacher had the mindset that freedom was a higher value than “emotional safety” or whatever they call the anti-freedom mindset these days. I’m old but I have heard that modern wussies are called “snowflakes” these days because mere words cause them to melt. Apparently they were never taught the “sticks and stones” rule by their parents when they were about 4 or 5 years old. I’m quite grateful for that early life lesson too because if you go around worrying about what other people think and say all the time, you end up living a life of fear rather than freedom. And the ultimate irony is that most people don’t really care all that much what you say or do anyway. Be free…