The obscurity of obscenity

November 13, 2023 7:00 am

Obscenity, vulgarity has shifted dramatically in recent decades. (Getty Images)

When Justice Potter Stewart famously proclaimed, “I’ll know it when I see it” in regards to obscenity and pornography, the errant assumption was that such matters would be the social deviation rather than the norm. While he passed away long before the internet was invented and our own cultural mores shifted, Justice Stewart would be shocked to see our world now, almost surely inciting a post-mortem stroke.

Last month, Elon Musk declared he would pay $1 billion to change the name of “Wikipedia” to “Dickipedia.”  The wild proclamation captured national attention, even if briefly and this was with two international wars, a manhunt for a serial killer in Maine, and internal political issues on the hill all going along simultaneously.

Sure, the word fails to rank among the infamous list of words you can’t say on tv, but it is hardly benign. It was tasteless, tacky.  It wasn’t just as though in issuing such a juvenile and outrageous statement Musk failed to read the room; it was like he wasn’t even in it, oblivious to the crises surrounding the rest of the world and interested instead in immature entertainment.

Our own cultural standards for appropriate behavior are constantly changing, even if slowly. In the 1950s, the suggestive hip gyrations of Elvis Presley sent censors spiraling out of control (something they had in common with the King’s young female fanbase) and his famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show was strategically taped from the waist up.  The 1960s brought the advent of risqué lyrics, even those so poorly articulated such as in the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” that no one seemed to quite know what the singer was saying, resulting in an FBI case to examine the potentially explicit terms and a brief prohibition placed on the song by Indiana’s governor

By the 1990s, artists enunciated better and concerned parents heard, pushing for ubiquitous labeling on CDs to provide “parental content advisory.” 

Shifting standards

The older standards for obscenity would render much of today’s world — the music, the fashion, the hip movements and other sexualized moves — completely vulgar. That is in part, why those older standards have fallen by the wayside. Individually, some people may still loathe this evolution but the tenets of government regulation provide the minimum basis out of a concern for health and safety. 

Rules of appropriateness derive from government (banning indecent behavior in public places) and from industry (film ratings from the Motion Picture Association based on appropriateness for audience). What is truly obscene feels obscure as many taboos are now practically pedestrian; as our tastes and tolerances evolve to seemingly incorporate more of the fringe while decrying the most extreme on the periphery.

The language, while not a choice I would have made personally, does reflect the preference of Musk. And it is reasonable to say that though it is not what I consider to be appropriate, it is not likely judged by many as truly vulgar. 

The decision, however, to flamboyantly wave around $1 billion to change the name of a website to suit one’s personal whims when there are roughly one billion troubles in this world that could benefit from financial impact, does feel quite obscene.  In a world of woes, witnessing atrocities and choosing to do nothing feels patently immoral.  Of course, it is Musk’s money and he can do with it as he pleases, but it is my conviction that he use it more wisely than to crassly perpetuate middle school humor. 


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Laura Merrifield Wilson
Laura Merrifield Wilson

Laura Merrifield Wilson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis. She specializes in the study of political behavior, state and local government, and campaigns and elections. She earned her PhD, MA, and MPA from the University of Alabama and her MA and AB Honors from Ohio University. She is a regular political commentator and analyst.