At the end of his rackety and eventful life, George Carlin, the US comedian and hero of the counter-culture, has been best remembered for seven words. In 1972, while performing in Milwaukee, he delivered a comic routine which caused him to be arrested for disturbing the peace. The monologue "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" was later the subject of a Supreme Court judgment, upholding the right of government to prosecute television and radio stations for broadcasting material deemed to be offensive.
So when Carlin died from a heart attack at the weekend, the headlines were predictable. "Seven Dirty Words Comedian Dies, 71," read one.
Three decades on, those anxious to protect us all from filthy talk in the media are as busy as ever, but most of us are more relaxed about language. The words listed by Carlin, too predictable to list here, can be heard ad nauseam by those sad enough still to be tuning in to Big Brother.
Yet no one could seriously claim that our culture has become less censorious. Beyond the rude words, which now cause the merest frisson of surprise, there are areas which, by a more subtle process than legislation, have, over time, become out of bounds. In an age when taking offence has become a cultural pastime, a process of gentle, fuzzy self-censorship has become established. It is no longer swear words that have the power to offend, but inappropriate thoughts.
For example, when did someone last dare to suggest in open debate that feelings – the feelings of ordinary people – are often completely irrelevant when it comes to public policy? Ever since the British discovered the dangerous pleasures of shared, public emotion, reason has become suspect. Politicians, obliged to show their soft and caring side, now play down the very strengths which any decent leader should possess – the ability to think coolly and rationally. You are as likely to hear a minister or shadow minister dismissing emotion and arguing for judgement and reason as you were in the 1970s to hear one of George Carlin's dirty words on Last Of The Summer Wine. Sentimentality rules, and anyone who disagrees is a cold-hearted rationalist.
There are more specific no-go areas. Thanks to a careful rewriting of recent history, the invasion of Iraq is now treated as if it was foisted on the British people by the brutal and ruthless Blair government. In fact, it was rather widely supported at the time, although it suits us to forget the fact. Soldiers are still dying today but the debate is over; it is as if only a tiny handful of people believe in the Iraqi cause any more, and they happen to be running the country. For their part, the media are too bored or embarrassed to address the issue. The war has become a non-subject.
Television reflects back at us our deepest confusions and anxieties, most obviously in matters of race. Is the colour of a person's skin important? In the reporting of gang behaviour, it is not. When one contestant on a reality show addresses another as "nigger", she is expelled from the show amid an orgy of hand-wringing. On the other hand, an entire episode of South Park whose plotline revolves around the same word can be broadcast without the slightest worry.
Occasionally, as in the recent appointment of Paul Ince as manager of Blackburn Rovers Football Club, the awkwardness which surrounds the subject of race becomes evident. The first black manager of a Premiership team is, on the face of it, a worthwhile story but, because colour should no longer be an issue for serious people, there was a sense of uneasiness in the television reports, an embarrassment that such a thing had to be covered at all. There are other more obvious problem areas. No writer or director who wishes to remain employed will include a scene in which a character lights a cigarette, inhales contentedly and sighs, "Ah, that's better." Yet other addictions are actively and cheerfully encouraged.
A group mindset extends into the most trivial of areas. Why have newsreaders become so grand, with Sir Trevor McDonald or Huw Edwards taking on the rather peculiar role of father figures to the nation? Who was it that decided that Dame Judi Dench is the greatest actress of her generation, or that Stephen Fry is the most brilliant man to appear on television, or that Dawn French is hilariously and endearingly funny?
The group wisdom about such things, and the way certain topics and points of view become inappropriate, are part of the same faintly sinister process. The obscenity law may be marginally more relaxed than it was in George Carlin's heyday, but self-imposed controls and constraints exert a firm, suffocating grip.