The decision, made on Wednesday, has been met with a barrage of dismissive and derisive reactions. Christie Blatchford, one of Canada’s best known columnists, described it as the “triumph of small minds and over-parsed language.” And several radio stations have protested the decision by playing an unedited version of the song.
It should be noted that this is not another example of what some might call Canada’s “nanny state.” The broadcast council is not a government body. It’s made up of about 760 radio and TV stations across Canada. It’s an example of a private industry regulating itself.
The song, written by Mark Knopfler and Sting, is from the perspective of two working-class grunts doing back-breaking work delivering and installing kitchens. They’re watching music videos on MTV, a relatively new phenomenon in 1984, and one of them describes “the little faggot with the earring and the makeup” who’s making a fortune as a musician. They then conclude: “That ain’t working / That’s the way you do it / Money for nothing and your chicks for free.”
“I should have learned to play the guitar,” one of them laments. The complaint in Canada came from a single person in the Atlantic province of Newfoundland, a woman identifying herself as “a member of the LGBT community” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).
In her complaint about “faggot” to the broadcast council, the unidentified listener wrote: “This word carries an unavoidable connotation of hate. By airing it unapologetically on the radio, this station is indirectly propagating hate. Although I can see the value in a timeless classic rock song in its original form, I cannot help but feel that it does not overshadow the importance of ending discrimination.” The council agreed. “Like other racially driven words in the English language, “faggot” is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so,” it ruled. “The Panel finds that it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Knopfler once described the character he created as “a real ignoramus ... somebody who sees everything in financial terms.” Noting objections he received from a gay listener, Knopfler made clear he had doubts about whether taking on the voice of an invented character was a good idea.
There’s no doubt that “faggot” is a derogatory term, one that is sure to offend. What the council glossed over, however, is the context of the word in the song. Like a novelist or poet, Knopfler was talking in the voice of a character he created.
The debate over the song in Canada comes as the power of words is being hotly argued south of the border.
There’s the example in early January of an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, announcing it would publish new editions of Mark Twain’s "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" that replace the word “nigger” with “slave.” The often-repeated defense of these novels is that they are products of their time, and should be read in that context.
More recently, the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords unleashed a national argument about whether harsh rhetoric from right-wing politicians and media commentators incites violence.
In the context of an all-out political war against U.S. President Barack Obama, accused of being everything from a closet Muslim to a raving socialist, Sarah Palin responded to the health care reform vote with this tweet: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” The tweet came a day after vandals smashed Giffords’ office front door. In that context, was the use of the word the same as shouting “RELOAD!” on a firing range?
No one will persuade Palin that her words might have helped incite a killer, and few Dire Straits fans will agree that "Money for Nothing" should be censored. But many in these debates will be reminded of the power of words and the importance of context. In these politically charged, internet-fueled times, that can only be good.