ONE OF THE FEW remaining pleasures of freeway driving is deciphering those custom license plates--the ones that say I WUV U and so forth.
They are called "personalized license plates" because they reflect the interests, the occupations or the passions of their owners. They are also called "environmental plates," since the fees paid for them go to the state's environmental program.
They are often amusing, sometimes too clever to understand and sometimes too cute to bear. One expresses a wistful wish: 02B21. Some seem close to the edge of good taste, but few go over it.
The state is vigilant against sexual innuendoes and racial slurs. Plates that violate the rules are rejected. The testing is thorough. They are even read backwards, to avoid words that could be obscene in rear-view mirrors.
My wife and I have never had personalized plates. My reason is that I have thought of only two I wanted, and both have already been taken. One was J SMITH. One day I parked right behind a J SMITH on York Boulevard. The other was FIAT LUX--let there be light. I would have bought a Fiat to go with it, but, alas, my wife saw it one day on a freeway.
Yvonne M. de La Paix of Westminster writes to complain about a letter she received from the Department of Motor Vehicles ordering her to surrender her plates. They read DOO WHOP, and the DMV explained that the Sons of Italy had complained that word WHOP was too close to a racial epithet.
In the first place, De La Paix notes, she had sold the car and the plates five months before receiving the DMV's letter. "I was still angered by the letter, implying that I was a bigot, and that if I didn't turn over my plates in 14 days, I would be taken to court."
DOO WHOP, she says, was a very popular form of music in the '50s and '60s. It might be spelled in various ways, she concedes, but WHOP is one. The Sons of Italy demanded the recall of any plates that sounded like either of two epithets commonly applied to Italians. The DMV told her that their computers had turned up 400 such words among plates already issued.
"My license plate was not in any way a racist comment," she says. "unless the DMV or the Sons of Italy didn't know what they were attacking. You can bet that any employee of Burger King with a license that reads WHOPPER got the same letter."
De La Paix wonders how far this sensitivity can be carried. "With media fanning the fires of ethnic and religious tension, how far are we supposed to go to avoid being called a bigot? Are we looking for racism everywhere, hoping to find it? Do we have to start stretching our imagination to wild lengths to find it?"
I agree with De La Paix that the injunction against WHOP is too strenuous. There was no intent in DOO WHOP to suggest the other word; it is indeed a different word. And in conjunction with DOO, the other word would be meaningless.
Meanwhile John Kane of Rancho Palos Verdes condemns me for agreeing in a recent column with columnist Mike Royko that the proscription of many common words and phrases on "racist" grounds has gone too far. On the other hand, I said, there were certain words I would never use, for the same reason.
"I am quite disappointed in you," Kane writes. "It seems to me that freedom of speech means freedom of speech and that reporters and columnists (such as yourself and Royko) should support it unhesitatingly and without any reservations or pussy-footing around for fear of hurting someone's feelings.
"Either we have freedom of speech or we do not. For any newspaper and any writer to agree that any pre-censorship is correct appalls me beyond belief. It seems to me that once we start saying 'You can say what you wish except for . . .' we are in serious trouble. Sir, I am ashamed of you."
Oh, fiddlesticks, Kane.
We live in a multiethnic society. In any society, the language inevitably produces words that offend or abuse certain groups. Anyone who cares about achieving harmony in that society will voluntarily avoid using words that act as firebrands.
As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, one may not, under the protection of the First Amendment, cry "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Likewise, one ought not to use inflammatory terms in a crowded society. One who writes for a newspaper of general circulation is especially commended to this discretion.
On the other hand, the Department of Motor Vehicles is too easily spooked in deferring to demands for the censorship of WHOP. The next thing you know they'll censor SECTS on the ground that it sounds too much like you know what.