Check out the beautiful irony of this op-ed piece in The Times. The author argues that the Supreme Court and the F.C.C. should get over their prudishness and stop, as it were, giving a shit about certain common “fleeting expletives.”
LAST Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s crackdown on the use of dirty words on the airwaves.
That the justices managed to do this without actually uttering either of the words at issue — one refers to a sexual act, the other to a bodily function — exemplifies both the court’s tact and its lack of connection with contemporary English usage
Take a guess as to which words the case dealt with. And notice please that the author, bound by the superior standards of the paper in which he writes, must himself leave unnamed the words he chides the Supreme Court for avoiding. He tries to work around the limitation, but the charade gets a little ridiculous:
Writing for the majority last week, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that it was “entirely rational” for the F.C.C. to conclude, as it did, that one particular curse “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image.”
Does it? The evidence is mixed. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and the author of a book on swearing, described the F.C.C.’s argument as “rubbish.” Although the word in question originally referred to a sexual act, Mr. Sheidlower argued, it has now taken on an independent “emotional” sense. The nonsexual use of the word can be seen in countless contemporary examples, as when Vice President Dick Cheney used it in 2004 to recommend that Senator Patrick Leahy do something that is, strictly speaking, anatomically impossible.
Nowhere does the column mention that The Times, by its own rules barring any usages of certain especially foul words, is forced to be as tactful and disconnected from contemporary English usage as the author claims the Supreme Court is. By author or editor’s choice (I guess the latter), an opportunity for light self-criticism was missed, and silly affectations (“strictly speaking, anatomically impossible”) are forced into the piece.
Such blind adherence to verbal cleanliness hurts a newspaper’s coverage when its stories are specifically about unspeakable words that have made news. An article in the American Journalism Review late last year examined newspapers’ policies regarding news-making profanity, encouraging papers toward more revealing coverage and explaining the power in printing the unprintable.
Count me a supporter of the crude, the dirty, the vulgar. Not in life, at least not to excess, but when obscenity is the story, it’s got to be in the story. The Times and other “family papers” following excessively prude standards do their readers a disservice by protecting the delicate minds of hypothetical young readers.
For my part, I was proud to beat the censor (who was, I should note, my higher-up at the paper, not a government agency or a court) a few times this year in my role as newspaper editor. I didn’t write the offending words, but when they popped up in appropriate places, I did my best to get them in the paper. Once was a slip-up: Challenged by the boss, I agreed to change the offending word, but I forgot, so it appeared in print, granting me a little undeserved pride. (In the Times‘ cutesy style, the word refers technically to the excrement of male cows.) Earlier in the year I got the word “asshole” into a column six times. The piece, on “section assholes,” would have been a barely readable farce without the simple and widely used term that served as the subject. That was a battle I didn’t have to fight too hard to win, but in which I’m still grateful to have succeeded.
And this whole business about publications being family-oriented? Screw that.