Just as a little background, I’ve been writing book reviews for the Weekend section of the News for nearly as long as I’ve been writing columns for this page.
Last week, I came into the News’ building to edit my book review, as usual. My editor and I spent about 45 minutes tightening the language and streamlining the thesis, as usual. I left, went back to my room, did some homework and fell asleep. I woke up the next morning to a message informing me that my column had not run because it contained too much profanity.
I think, at this point, I should tell you that the book was “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” by Melissa Mohr. Mohr, a recently minted Stanford PhD, took a surprisingly academic approach to her subject, and the book’s almost slavish devotion to detail and historical context was perhaps my only substantive criticism. Mohr did make unflinching use of every swear word you could possibly think of, and many more you couldn’t.
In my review, I too repeated the words without caution. One of these began with the letter “c” and ended with a “t.” Another started with the letter “f.” Many of the book’s central arguments were about the evolution of these particular words. I thought — and still think — it would be absurd to write about the history and politics of a word without using the word itself, or by using it only sparingly.
The News’ management disagreed (as did other editors). Though I don’t want to parody their argument, I will attempt to state it here. They believed I was not merely profane in the review; I was excessively profane. I used words that truly offend many people. I used them throughout the entire column — I didn’t just isolate them in one paragraph or section, which might have been more palatable.
I met with the editor in chief and discussed the issue with him. I argued that this book was an important and original work by a respected academic, that it was my duty as a book reviewer to review important and original works and that to further stigmatize these words only gives them more power over us. I quoted the immortal Albus Dumbledore: “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” Besides, I pointed out, “Holy Sh*t” had been widely reviewed, swear words often included.
He responded that the words risked alienating readers with little justification. He said the News would consider printing swear words if they advanced dialogue on a relevant campus issue; he felt my review did not do that. Further, he felt that my use of the offensive words was gratuitous.
It seems to me that characterizing particular words as offensive, and therefore unsuitable for a newspaper, is conforming to a disturbing standard of propriety.
Upon my soapbox on this page, I’d like to put the question out there: To what extent should a newspaper conform to the politics of respectability? What is problematic about the very concept of respectability in the first place? At what point does writing about offensive topics become offensive in and of itself? Is it important to consider that I, a man, was using the c-word and b-word?
I hope this column will cause someone to ask herself, What exactly is wrong with printing a swear word in a newspaper? It is, after all, how nearly all of us speak. By avoiding these words or by using euphemism, who exactly are we helping?
This is my opinion column, so obviously I cannot resist giving my opinion. I think that avoiding swear words for the sake of respectability, even in print, even in a newspaper, is ridiculous. “Respectability” in print or speech or decorum has always been a straitjacket that constrains any deviation from the status quo. It has always been a tool for those with power to police those without.
Further, to claim that the f-word or the c-word are offensive is to be selectively offended. There is nothing inherently troubling about these strings of letters that make a sound. Offense is different for different individuals. Offense is arbitrary. In the 19th century (as Mohr writes), “leg” and “trousers” were offensive. In the fourteenth century, the f-word was fine but “God’s bones” was vulgar. Just a few decades ago, actors basically couldn’t swear on television. History does not look too kindly on censorship for the sake of propriety or prudishness.
Words are political, and words are important. I just don’t know who exactly was served by censoring a review that merely stayed true to the language of the book itself. Without staying true to the language of a book about language, there’s no point in the book review. And I write a column of book reviews!
It was certainly the News’ right to refuse to print my review. But were they right to do so?
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him email@example.com.