In nearly 50 years as a professional writer, I have never done this before: Fuck.
Yes, you have just witnessed the very first time that I have typed that word. Ever.
It’s not quite the first I’ve thought it. (There was that incident when my husband lost one of his hearing aids in the back yard, then found it … with the lawn mower.) But it’s not a regular part of my spoken vocabulary, apparently unlike every male and a significant fraction of females among my peers and nearly every person in America younger than 30.
Until now, it has been entirely absent from my writing life. That it’s never previously crossed my keyboard is a result not only of what a doggone nice lady I am and my native gift for snarky euphemisms … but also where I come from.
As a recovering journalist who cut my verbal teeth in the newsroom, I’ve lived by one rather clear rule for using vulgarity or profanity in print: Don’t.
The F-bomb pops up today for a good reason. On Wednesday, Unheralded.fish unveiled a blog post by the esteemed Jim Fuglie that has set my peers to buzzing about bad language.
Jim posted a witty satire suggesting that NBC replace the disgraced Brian Williams with Jon Stewart. In it, Jim imagines Stewart’s reaction: “Wow, this is a big f**king deal! You can be sure I won’t be reading the same s**t that Brian Williams was reading every night.”
If you haven’t read Jim’s piece, here’s a link: http://www.unheralded.fish/2015/02/11/jim-fuglie-view-from-the-prairie-a-bfd/
My tribe’s bible, the Associated Press Stylebook, shades its “thou shalt not” just a tad: “Do not use [vulgarities] in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. … If a full quote that contains profanity, obscenity or vulgarity cannot be dropped but there is no compelling reason for the offensive language, replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen.”
Technically, then, the real offense against all that’s civil and AP wasn’t the four-letter words themselves. It was that, instead of proper hyphens, they were camouflaged with those racy asterisks.
Nevertheless, the appearance of that asterisk-flaunting quote in the post’s headline did give several of my sensible old-school friends real pause. Our newspaper genetic code compels us to wince and warn, sotto voce, “You shouldn’t do that.”
The next morning, I put the question to the 20-year-olds in my media writing class. I described the blog post and my veteran journo friends’ uneasiness with it. The students looked at me blankly. (By the way, I’ve seen that look before.) This was, after all, the Web. Not one of them thought it was a problem.
Times change. When I was their age (damn, did I really say that?), the rule was already deeply ingrained. As a news puppy at The Forum, I learned the word “pregnant” had never been published in its Pulitzer-prize-winning pages. When I covered the police, I also came to quickly understand that prostitution did not officially exist in our fair cities, at least so far as news coverage went. The only column the city desk ever bounced back to me was red-lined because gay people didn’t, either.
Today, we teach young journalists that context matters. Bad words are generally avoided in writing or broadcasting for a mass audience. Same is true of the n-word and other hateful speech. On rare occasions, those expressions do slip into mainstream stories within direct quotes … while the quotation marks offer the reporter a Kings-X, stylebook-wise.
But do the Fish blog’s readers qualify as a traditional mass audience? Not by a long shot.
We all remember the old “breakfast test” of a morning newspaper … would you want this shared with the family over Tang and Cheerios? That was back when the kiddies were perched at the table between Ozzie and Harriet. Now, they’re upstairs snickering over “South Park.”
Beyond the mainstream media, everything — absolutely everything — is a few keystrokes away on the Web. The only folks not accustomed to seeing or hearing profanity today are probably members of a Stone Age tribe living in the remotest reach of the rain forest — and I’ll bet they have crafted a few choice words of their own.
Nor is today’s audience nearly as naive as some of us might have been back in the day. When I was interviewing a member of the Kingston Trio a million years ago, he quipped that Greenwich Village was where the fruits and nuts picked the people. I had to ask him to explain the joke. About the same time, I honestly didn’t quite understand why the name of a legendary underground band, the Fugs, was considered so daring.
But this week, was there one single reader of Unheralded who read those asterisks as “fork”?
Civility is having an awfully rough time of it. Personally, I hate the coarsening of both our language and our conversations. Ceaseless vulgarity is why Russ and I have pretty much stopped going to movies. (Idiots on cellphones had something to do with that, too, but that’s another story.)
We were just talking about this, in fact, while watching TV the other night. It was the fourth or fifth time since dinner that we’d seen that awful Viagra ad — the one with the slinky 40ish dame in the blue dress who proclaims she doesn’t want to go to bed with a good book. We absorb ads for tampons and adult diapers and Low-T and overactive bladders all the time.
Stray one button beyond the broadcast networks, and you’re lost in the “anything goes” world of cable or satellite TV. Bad language has leaked out of the premium channels (go figure!) and onto everything from the Food Network to Jon Stewart’s star turn on Comedy Central.
What would our parents have thought? They’d have shared some pretty strong opinions — yet I know they wouldn’t have used profanities to explain. Their living room respected George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television.” Today, that list is toast.
Is this a sign of the impending Fall of Rome? Or – bold thought – are we who still purse our lips perhaps awarding a few four-letter combinations far more power than they really deserve?
If it were my editorial call, I wouldn’t get too excited about it. That headline in the Fish this week did catch my eye, but I certainly didn’t blanch or shiver in revulsion. This is a blog, dagnabbit. It seemed pretty appropriate for both the post itself and its author. And I liked Jim’s piece a lot.
In the end, I cast my ballot in favor of trusting writers … and against trying to forge rules to hold back the tide. Free expression must be exactly that: free. And long live its identical twin, our individual freedom to pass when it goes too far.