Freedom of Speech: Not Carte Blanche for Columnists
In writing about words that I would not use in this newspaper (even if the paper were to allow them) I seem to have outraged at least one reader.
John Kane of Rancho Palos Verdes writes that he was “quite disappointed” in me. “It seems to me that freedom of speech means freedom of speech, and that reporters and columnists should support it unhesitatingly and without any reservations or pussy-footing around for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.”
I had written to commend Chicago columnist Mike Royko for demolishing “a bad word dictionary” published by the Multicultural Management Program at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
The dictionary listed words its authors considered offensive to various groups or individuals, and urged reporters and editors to avoid them. Among them were fried chicken (allegedly offensive to blacks); Dutch treat (allegedly offensive to the Dutch); and ugh (allegedly offensive to American Indians).
Royko wrote: “Fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken. I said it and I’m glad. Sue me.”
I wrote that I agreed with the authors of the proscriptive list that newspapers must be careful not to use words that are offensive for reasons of race, gender or physical disability, but the list was loaded with harmless slang.
However, I noted that Royko had used several words, quoting from the list, that I would not use.
It was evidently this restraint that annoyed Kane. “Either we have freedom of speech or we do not,” he said. “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.”
When one is quoting taboo words in a scholarly paper, and not in their offensive context, surely one is excused for using them. However, a newspaper column can hardly be considered a scholarly paper, so I am not protected by that academic license.
In the first place, I am restrained by The Times stylebook, which itself proscribes various words and phrases, especially those referring pejoratively to ethnic groups. While I do not think the stylebook’s rules are perfect, I do not consider them onerous. It is hardly censorious for a newspaper to avoid words that are notoriously offensive to blacks, Latinos or Asians, for example.
Of course, styles change, and a newspaper must keep up with changes in society’s moral values. When I came to work at The Times we could not use the word rape . The proper euphemism was criminal attack . Consequently, we were obliged to write such fatuous sentences as “He kicked her down the stairs and beat her with a stick but he did not criminally attack her.”
We could not use the word abortion , improbable as that may seem to today’s readers. The acceptable euphemism was “illegal surgery.” Thus, if a woman had suffered an abortion, and that fact became pertinent to a criminal trial, we were allowed to say only that she had had “illegal surgery,” though the word abortion was used in court and was legally privileged. Of course, we could not use the word condom nor even suggest that such things existed. There was no acceptable euphemism for condom. The other day we had a story about the failure of the networks to accept condom advertising, and the word was used in the headline.
Having suffered such grotesque restrictions in the past, I might find today’s equally oppressive. However, the euphemisms required for abortion and rape were not contrived to protect any minority group, but simply to appease the Victorian attitudes of our subscribers. The effect of those evasions was to suggest that such practices did not exist.
I do not see the newspaper’s desire to avoid inflammatory and painful epithets as censorship. If there were no such rules I’m sure I would impose them on myself. In fact, I observe, in general, higher standards of taste than those observed in the paper at large.
I do not feel censored. I rarely concern myself with politics, but if I were to call our President a wimp, I’m sure that word would not be cut by our editors, though it reflected an entirely personal and prejudiced judgment. Just to prove the point I’ll say it. Our President is a wimp.
However, I have no doubt that my calling the President a wimp will provoke dozens of letters from outraged Republicans advising me to leave politics alone and stick to what I know about, like my dog. Many of them will suggest that I ought to be censored if I can’t keep my opinions to myself.
I might have called the President a WASP, which he surely is. But our stylebook is inconclusive on WASP. It says, “May be pejorative.”
Better not take a chance. I’ll just stick with wimp.
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