Toward the end of my first week in my first job in journalism, one of the senior members of the sports department at the Binghamton Evening Press took me aside and offered an apology: For the many expletives muttered by one of the other writers.
A few years later, as chairman of the Daily Princetonian, one of our staff delivered a first-person report from the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Reporting on the demonstrations that had overtaken the city, the ‘Prince’ reporter quoted the crowd as it taunted the police — “f— the pigs,” was the chant. Back in September of 1968, we at the college newspaper debated the quotation vigorously. Should the “F” word be used explicitly, or should we sanitize it with the use of hyphens? We decided to use it full force, to share the anger of the moment.
But at least some of us thought that the word ought to be used selectively. Overuse it and it risked becoming another felicitous phrase that meant much less than it appeared. F— you. Have a nice day. But that downside, we felt, was not as bad as the downside of prohibiting the word altogether. Ban the “F” word and who knows what other words or groups of words or trains of thought could be brought to a halt.
Over the years people lots smarter than us student editors joined in the fray. In 1972 George Carlin, the irreverent comedian, forthrightly took on the powers of censorship by identifying the seven words you could never say on television. (If you need a reminder you can Google it — we would not want to offend anyone.)
But over the years Carlin’s list has eroded, as television itself has changed from broadcast to cable, and as the online media have stepped in to offer other channels of communication. With a little help from Google I can report that in 1981 Saturday Night Live cast member Charles Rocket blurted out the “F” word at the end of the show. He was later fired.
Coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (including amateur videos and subsequent documentaries) included instances of the “F” word. No action was taken by the Federal Communications Commission.
Through the years, and especially in the recent era of 24/7 cable news channels, the “p” word has come into vogue. I am sorry that Carlin, who died in 2008, is not around to offer some commentary. But I suspect he would raise his satiric eyebrow at the pantywaist pundits who announce that they are p—ed off at something. Joe Scarborough, former conservative congressman turned liberal talk show host, is currently on my “s” list for this offense. When Joe pronounces that he is p—ed off, he is trying to establish some blue-collar credibility. But what he is actually doing is — to use other “p” words — posturing, pompous, and predictable.
Carlin’s seven words, along with some other inflammatory bon mots, have been working overtime recently at Princeton University, which has been embroiled in several controversies involving sexual assault, gender bias, and privacy issues.
Late last week Princeton police determined that they would press no charges as a result of an incident that had occurred during a party at the Tiger Inn eating club in October. The incident involved a photo, later circulated widely by E-mail, supposedly showing a woman on the dance floor performing oral sex on one of the men at the party. Along with the photo the E-mail took a shot at one of the other Prospect Street eating clubs: “Ivy blows, and so does this Asian chick.”
The club graduate board did accept the resignation of two club officers because of the incident. After a thorough investigation Princeton police said it was not a criminal act because the photo did not explicitly show any “intimate” body parts.
Earlier last week former President Jimmy Carter spoke at the University Chapel on the topic of his latest book, “A Call to Action — Women, Religion, Violence, and Power.” While the book dealt with abuses that occur around the world, Carter let his audience of 800 know that the problem could also lurk just around the corner. “Universities don’t want to address this issue,” he was quoted as saying. “This university is not immune from it. Neither is Yale or Harvard.”
I checked out the Daily Princetonian website, dailyprincetonian.com, to see how the university community was responding to these developments.
Not surprisingly, many of the comments posted at the newspaper website were high on invective, spiced up with liberal doses of obscenities. An opinion editor named Prianka Misra wrote a thoughtful column in response of Carter’s speech and made a plea for more diversity at the university.
Among the online diatribes inspired by her column: “Holy crap! Indians (or South Asians) come to America VOLUNTARILY to seek a better future than they could ever have in their own crappy countries. F— you, you ungrateful piece of s—!”
One Prince column came from a member of the Class of 2011, a woman who had belonged to Tiger Inn and who saw the need for the club members “to speak up and advocate for an inclusive and affirming community, rather than shrugging off recent events as jokes or isolated incidents.”
The alumna, Alexandra Scheeler, now a graduate student in religion at Harvard, began her column with a telling incident from her senior year. In anticipation of some intramural competition between her club and Ivy, Tiger Inn had created T-shirts that had a pictogram with words and images that posed the following riddle:
What do Ivy women and tampons have in common?
As Scheeler reported, the answer was not printed on the T-shirt but could be figured out: “Both are stuck-up c—s.”
I have to admit I was shocked by the c-word appearing in the cold type of my favorite student newspaper. I read on to understand the author’s context: “‘C—’ is not just a vulgar term; it’s a sexist term. Calling a woman a c— is a way to dismiss her agency and individuality by reducing her to her gender . . . I brought my concerns to the officers. I was told that I should lighten up, that I shouldn’t take it too seriously — after all, it was just a joke.”
But as Scheeler pointed out, and as at least some of the Tiger Inn members have since learned, it is not just a joke. If I had been the editor of the Princetonian today I wonder if I would have had the courage to print the C-word. Maybe. But I would have done so with a caveat: Don’t overuse it.