Being Profane

Reader Rep

"Unsurprisingly, their offspring Thor is emotionally fucked."

This sentence, from a review of the play The Nerd which ran on page two of The Crimson's October 13 issue, raises the issue of when profanity is acceptable in the paper.

Inside the newspaper, several editors have expressed concern that there has been too much obscene language in the newspaper of late.

Is this a problem? Does it REFLECT certain unprofessionalisam, or is it just reflective of our status as a college newspaper?

So-called "obscene" language is certainly commonly used on campus.

If it is a newspaper's function to report on, and reflect, its society, then there is nothing wrong with including the occasional obscenity in a news article.

It is possible, though, for profanity to become gratuitous. Some feel that we as a newspaper should hold ourselves to a higher standard than that of college campuses in general. Reflecting society it all fine and well, but maybe we should be selective in what we choose to reflect.

My own position is that the use of profanity can usually be justified if it is part of a quoted statement, and almost always not if it isn't.

Consider the following example. Last year, Crimson president Ira E. Stoll '94 was censured by the paper's executive board for an incident involving him and several female editors.

The incident hung on the precise words Stoll used in speaking to them--words which are normally considered unprintable.

When we reported on the incident, we did include the words--"fucking cunts" in this case--which were used.

As the reporter who wrote the article, I stand by the decision to include the words--offensive though they are--because without them the true nature of the incident could not have been conveyed.

Or consider the case of J. Eliot Morgan, a Harvard Extension School student whom Professor Leonard Jeffries of the City University of New York threatened to kill during an interview for The Crimson.

We quoted a message left by Morgan, who was shaken up by the encounter, on The Crimson's answering machine. The message had two instances of the f-word, and we thought it reflected his state of mind and the effect Jeffries's threat had on him.

When part of a quote, profanity can be important to an article. This does not mean that we should quote every bit of profane language garnered in an interview. This can clearly become gratuitous and unnecessary. But if it reflects a state of mind, or is essential, in accurately depicting a situation, I think we lose by omitting the profanity.

For me, quoting certain words as "f-" or "!*#@!" just doesn't cut it. If everybody knows what these mean--and everybody does--it snacks of censorship to have to disguise them.

But in non-quoted parts of articles, I believe that profanity is harder to justify. There is almost always an alternative, which can convey the same meaning.

Which brings us back to the quote from The Nerd review.

I would have avoided the "fucked" and gone with emotionally "unstable," "volatile" or one of a number of others.

Often, profanity can be an excuse for the lack of a vocabulary. And then it's almost certainly gratuitous.