What would you do if you discovered that one of your good friends has been physically abusing his wife for as long as you’d known them? Or that he secretly hangs out with neo-Nazis? Or that someone with those proclivities was a famous actor, whose movies you’ve devoured for decades? Or that a famous writer whose books you adore has been unmasked as a white supremacist? Continue reading
Offense of the Month, Fall 2020
Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), for those of you who can’t quite place the name, was the family sanitizer of Shakespearean drama and eponym of that wonderful verb, “bowdlerize,” meaning to censor written texts either by removing or rewording offensive or otherwise objectionable terms and phrases. The first bowdlerized volume was The Family Shakespeare (1807), which omitted “the indelicacy of expression” that made the Bard so bountiful and bawdy. Evidently the author’s name on the original title page was itself an example of bowdlerization: The book, which abridged 20 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, was in fact written by Thomas’s sister Henrietta, a published author, whom he wished to shield from the public’s knowing that she actually understood what the expurgated words meant.
Henrietta must have worked hard. Imagine reading through Shakespeare line by line and asking whether each word passes the delicacy test: is the stray interjection “God!” a form of blasphemy and can it be replaced with the word “Heavens!” or must it be excised without substitution? A modern Henrietta would surely have an easier time of it. All she’d need is a software filter that could crawl through the text and replace or delete offending words as it encountered them. Nor would that be the limit of her power. She could even bowdlerize in real time, as people typed and sent notes to each other privately from one end of a convention hall to the other.
Like what happened in early October during the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Continue reading
Offense of the Month, August 2020
It’s been remarked (in these pages, at least) that the wages of giving offense are often worse than actual harmful behavior by the offender. A case in point: Jerry Falwell, Jr., who from 2007 until a little more than a month ago had been president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. During his tenure Falwell sinned in matters big and small and several stories of rascally behavior have pointed to corrupt practices, but despite growing evidence of his illicit conduct, Liberty’s board of trustees showed no inclination to investigate, admonish, or reform its CEO. Then Falwell posted to Instagram a janky photograph of himself partying on a yacht, and within three weeks he was out—from king to clown, the emperor ejected from Eden. Continue reading
Whether or not the spring and summer of 2020 will be seen in hindsight as a Great Tipping Point, it is already clear that we are witnessing a remarkable popular revulsion against a major strand of offensiveness in American life. All around us are the signs that public patience with the display of phony heroes and false icons has worn out. We are surely not done with the impact of offensive speech and behavior in the public sphere, but we are living through the consequences of rising disgust at our tradition of amiably countenancing monuments to a past age’s sins. Continue reading
Offenses of the Month, July 2020
Yoo hoo, it’s Yoho.
This just in. I’m ripping up the lead on a piece about two sets of knuckleheads for the July Offense of the Month column because up popped Rep. Ted Yoho (R.-Florida). You’ve been reading about him the past week or more, likely watching him squirm after his celebrated and supposedly private tongue lashing of his colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) landed him on the front pages following her tweeted response to his half-hearted non-apology on the House floor on July 22. Yoho, elected in 2012 to represent Florida’s third congressional district, which includes Gainesville, is retiring this year after four terms, so perhaps he felt liberated to insult his younger colleague from New York, but he proved himself neither classy at the insult nor adept in the apology.
It began when Yoho encountered Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps, he departing and she ascending to enter the House chamber. He told her that statements she had made linking poverty and unemployment to a rise in crime in New York during the pandemic were “disgusting,” adding “you are out of your freaking mind.” They continued walking but then Yoho turned back and snapped into the wind: “fucking bitch.” His muttered imprecation was presumably not for public consumption but was overheard by a reporter for The Hill, a newspaper and website reporting on the inner workings of Congress. Continue reading
Offense of the Month, June 2020
I’ve generally used the Offense-of-the-Month space to highlight knuckleheaded instances of offensiveness: not usually premeditated, but ostentatious nevertheless, produced by that sui generis creature, the Great American Dimwit. This month I offer the Tale of the Offensive Name, a story much making the rounds the past ten days.
It began in mid June when Matthew Hubbard, a math professor at Laney College in Oakland, California, encountered a Vietnamese-American student in an online trigonometry class. Her name: Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen. On the second day of class, Hubbard asked Ms. Nguyen to anglicize her name because the Vietnamese original sounds offensive in English. In a widely viewed set of emails posted as screenshots, first to Twitter and then, by Ms. Nguyen’s sister, to Instagram, he wrote: “Could you Anglicize your name. Phuc Bui sounds like an insult in English.” Ms. Nguyen responded 22 minutes later and said that unless he agreed to address her by her given name, she would treat his request as discriminatory and seek redress through the school’s Title IX office. Nine minutes later Professor Hubbard wrote her back, saying that while he understood that she was offended, “you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.”
At least four times a week for the past several months I’ve had phone calls from Robogal.
“Hello, it’s Linda,” she begins, in her unvarying, always perfectly inflected voice. Not tremulous or saccharine; not overbold or tentative; not gruff or timid; not hesitant or strident; not cheerless or giddy; not glum or lighthearted; not solemn or mirthful, but easy, tranquil, matter of fact. Just Linda, calling to help out.
Linda is obviously much too busy to call me personally, so she has thoughtfully recorded her perfectly inflected voice to let me experience the thrill of its perfection every time she calls. Continue reading
Offenses of the Months: Winter-Spring 2020
By mid-April, according to NASA satellite images, Covid-19 has prompted a 30% drop in air pollution in the northeastern United States. Social distancing seems to be having a similar effect on commentary about offensiveness, even if our propensity to offend hasn’t much changed (and who could measure that)?
In the opening days of this year, the attentive reader could find the usual choice stories about tone-deaf commentators and their equally tone-deaf audiences. In early January, for instance, Babson College fired a staff member and adjunct professor who, in response to a statement by President Trump that the White House had a list of 52 culturally-significant targets to bomb in Iran, posted on his Facebook page that Iran should focus on 52 American targets, like the Kardashian family residence and the Mall of America. The college said the post did not represent its “values and culture.” The staffer protested that his posting was merely a bad attempt at humor and accused Babson of caving in to social media criticism. One wonders what Babson might have done had the errant staffer repeated Trump’s statement as his own. It’s a complicated world; you’ve got to think at least three steps ahead of your potential detractors. Continue reading
Let’s get serious. For four years I’ve been commenting on a range of behaviors, most of them verbal outbursts, that everyone seems to agree were offensive. These have included insults, put-downs, verbal wounds, snubs, slights, and other sorts of humiliations; disdainful, derisive, scornful, and contemptuous slurs; disparaging, discrediting, disrespectful, belittling, and derogatory snubs; jibes, affronts, barbs, contumely, rudeness, and outright insolent indignities.
But why? What makes them offensive? Continue reading
Offenses of the Months, 2019
A good way to appreciate our times is to sample tidbits and morsels from the slush pile of reportage on the American penchant for being gratuitously offensive. I offer here a small sample, in random categories and without regard to chronology, of stories that have bubbled up through 2019 to delight any taste.
I’m O.K., You’re KK
In November, I learned that it’s now considered rude to type “O.K.,” in response to a routine request or inquiry in an email, at least if you’re corresponding with a member of the Millennial Generation (commonly supposed to be those born between 1981 and 1996) or Generation Z (born after 1996). So says Caity Weaver, a Styles writer at The New York Times. The younger folk, it seems, will take you as boorish, even more so if you type simply “k.” (I’ve never actually seen that done—why would you?—but I’m so old there’s not even a proper name for my generation.) The polite response, it seems, is “kk.” Ms. Weaver says that she rarely uses that locution, preferring “O.K.!” (which, she says, “feels more natural, but still conveys to the recipient, through its superfluous exclamation point, the same frantic message that I’m not annoyed or angry (omg why would I be) so please don’t feel bad!!”). It’s apparently come to this. (Or she’s having us on.) But it’s certainly not O.K. Continue reading