Category Archives: Previous topics

How expansile is a culture of cancel?

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

Tilting at Filters or the Post-Postmodern Bowdler

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

The Great Toppling of 2020

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

Hello, It’s Linda

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

What Makes an Offense Offensive? Part I

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

FUCT again! The United States v. Offensive Speech

It seems I overstepped nineteen months ago in claiming that in a unanimous ruling involving disparaging trademarks, “the Supreme Court, presumably once and for all, has green lighted offensive speech.”

In Matal v. Tam, you may recall, the Court struck down a law that banned registration of trademarks that disparage people, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols. Continue reading

The Curious Case of Sarah Jeong

The sense of offense is finely calibrated. It can detect an insult in a nanosecond and score it as a vile disparagement or a brilliant riposte, as contemptible or courageous, as harmful or enlightening, as doleful or droll, as wretched or risible, all according to the recipient’s sense of identity, community, and ideology. Such is the curious case of Sarah Jeong, Continue reading

Spiteful Spittle

The interesting thing about ABC’s defenestration of Roseanne Barr two weeks ago when she gratuitously tweeted a racist remark about President Obama’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, is that it wasn’t the first time the comedian let loose. Her reputation preceded her. Why was she hired in the first place, only now to be fired because of a single short tweet? Continue reading