Parental (!@$&*#!) guidance advised: The following discourse is not recommended for those with delicate sensibilities—and therefore the point.
Last week's Las Vegas Weekly featured an interview of Penn Jillette by Contributing Editor Richard Abowitz and a sidebar story on the photo shoot by Art Director Benjamen Purvis.
Both, given Penn's penchant for exploiting colorful corners of the English language, contained words and descriptions of sexual acts that are the opposing signposts at the crossroads of this country's hypocritical values system.
Over here, a PC office culture determined to offend absolutely no one by avoiding a fuzzily defined "hostile work environment," threatening punishment, dismissal or coughing up whopper court settlements. Over there, a leering media machine hell-bent on offending absolutely everyone by embracing a "push-the-envelope" ideal, promising ratings, ad revenue and status.
And in the well-behaved corporate offices of the company that publishes the often edgy, sexually frank Weekly, a meeting of differing mind-sets as editors debated what of Penn's often raw language we should soften, paraphrase or eliminate, and what we should print in full, uncensored and unapologetic. Also, praying no one from the company's Human Resources office (with which we sign documents more or less sacrificing our firstborn if we contribute to aforementioned hostile work environment) or any easily offended co-worker from another department was listening in on a process that was, in an act of irony that was off the charts, central to constructing the company's product.
What a monumental distress in our fleshy undersides.
To demonstrate we are more than godless sewer-mouths, that there is actual thought behind our thinking, we present a playful peek into our editing process. (We've paraphrased and condensed these conversations. And to prove there's more than one way to skin a profanity, we've used some word substitution.)
It ain't pretty. It ain't logical. It ain't consistent. But then, neither is the English language—which is why we love playing with it so much:
"Shouldn't we rethink allowing Penn to use the phrase ND- (male reproductive organ with substandard mass, roughly equivalent to that of a narrow instrument through which injections are administered) CS (person with a proclivity for orally absorbing the male reproductive organ)?"
"Perhaps, but is there any reader who might be offended by that who couldn't figure it out and still be offended if we did the dashes or the asterisks between the first and last letter? And if they couldn't figure it out, why would we be doing it, rather than just spelling it out? Besides, would they be reading a story about Penn Jillette anyway, knowing they'd likely be offended?"
"Of course you're right. The dashes/asterisks solution has always seemed ridiculous to me. Still, it represents a veil of civility, even if it's transparent, the idea that there is a literacy to our publication that's above street level. And yet, we're picked up directly on the street and thought of as a feisty paper that blows past polite pretensions. It's a tough distinction to make."
"I also thought we'd leave that language because Penn talks that way, it's in context with the article. And I'd feel foolish censoring someone who is so much about fighting censorship."
"Agreed, but where is that line drawn? Isn't it arbitrary to give Penn a pass but deny someone else—who may not be as noted as Penn on the issue of censorship but who speaks that way naturally to make valid points on other issues—a forum for full expression?"
"I don't know, maybe it's a case-by-case situation. What about over here, where Penn says that the photo of him with soap suds around his mouth looks like someone had (expelled a substance of milky coloring and thick-ish texture from the climax of carnal activity) on his face? Should we leave that 'C' word?"
"The writer paraphrased that so now it reads: ' ... look like his face had been decorated sexually by a man.'"
"Actually, that's funnier and more creative—and somehow, more yucky—than simply using the word, while not misrepresenting his meaning. But I see we're leaving it in when he says it another way elsewhere in the story—'It looks like somebody shot a load all over my face.' To me, that's just as crude. What makes that more acceptable than the 'C' word? It's describing the same action. Is it the 'C' word alone that's distasteful, and not the thought? We can sub out the word, but not the thought—only cut it altogether, which wrecks the locker-room joviality that lifts the story."
"It's a valid question. But going back to the ND-CS reference, someone else suggested we dash out the 'D' word but leave 'CS.' Maybe that's the same idea, to maintain the force of the thought, but soften it enough to be acceptable to readers."
"OK, but how do we justify that the 'D' word is too harsh to be spelled out, but the 'CS' expression—which seems much more vulgar to me—can stand alone?"
"I guess we can't. But could we be overthinking this? After all, they're just words. It isn't the words themselves that are harmful, it's the meaning a person attaches to them."
"Possibly, but I wonder: If we're OK printing that someone is a 'CS,' can we also print it when one person calls another that other 'C' word?" (Unpleasant person of the female persuasion, as described by a one-syllable word referencing her own genitalia.)
"Or that some African-Americans use the 'N' word toward each other, often with affection and respect, and even in music and poetry. But would we print it if a white person used it toward an African-American with obvious racial bile? I doubt it. Words aren't just words. The meanings we invest them with do matter, and can offend."
"Yes, I suppose so. Do we have any real rules about any of this?"
"Only those passed down over the years out of habit, which are so arbitrary."
"Like, how we can print (fecal matter) or (bovine fecal matter) or (equine fecal matter) inside quoted statements or out, but always dash out (carnal activity—as noun, verb, adjective or adverb) inside someone's quote only, and flat-out refuse to print it in any form otherwise?"
"Dumb, isn't it? I can't explain why I'm uncomfortable when one of our writers describes someone in print as an (anal cavity), but can go either way when we refer to someone who's gutsy having (an exceedingly sensitive pair of drooping, hirsute globes beneath the male reproductive organ containing vital contributing substance toward creation of life, and if improperly treated can cause immense discomfort).
"And we could debate all day what to do about (far larger and more pleasing—and hopefully non-hirsute—globes higher up on the female form, obsessed over by adults and a fast-food source for infants, with sobriquets both crude and humorous, and too multitudinous to enumerate here)."
The following morning, the new edition of Las Vegas Weekly carrying the Penn Jillette interview hit the streets:
"OK, so how is it that after all that debate, we somehow spaced and left in the word (person who engages in societally frowned-upon and genetically ill-advised carnal activity with one's maternal relation)?"
"Sometimes, I think we're just (practicing onanism) here."
"Well, you know, we walk the language line as best we can, but sometimes it's just one big (Supreme Being-condemned disagreeable sensation in the rectal region).