Fracking Ethics

The Eric Massa affair quickly revealed itself as the spectacle of a foolish, narcissistic, dishonest man trying to milk every drop of attention out of the well-deserved implosion of a political career that never should have begun in the first place. Fortunately, there was a side benefit: its reporting by the media exposed the dishonesty of the practice of fake civility. Genuine civility is one of the foundations of ethical conduct, though admittedly a shaky one right now. Fake civility, however, is cynical, dishonest, disrespectful and, on top of all that, silly and ineffective.

One of the inappropriate supervisory moments that punched Massa’s ticket out of Congress was that he told a male staffer, in the presence of others, that “I should be fucking you.” Someone at the Mainstream Media High command issued a memo that the gentile and classy way of reporting this statement was “I should be fracking you.” Not that there was any pretense about what the word signified. On the Headline News morning show with giggly news-bimbo Robin Meade (an in-your-face insult to every serious female broadcast journalist in America), Meade listened to the “fracking” account and said—every one of the times the story was repeated during the program— some version of “Gee, I never heard that word before (giggle)!” Whereupon the newsreader replied with some form of “I know (snicker) neither have I!” They were far from the only ones. Dana Milbank used the same code in his account of Massa’s messes in the Washington Post.  “Fracking” is the euphemism of the week.

What exactly does this charade accomplish? If someone, your grandmother, perhaps, is not familiar with current trends in journalistic idiocy, this is just misleading reporting. Would Massa really have been in trouble if he had literally used the non-word “fracking”? No, the offense centered on his use of the word “fucking.” If the media is going to report the story, it should report it.

Meanwhile, using a substitute but obvious word to sub for a word that is considered vulgar is not being genteel; it is being disingenuous and annoying. When Tennessee Williams wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” you couldn’t say “fuck”  in Broadway drama (as opposed to now, when you can’t not say “fuck” in a Broadway drama), so that clever Tennessee substituted the nonsense word “fug,”  which is repeated over and over again. [Ethics topic for another time: when the show is produced today, is the ethical approach to keep the fugs, which were the author’s original words, or change them to what they were intended to represent, on the theory that the playwright would have written it that way today? Slippery slope!] Well, if everyone knows that “fug” means fuck, then “fug” is just as vulgar as fuck, and the exercise is just pretense and fakery.

Fake civility has all the objectionable features of censorship without the honesty of being forthright about it. It is similar to the anachronistic practice of cutting or dubbing out vulgarities when movies are shown on TV. I just watched “Blazing Saddles” shown this way on AMC. For some reason, this version saw no reason to alter such lines as “Oh, blow it out your ass, Howard!” but cut the sound in the last half of the word “ass-hole”, even though we heard the “ass” and could see that the woman speaking the line was mouthing the word “hole.” This, like “fracking,” insults the audience. And please, don’t insult me by arguing that such transparent deceptions are required for the delicate ears of “young children” who might be watching the babelicious Robin Meade at 6 AM or “Blazing Saddles.” I would sure rather try to answer the question, “Dad, what’s “fucking” mean?” than “Dad, what’s “fracking” mean?”

“Why, Fracking” means “fucking,” son, and everybody knows it. But I’m not going to tell you what fucking means.”

We see other examples of fake civility. A driver flipped me his fourth finger once, which I guess means “frack you!” I have some friends who seem to think saying “Effing” and “Eff you!” is somehow less rude in civilized society than their obvious meanings. If anyone knows a  misguided advocate for the mentally-challenged who wants to ban the word “retarded,” ask them this: would they be happy if people started using the non-words “revarked” or “reforted” instead? Somehow, I doubt it. Similarly, Glenn Beck gets no civility points for his penchant for saying “Bullcrap!” as a supposedly more civil substitute for “bull shit.”

If a news story requires the repetition of the word “fuck” and is important enough to be reported at all, then the only honest and competent approach is to use the real word.  If a movie uses vulgar word the network should run it without censorship, and without pointless substitutions that both harm the films and operate under the assumption that the audience is “reforted.” My favorite example: when “The Hard Way,” a forgettable Michael J. Foxx comedy, is shown on TV, we hear characters referring to each other, more than once, as “a slug-in-a-ditch.”

Gee, I wonder what they mean by that?

16 thoughts on “Fracking Ethics

  1. Pingback: Twitted by CaptCompliance

  2. If I’m not mistaken, “frak” is the swear of choice on Battlestar Galactica. It drove me nuts because it sounded so fake. (Especially when used as a synonym for intercourse, “Frak me right now!”)

  3. I wonder if “frack” and “fracking” have any history beyond the recent “Battlestar Gallactica”. It’s all over that show up and down. I’d wager it’s continued on into the spin-off “Caprica”. Simply put, it’s their version of “fug” because of the language rules on cable television.

  4. Tim, Jeff—I knew my inattention to BG would bite me sooner or later. Those of us old enough to have a gag reflex when reflecting back on the cheesy Lorne Greene original just couldn’t get into the re-make, and by all accounts it is our loss.

    WHAT rules on cable television? The real reason was “we hope and pray we get lots of syndication for play on local networks!” Hollywood in the Forties and Fifties came up with a million more clever and honest ways to suggest sex in scripts than resorting to dumb euphemisms. If I had known about “frak,” it would have kept me away from BG even more than the memories of Pa Cartwright in space.

  5. Two cheers for this post, Jack. The press certainly acted unethically in attributing “fracking” to Massa when he didn’t say it. I was actually taken in–I thought it had some specific meaning–perhaps beating, pinching, or even tickling. So the press misled me.
    And I agree with you that children above the age of, um, three days, have heard fuck, or at least the gerundive. But still, there’s something to be said for polite behavior and soft-spokenness. When I (and I bet, you) hear somebody shouting fuck or fucking I half expect violence. And when I hear f-ing, or the f-word, I think the speaker is indulging in politeness rather than committing fake civility.

    • Yeah, I should have made a distinction between spoken, broadcast (where they are supposed to be giving facts), and print. I agree with you about the intent behind f-word, etc, but I am bothered by the fiction. If everyone knows what word you mean, why not say the word? Why is using a code less rude? And if you are talking about the word, not using the word, then it makes no sense not to be explicit, does it? And we all know that if a word is used as a euphemism long enough, it eventually becomes pejorative itself…and needs a new one. Hence the colored—Black—black—“people of color”-African American sequence.

      • That’s a useful distinction: talking about the word vs using the word. I’d never “use” nigger, but in my class I talk about it. I’m uncomfortable saying “N-word,” but I try to be sensitive to the way many people are distressed to hear it spoken at all.

        My practice: use nigger when it’s clear I’m being clinical, avoid it in general conversation.

        • That’s right.

          I would also argue that “Blazing Saddles'” use of “nigger” is in fact “about the word”—showing the movie and cutting the word is like cutting the word from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It suggests there was “something wrong” with using the word in a satire about racism, and that this was itself racist.

          Nobody should use “fuck” or “Eff” in public—I give no points for the substitution, and in fact have more respect for being direct.

          Drives me crazy.

  6. Pingback: If you’re up to here with fracking, read on « Ethics Bob

  7. This discussion reminds me of the time I saw “Me, Myself and Irene,” on cable. There’s a scene when a character, played by Jim Carey, has a dildo in his hand. On cable, the dildo was substituted with a pepperoni stick that was somehow juxtaposed onto the screen. I was surprised to say the least, especially since they left in the dialogue that clearly indicated that the character wasn’t talking about a stick of pepperoni.

  8. Good article. There is one occasion when I do find word censorship acceptable, though; when it’s played for laughs. One particular site’s word filter gives such wonderful phrases as “Holy poo poo! What the gently caress is going on?”

    • Olsen and Johnson had a skit in “Hellzapoppin” where a “sexy” scene was played twice, the second time with fruits and vegetables in place of the “naughty” words, as in “I love your luscious rutabagas.”

  9. History lesson:

    The word “Frack” does go back to the 1978 series with Lorne Greene, which was on network TV and thus could not use the real expletive. It wasn’t used specifically in the context of “have sex with” like in the modern BG/Caprica shows, but just as a generic (though similarly emphatic) expletive.

    The work “Feldercarb” was also used in the 1978 series generally as a substitute for “bullshit”, as in “Can you believe this feldercarb?!?” The modern BG didn’t use the word but paid homage to it by once showing a can of Feldercarb-brand shaving cream.

    But neither comes close to Fox’s short-lived series Firefly, where the characters cursed in Chinese. For real!

    The SF geek will shut up now.

    –Dwayne

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