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?