There is more to discuss, a lot more, regarding what I will now call “The Klosterman Apology,” because it sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel. For now, however, since it is fresh in my jet-lagged mind, I’d like to focus on the inevitable result of declaring certain words and phrases so objectionable, hurtful, uncivil or politically incorrect that extraordinary means are employed to eliminate them. In the case of The Klosterman Apology, the words were “retard” and “retard,” and a Mom with a blog threatened “The Ethicist” from the New York Times magazine with an onslaught of political correctness bullies if he didn’t immediately express his abject contrition for having used these words in a harsh way a decade ago, in another job that didn’t directly involve ethics. Chuck capitulated, gracefully and well. As I will discuss in another post, I don’t think he had much choice. Still, word-banning is an ugly, and ultimately unethical business.
Chuck was a film and TV reviewer before he was “The Ethicist.,” so it is appropriate that this was brought home to me, not for the first time (indeed, I have written about this issue before), by the clumsy,ridiculous censoring of the dialogue in the female cop buddy comedy “The Heat,” starring Sandra Bullock (who has had some work done and now looks like a wax dummy of her former cute self) and Melissa McCarthy, whose increasingly repetitious confident, in-your-face obese woman with a sensitive side persona is going to get old really fast. The dialogue is spiced with obscenities and vulgarities throughout, especially from McCarthy’s character, and in fact her vulgarity is central to her style. But the in-flight version of the film I was subjected to has her and everyone else speaking some strange language as alien to real life as what Anthony Burgess had the Droogies spouting in “A Clockwork Orange.”
In this version of “The Heat,” nobody said “fuck” or “fucking,” though that’s clearly what their mouths indicated they were saying. Melissa said “fricking” a lot, and the ever popular “forget you,” but she also said things like “puck-head” and “shuck off.” Sandra called a chauvinist police officer a “mother plucker.” Mother plucker? She also, many times, spoke of “bull spit,” and “bull-spitting.” On a couple of occasions, one of these tough, profane law enforcement officers would say that a theory was “poop,” and that what happened to the other was “poopy.”
In one extended sequence that might have been somewhat funny in its intended form, McCarthy mocked her sergeant’s reluctance to stand up to FBI agent Bullock by “searching for his balls” all over the squad room—we knew this, because it’s hard to mistake someone saying “balls” repeatedly when the camera is close in on her face. But we were told that she was looking for his “brains”—even though they were described as two “tiny round soft things that look like mouse brains, only smaller” (Thomas Wilson played the owner of the missing, uh, brains, just in case you wonder what happened to Biff from “Back to the Future.”) At one point, McCarthy’s character called another cop something that sounded like “molar” to me, and it was supposed to be so vulgar that the cop reprimanded her about it. What the real word was, I have no idea. It bothered me for the rest of the film.
The end result of all these substitutions and codes was to make the movie unwatchable, since every other sentence contained baby talk or some phrase previously unknown to the English-speaking world. And what was accomplished? Except for “molar,'” any idiot could tell what the real words were that were being clumsily censored, and if we could tell what they were anyway, why not just say them?
The same is true of elaborate ways used to disguise vulgar and obscene words in news stories, like “[expletive]'” or “the F-word, C-word, N-word, R-word, on down the alphabet. The “B-word” is already ambiguous, as there are a couple, but again, if the word is in code, and everyone knows the code, then why not just say the word? I don’t see the difference, except that using codes and silly stand-in words makes clear communications difficult and ruins movies. I found myself wondering, once people like Chuck’s tormenter get the upper hand, what “Tropic Thunder” will sound like to future audiences, especially the running joke about Ben Stiller’s actor character harming his career by going “the full retard.” What will they use to avoid the taboo word? “The full R-word?” That’s weird. The full leotard? Retread? Mallard? Guitar? Petard?
Reminding people that certain slurs and other words can be hurtful and uncivil in the wrong contexts is valid social management. Still, iff someone want to use a word, including writers, as long as they know the risks and accept responsibility, then they should use it. If someone said it or wrote it, we should be able to hear what they said or wrote, without politically correct censors making a hash of the intended communication. Not using words yourself is a choice; preventing or forbidding others from using, reading or hearing them is a practice that eventually leads to limited and degraded communication, and even art.
Not that I’d call “The Heat” art, mind you.