James Woods, “Vulgarity,” And Me

I liked actor James Woods as an actor for several reasons; among them that he always made interesting choices within a narrow range, had great energy, and even when he was playing his most repellent characters (Woods’ specialty), managed to find humor in them. I get a kick out of him as a personality because he is one of those actors who resembles in real life his on -screen image, and doesn’t apologize for it. He’s smart (unlike, say, Robert DeNiro), not afraid of controversy, and doesn’t take any crap without giving back as good as he gets, or better. Because Woods is an unapologetic political conservative and past the age where he can credibly play hit-men and pimps, he also has been forcibly retired by Hollywood and hasn’t had a role in almost a decade. Well, that’s OK; I’m sure he’s well off financially, which is why he can spend so much time infuriating progressives on Twitter.

Recently, Wood was chided by a Twitter follower who complained about his “vulgarity” in some posts and announced that he was “unfollowing” Woods’ Twitter feed. Woods’ reply:

I’m sure you’re not expecting a response, but I am willing to address your concerns. And you may be further surprised that I hear your point. Vulgarity is beneath all of us, if we truly wish to “hear” the “other side.” Unfortunately for you, I don’t.

So blow me.

Being a devotee of the closely related rejoinder, “Bite me!”, I deeply admire the tweet. The set up is perfect; it’s both funny and sharp. Woods also is honest: he’s not broadcasting his views as invitations to debate. He’s making statements about how he sees the world, and readers are welcome to pay attention or not. He uses vulgarity for emphasis, effect and humor, much as his characters did. And who wants to read a James Woods Twitter feed in which he sounds like Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Turley?

Ethics Alarms has also frequently discussed  the linguistic value of vulgarity while recognizing its drawbacks. “Bite me” is an example; I also firmly believe that vulgar as it may be, the term “asshole” is essential to accurately describe certain individuals for whom “jerk” simply does not do the job. Donald Trump is the obvious example.

The English language is the very best tool of communication the human race has, and if there is a word that uniquely communicates a thought accurately, we should use it, vulgar or not. I have also written extensively about the use of “fuck,” and derisively about the silly journalistic weenie habit of refusing to repeat it even when the word itself is the basis of a news story or anecdote, like the legendary reaction of Errol Flynn to a perfect joke played on him by Ronald Reagan. Again, fear of vulgarity and rote civility should not interfere with communication. Increasingly, the political Left’s trend toward speech censorship is aimed at exactly that.

The Woods episode—he deleted his tweet, incidentally, which is both puzzling and disappointing—prompts me to relate a recent personal and professional experience. A bar association which will remain nameless had employed me for several years to do my musical legal ethics seminars, which were always well-attended and popular. The support the organization provided for these was always sloppy, slapdash and unprofessional, but they paid, and as an old theater hand I know how to adjust to adverse conditions on the fly. When the pandemic grounded me, the bar shifted to Zoom, where its tech sloth became even more pronounced, harming the quality of the presentations.

In September, my scheduled program was almost derailed. The staff tech expert was supposed to Zoom in with me an hour before the program to work out the inevitable bugs; he didn’t. He was supposed to send me the link for the hook up early that morning, but didn’t do that, either. When I finally connected with another techie, my sound wasn’t registering. This required a me to follow a series of instructions  to add my laptop to my PC hook-up, piling it on top of my work-space that included my notes and references for the program.

We had over a hundred lawyers ready to be instructed as the minutes ticked down, and I was panicking: the program was in peril. To add to my anxiety, the tech staffer whom I had been dealing with wasn’t on the hook-up, When I asked where he was and if he could help with the problem, I was told that he was off on another assignment, to which I responded, “Fuck!” This was a pure expletive in this context, no different from “Cowabunga!” (Snoopy’s favorite.) Translation: “Oh, fine. It’s great to know you guys care enough about the program to have your best personnel working on it, and I’m the one who is going to look like a fool.”

We got everything working ten minutes late, which meant I had to adjust the pace and content. The tech problems didn’t abate however; among other botches, the PowerPoint fonts showed up as pictographs (little shop, trains and shapes), making the text unreadable. This too was supposed to be checked out before the presentation. But I covered for it all, and, as usual, my partner Mike Messer, who handled the songs, was his unflappable, amiable, professional self.

I must say, we were really good, especially since my heartbeat was about twice its usual rate after the chaos before we started, and the response from the participants was excellent. But after we finished, I was informed by the CLE director that my next scheduled seminar was now cancelled, and I would no longer be presenting for them—because I said “fuck.” In my own office. In the presence of someone who probably hears the word ten times a day. In a context that clearly expressed frustration to no one in particular. But the techie complained to the bar president, and that was that.

I refused to apologize, except to say that I would certainly be willing to tell the complaining staffer—asshole—that I didn’t intend to denigrate him personally, nor did I. I also said that since Mike and I had rescued their CLE seminar from their own sloppiness and incompetence, gratitude was in order, and not a civility tantrum.

After getting canned, I called Mike, since the episode had lost him future income as well as ProEthics. His concise response: “Fuck ’em.”

Exactly. James Woods could not have said it better.

8 thoughts on “James Woods, “Vulgarity,” And Me

    • Of course, this is a different theme. Using disguised vulgarity in commercials and ads. Different issue than just being appropriately vulgar when appropriate.

  1. This idea that everyone gets a “safe space” and can’t ever be criticized for poor performance is ASININE. The tech deserved your criticism, as did the whole “team” behind him. To compound the stupidity of it all, you didn’t even curse AT him.

    You are permitted to have a normal, human reaction to an extremely frustrating (and unnecessary) situation. There have been studies done that prove profanity actually helps people release physical pain, which is why cursing a blue streak after a fall or waking up from surgery is so commonplace.

    The people who took you off the project have lost a truly valuable asset in ethics.

    It’s my suspicion that the powers that be over there read your blog through an overly sensitive & biased lens, and already had it out for you. These are the people who give honest, decent and ethical lawyers, like yourself, a loathsome name.

    I’m sincerely sorry, Jack. I don’t wish ill will upon anyone, but I do hope they soon regret losing you & your unparalleled, brilliant company and the vast reservoirs of wisdom they are missing out on.

  2. This idea that everyone gets a “safe space” and can’t ever be criticized for poor performance is ludicrous. The tech deserved your criticism, as did the whole “team” behind him. To compound the stupidity of it all, you didn’t even curse AT him.

    You are permitted to have a normal, human reaction to an extremely frustrating (and unnecessary) situation. There have been scientific studies done that prove profanity actually helps people release physical pain, which is why cursing a blue streak after a fall or waking up from surgery is so commonplace.

    The people who took you off the project have lost a truly valuable asset in ethics.

    It’s my suspicion that the powers that be over there read your blog through an overly sensitive & biased lens, and already had it out for you. These are the people who give honest, decent and ethical lawyers, like yourself, a loathsome name.

    I’m sincerely sorry, Jack. I don’t wish ill will upon anyone, but I do hope they soon regret losing you & your unparalleled, brilliant company and the vast reservoirs of wisdom they are missing out on.

  3. “the legendary reaction of Errol Flynn to a perfect joke played on him by Ronald Reagan”

    You’re not going to tell us the joke and reaction? You’re a tease.

    • I thought I had already published that once, looked for the link, couldn’t find it, and posted.
      The story is that Flynn was annoyed at an early filming call, so he held a wild party for the whole cast and crew late into the night with the intention of getting everyone too drunk to function. Reagan, who was a second lead in several Flynn films, quietly poured all of the drinks Flynn handed to him into a potted palm.

      The next morning, bright and early, the first scene shot was one between Reagan and Flynn. At “Action!” Reagan stepped up, looked Errol in the eye and rattled off a long and complex speech flawlessly. Then he grinned. Flynn, still plastered, who had the next line, paused, slurred out, “Why don’t you just go fuck yourself?” and passed out, doing a face plant right in front of Ron.

      It was one of Reagan’s favorite stories. One of mine, too!

      • That’s great to hear. My favorite English Prof who became one of my greatest friends, certainly among older adult friends and mentors, was married to an actress whose mother had been an actress. His mother-in-law worked with Reagan and used the, I guess, common slam on him that “If you asked Ronnie what time it was, he’d tell you how a clock worked.”

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