Can We Print “Motherfucker” Here?

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curb your enthusiasmThere’s a little experiment I’d like to try, knowing that this blog post will be published by the Jewish Book Council and a MyJewishLearning blog.

The following is a passage from the conclusion of my book, describing the third season finale of Larry David’s television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired in 2002:

The episode centers on the grand opening of a restaurant in which David’s fictional character, also called Larry David, has invested. In the middle of the meal, the chef, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and cooks in an open kitchen, involuntarily shouts a string of taboo words: “Fuck-head, shit-face, cocksucker, asshole, son-of-a-bitch.” A strained silence descends, and David recalls a group of high school students he saw earlier in the episode who had all shaved their heads in solidarity with a classmate undergoing chemotherapy. He decides to act on the students’ example, showing his support for the chef by mimicking his behavior, bellowing, “Scum-sucking, motherfucking whore!” David’s assembled friends and loved ones follow suit: “Cock, cock, jizzum, grandma, cock. . . . Bum, fuck, turd, fart, cunt, piss, shit, bugger, and balls. . . . Dammit, hell, crap, shit. . . . Fellatio, cunnilingus, French kissing, rimjob.” David’s father on the show, played by the veteran comedian Shelley Berman, chimes in to add a set of Yiddish taboo words—“Shmuk, putz, tukhis-lekher”—to the episode’s catalog of obscenities before the camera zooms in on David’s satisfied face, and the episode comes to an end.

What I’d like to know is whether the two websites who are scheduled to publish this post will reproduce the taboo language in the post’s title and in that quotation. Will they bowdlerize this with dashes or stars or other symbols? Will they euphemize words like “motherfucker” and “cunt,” but leave in words like “bum” and “fart” and “putz”? Will they print a warning at the top of the post, alerting readers that taboo language follows (and, if so, how will they phrase that warning)? Or will they refuse to publish the piece entirely, to avoid having to make finer decisions about taboo language?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to two publications who have been kind to offer to publish my writing (and for whom I’m written before). Not at all. But one of the conversations I’m interested in starting with my book is precisely about what is fit to print now, today, and how Jews feel about that.

I’m not exactly a free-speech absolutist, thought I often feel that it’s pretty silly when The New York Timesbends itself out of shape to avoid printing four-letter words, or when This American Life makes an announcement every time one of its radio stories with even “mention the existence of sex.” But I now have a three-and-a-half-year-old at home who is linguistically precocious, and I understand better than I did when I started writing my book why some people might feel uncomfortable when taboo language spews forth from a newspaper that shows up at the front door, or a radio program that goes out to millions of homes on weekend afternoons. I understand that every publication has to make decisions—not just once, but continually—about what is appropriate to publish, and what isn’t.

That’s why I think it might be interesting to see how the taboo language above is reproduced.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on December 18, 2013

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