Behind the Scenes

Should We F&%#ing Swear More on Slate?

Three Slate editors debate the magazine’s profanity policy.

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From: Jennifer Lai

David, you sent out an email last March reminding everyone about the profanity policy at Slate. You wrote: “Profanity in journalism is almost always a cheap trick, a way to get a rise out of a reader without doing the hard labor required to earn that rise.” 

Quite simply, don’t call someone a dick—show us why he’s a dick, right?

From: David Plotz
Our profanity policy is: You have to earn it. The Internet has been mauled by a wave of profanity. The democratizing nature of digital journalism—no barriers to entry—has introduced a generation of writers who are much looser about profanity and obscenity than traditional journalism is. For the most part, that democratization is a great thing, and has brought fantastic new writers an audience. But the ludicrously excessive use of profanity to intensify, to score cheap points, to substitute outrage for thinking, is bad. 

Slate hews to different principles. Almost every single use of profanity in a standard article is a way of getting around real writing and thinking. When you say, “That was a fucking great speech,” the profanity is nothing but laziness. We’re not New York Times–style prudes: If we’re writing a history of the word fuck, we will certainly use fuck and explore its rainbow of meanings. If someone curses in a quote, we won’t bowdlerize the quote. But we won’t use profanities to intensify, to name-call, to scorn—except in the rare cases that the writer has really, really earned it. 

And we never use profanity in headlines. Headlines travel too widely and without context, and profanities in headlines look juvenile.

From: Dan Kois
But David! I remember when I read that memo and my heart sank just a little bit. One thing I really enjoy about Slate is that we are allowed to write the way we talk and write in private, like adults. That means that cussing can be just as much or as little a part of our writing here as the occasion demands. But this memo has made me tame myself and my writers (well, some of them—there’s no stopping Schuman), in accordance with a policy with which I fervently disagree!

I’ll go ahead and agree that explaining why someone is a dick is better than just calling him a dick. But aren’t there moments other than gratuitous ad hominem attacks for which profanity is perfectly appropriate? Why is profanity as an intensifier, for example, verboten? It’s the way people talk and write! It’s not lazy—it’s evocative and useful, when employed, like all rhetorical devices, in moderation.

(Also, if someone is a dick, and we’ve explained that he’s a dick, why shouldn’t we also call him a dick? He’s earned it!)

Laura, as a science editor I imagine this doesn’t come up often in your own editing work, but I know you have issues with the policy. Tell me more!

From: Laura Helmuth
You’re lucky you found out about Slate’s profanity policy from David’s memo, Dan. I found out about it after publishing this story about the great “Do bears hibernate?” debate. 

I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston and got a message from Plotz—my boss—saying: Great story, but we don’t publish profanity in Slate. (Below is the problem paragraph.)

Even at the outer end of that spectrum, bears are capable of some weird shit. Notably, the lack of it. A bedded-down bear goes all winter long without defecating even once. They also forego urination. Remember that closed system Barnes was raving about? Through some sort of uric alchemy, bears can recycle their waste products into essential amino acids—literally turning piss into protein. Even a bear’s bones are adapted to endure long periods of disuse without weakening. No wonder they don’t seem to get osteoporosis.

My heart sank a lot, mostly because I was pretty sure I’d published or written some profanity and realized I’d really fucked up. Messed up? It felt more like fucked up! 

I think we are hiding our light under a bushel with our “no no-no words” policy. Slate is full of greatly accomplished cussers! It lights up the hallways when the Internet goes down. 

Also, I think it’s a smidge patronizing to our readers. They’re very sophisticated people. I’m guessing they can throw around a good shitfuckdamn when they trip over something.

From: David Plotz
In hindsight, I would probably have given “weird shit” a pass, because it’s a pretty sophisticated and elegant paragraph. 

Yes, we are accomplished cussers here at Slate, and the halls echoes with glorious fucks and shits (although would you guys make the same arguments for cunt and bitch as for fuck and shit?) But the halls of Slate are not the school classrooms where Slate stories are read, or the homes where parents are showing Slate stories to their kids, or, for that matter, the meetings where our publisher is showing off Slate to potential advertisers. We have to write as though we’re being read by many different kinds of people.

You both have the premise that profanity makes it easier to get an emphatic point across. But it’s not so. The most emphatic and jugular-slitting writers ever at Slate—people like Jack Shafer, or Christopher Hitchens, or Michael Kinsley, or Dahlia Lithwick—have always managed to make their vicious points without adding a fuck or shit to it. 

Dan, you state there are occasions other than ad hominem when adding the intensifying profanity would make a story stronger. What are those occasions? Find me a sentence in Slate today where adding a fuck or shit would make that sentence profoundly better. I just don’t think there are many examples! And, in the rare cases where the well-placed expletive is needed, we allow it. But better to start from zero and allow exceptions than adhere to the usual on the Web, which is a fuck-fest. 

From: Dan Kois
I consider the C-word and the B-word gendered pejoratives, so they’re not the same as the F-word, the S-word, the A-word, the other C-word, or the Q-word*.

Yes, here’s an example of an intensifying curse that made a story better—in fact, it’s the exact example you used to illustrate your memo. It’s the kicker of this piece by Melinda Wenner Moyer about why toddlers freak out—a thoughtful and judicious and careful piece about the science behind children’s tantrums:

If your universe were amazing and terrifying and frustrating and unpredictable, and you didn’t have good communication skills or a whole lot of experience or much of a frontal lobe, you’d freak the fuck out every once in a while, too.

I had spent several days admiring this kicker when you sent out the memo, and your choice of this example specifically bummed me out. This is a good piece about parenting that, for most of its length, had insulated itself well from the messy emotions of parenting, retreating into data, analogy, and interview. But this kicker, to me, was perfect: It buttoned up the piece by reminding readers of the pain and scariness of these toddler tantrums, the way they viscerally affect parents, in a way that the words “you’d probably freak out every once in a while, too” would not have. (In fact, I see now that the F-bomb has been ex post facto edited out of the kicker, much to my dismay.)

The profanity makes this a better kicker and makes the piece a better piece. This I believe!

Laura, what do you think about the assertion that we’re editing not just for our smart, capable, adult readers but for teachers, children, and advertisers as well? 

*There is no Q-word.

From: Laura Helmuth
Wait, hold up, the other C-word? Is there some amazing swear word I don’t know?! What have I been missing? Crabcakes! Cauliflower! Cheese ’n’ crackers!

From: Dan Kois

From: Laura Helmuth
Ah, right, thanks very much. That was making me hysterical. 

I agree about the regular C-word and the B-word. I think they are like the R-word. I absolutely agree with Plotz’s decision that Slate won’t use the Washington professional football team’s name. 

There are many great reasons to not use any of these words. There are other words I don’t use, things that are too loaded, like calling a woman “hysterical” no matter how anxious, upset, fuming, etc. she is. 

But profanity seems different. Sometimes a curse word really is the perfect word. Sometimes somebody is precisely a rat fucking bastard

As for our audience, that’s a good question, and it might be the limiting factor if we think that swearing turns away potential readers or advertisers. Do we really have much of an audience tuning in from K–12 classrooms? I mean, I hope so—I would have LOVED Slate as a kid. And I think any kid who is reading Slate is awfully precocious, and should be treated like a grown-up and spoken to with our greatest conviction.

Plotz, what do you think: Is profanity a different question than the Washington NFL team question? Do you worry that swearing offends, upsets, or insults people? 

From: David Plotz
Dan,  I asked for an example from today. The fact that you can hunt way back in our archives and find a story doesn’t impress me. I’m not arguing that profanity never works as an intensifier. I’m arguing that it works so rarely that it’s an albino alligator. We build our rules around it being never suitable and bend on the exceedingly rare occasions when it is.  And the particulars of that example don’t impress me. “Freak the fuck out” has no real gain on “freak out” for me. It’s just showy, a clamor for a cheap giggle. 

Laura, profanity is certainly different than racist, sexist, homophobic, and other pejorative words. (Although Dan seems OK with dick but not with bitch, which seems inconsistent to me.) That’s why our bar is much higher for pejoratives, which we absolutely ban except when banning them makes a piece absurd. 

Profanity must clear a lower bar, but it’s still a bar. I’m repeating myself (which I’m used to since I have children): If you begin with the premise that profanity is basically OK, you get a ton more profanity than you should, and it’s lazy profanity. Basically the entire Internet is the proof of that. 

If you begin with the premise that profanity is barred—except in special rare cases—you get a teeny-weeny bit less profanity than is perfect, but only a teeny-weeny bit—and you mostly prod writers to write better. It’s revealing that you guys have so few specific examples of stories that would be improved by profanity. The reason is that there aren’t many. 

I’m glad we had this exchange, which made me clarify my own thinking about it and makes me think Slate’s policy is just about right. Did I persuade you? 

From: Dan Kois
Shit no!

From: Laura Helmuth
Not one fucking bit. But I’ll channel my disgruntlement into writing lines that are more shocking and vicious than any swear words. 

Oh, wait. That’s what you want.