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Profanity in Teen Ink MAG
To the editorial staff of Teen Ink,
Not f**k you, nor f**k this. Not f**k the system, the Man, or even the “po-lice.” With no degree of enmity or unjustifiable rage, f**k. In the absence of all salaciousness or exasperation, f**k. Given all possible sincerity and civility I can offer this publication, f**k. Simply, unequivocally, undeniably, f**k.
I understand the rationale of an organization attempting to maintain some vestige of wholesomeness amidst a generation of unprecedented challenges to what’s considered appropriate. But I would like to call a simple fact to the editors’ attention: the barring profanity ship has already sailed.
I have been in the profane business for some time. My memory of elementary school is far too blotchy for me to speak of those halcyon years here, but I would say that, as early as middle school, colorful words including b**ch, t*ts, and a** (all previously known but considered the greatest taboos) began to invade my vocabulary. The expletive learning curve is steep, and it was only a short time from the beginning of my education to my taking a connoisseur’s interest in every known curse, obloquy, and sacrilegious spew.
Usage, on the other hand, was at first innocent enough. Curses were rationed and uttered under the breath to avoid detection and punishment. My friends and I managed to dodge teachers’ well-tuned ears by inserting “f**k off” into coughs. Classrooms stayed mostly “s**t”-free, though admittedly my heart once stopped after I was caught dropping an F-bomb in Industrial Tech (the horror!). I remember being chastened for a while after that, sitting quietly at the lunch table as bursts of vulgarity lit up the lunch room – the main proving ground for dirty mouths – like fireworks light a disappearing twilight. Things carried on that way for most of middle school: profanity in common practice, but still evoking pangs of childish guilt in my heart.
I tell this story because I believe it to be a common one. We all encounter four-letter words sooner or later, and a great many teens probably consider them a part of their regular vocabulary. When we adopt profanity into our writing, however, it is quickly labeled as unnecessary or employed purely for sensational purposes. Among the more puerile treatments of the issue in publication is blanket omission. Blotting out undesirable words with asterisks is the editor’s way of sticking fingers in his or her ears, poking out his or her tongue, and singing with an awful, unmelodic whine “La-la-la I can’t hear you.”
I don’t like that image of a Teen Ink editor, so let’s talk about this.
I recently submitted a (in the interest of full disclosure: rather half-baked) personal essay, and when I received an e-mail that it had been published online, I found that the text was nearly verbatim, save for three asterisks after an f, where “uck” should have been. I blame no individual editor for this and rest easy under the assumption that he or she simply followed protocol. What I do blame is the logic behind this policy.
Profanity has been prolific in speech for decades. And, as is the usual trend, publications have dragged their feet and kicked in opposition to change. A recent article by John McPhee in The New Yorker focuses partially on the legacy of the magazine’s late editor, William Shawn. In the article, Shawn is described as a wise editor, a soft-spoken and mediating man, but he maintained an unfortunate tendency to express his conservative opinion with the saying “not for us.” This phrase was employed to assuage disgruntled writers whose work was found too risqué for Shawn’s taste. When he retired in 1987, his “not for us” philosophy and ban on the word “motherf**ker” went with him. For perspective, a skimming of The New Yorker recently yielded no less than a half dozen occurrences of the f-word throughout various articles. In publishing – as in all things – times change.
I believe profanity cannot be simply relegated to intensifier or sensationalism. It is a part of the way people speak today – tied as much to friendly (if sometimes off-color) jokes and good company as to the thrill of impropriety or desire to ride “the edge.” Adults, teens, young kids – the pencil-line between who can cuss and who can’t is being increasingly smudged by thick fingers. Limiting profanity to “protect” the young, impressionable minds of the Teen Ink audience is futile. The “damage,” if it can be called that, is already done. Now, rather than some schoolmarmish attempt to clean out young minds, I propose a discussion on the issue.
This is not an argument against censorship, because I do not believe censorship is the issue. I respect Teen Ink’s right to filter its content, and appreciate that it manages to operate with a great degree of efficiency for those who enjoy its services. Still, what I hope is that the mandate to block profanity is not sacrosanct. The editorial and supervising staff of Teen Ink should remain in continuous conversation on what is and isn’t acceptable so the publication can better represent the parlance, and thus the reality, of its contributors.
I hope this matter will be placed under your consideration.
Editors’ response: Colin, you make a very well-put and convincing argument. We agree that there is a place for profanity, and it is each individual’s choice to use it or not. However, it’s important to be aware that when arguing a point – especially across generations – your intelligent assertions may be eroded for your audience when you employ slang or profanity.
We don’t want readers to have a “censor” impression of us at Teen Ink either. In the instances where we censor certain 4-letter words, it’s not so much a “not for us” philosophy we follow, but a “not for schools” one. You see, to further our goal of reaching – and hopefully inspiring and publishing – as many teen writers and artists as possible, Teen Ink needs schools. And I think we all know how they would react to finding an onslaught of 4-letter words in our pages.