The case for profanity in print

The cover story of the March issue of The Atlantic is a critical look at fraternities in which the author, Caitlin Flanagan, mentions “a particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing and best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine.” This jokey omission materially weakens the exact point she is making: that we should pay attention to what is going on inside fraternity houses. Scott Stossel, the magazine’s editor, acknowledged to me that “we probably should have included a description of the practice in question. The omission may well have frustrated readers.”

In other instances, the excised words are not the subject of reported news but are nonetheless integral to the story, as when artistic works have titles that can’t be printed by reviewers. Harry Frankfurt wrote a serious work of philosophy, published by Princeton University Press, which remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 27 weeks, despite a title containing what was once frequently euphemized as a “barnyard epithet”; the same word appeared in a widely praised memoir by the poet Nick Flynn. Several prominent plays have included a version or compound of the F-word in their titles, including Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington; a monologue by Mike Daisey about Ayn Rand that ran at the Public Theater in New York; and a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis that ran on Broadway.

Refusing to print the titles of works deemed important enough to review seems to confound the claim of upholding standards.