September 22, 2004

Three vs. four asterisks at Boondocks

The Washington Post has decided not to carry this week's Boondocks cartoons, which explore a fictional reality show called "Can a N***a Get a Job?" (Monday's cartoon, introducing the concept, is here). Specifically, the Post's online edition says that "The Post is not publishing this week's strip because of content issues." Instead, their online comics page is linking to last Sunday's strip, while the print edition is apparently re-running an older set of strips.

This week's Boondocks sequence has obviously posed a problem for papers around the country. At the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans took the issue to his local barber shop, where the consensus seemed to be that "the strips weren't funny enough to justify the pain".

Deggans also called Greg Melvin, the editor at Universal Press Syndicate responsible for Boondocks, and writes that

Anticipating client concerns, the syndicator offered newspapers a choice: one version with the middle letters of the n-word dashed out, another version with the entire word replaced by symbols, and an older set of strips from last year on a different subject entirely. The Chicago Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times are among major newspapers that ran the dashed-out version, but the Washington Post chose to substitute the older strip.

"One paper called and said, "Can you asterisk out the "a'? - weird, hairsplitting stuff," said Melvin, who estimated he heard from "seven or eight" newspapers that planned not to run this week's strips, though other outlets could have decided to use the substitute strips without calling him .

It hasn't occurred to me before -- though it's obvious in retrospect -- that there's a sort of information-theoretic issue about how much of a hint about the identity of an offensive word is OK. Of course, in this case, the problems seem to have more to do with the content of the stereotypes being presented than with the simple identity of the word associated with them.

As far as the realities of the situation are concerned, here's a relevant discussion from March 2004 (link by email from Kerim Friedman at Keywords).

[Q_pheevr at A Roguish Crestomathy has a lovely set of observations about this issue. A sample paragraph:

Another popular approach is to blot out only the vowels. As anybody familiar with Semitic or telephonic writing systems can tell you, t's nt hrd t rcnstrct txt wrttn lk tht. Nor would it be terribly difficult for a determined and reasonably intelligent child to build his or her vocabulary with the help of such input: you just go around saying "Fack! Fick! Feck! Fook! Feek!" and so on until you find the one that makes your parent or guardian cringe. Much of the time, I think this kind of bleeping is done purely pro forma, as a gesture of respect to the reader; the writer refrains from printing the whole word, but there is no intention of hiding it from anyone, even the kids.

Q suggests reference to Fiengo & Lasnik (1972) [that's a work entitled "On Non-recoverable Deletion in Syntax]; but as Kerim Friedman pointed out by email, Freud (1913) [that's "Totem and Taboo"] is just as relevant. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 22, 2004 09:39 AM