THE BLOG
02/07/2008 03:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Title Tales: Weird Censorship and The No Asshole Rule (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here

In my last post, I talked about seven different kinds of reactions that I've had from the media and elsewhere to the obscenity (at least in the minds of some people) in my book title The No Asshole Rule. This post presents another six of these strange, annoying, and often funny reactions. And I end with a few comments, plus a well-crafted complaint letter to the San Francisco Chronicle.

8. We can use the word, but you can't. This is how it works at Amazon.com. They spell out the word "asshole" in many places on their site, but I've had perhaps a dozen people write me that Amazon rejected their reviews because they wrote the word "asshole." Worse yet, when they tried to write another review without the obscenity, they weren't allowed to post that either. At Amazon, as with other outlets, reviewers are allowed to use "a-hole" or "a**hole."

9. It is OK to use the word, but not gratuitously. I was interviewed by approximately 20 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation stations. Many Canadian hosts warned me that it was OK to say "asshole", but "not gratuitously." One host advised that it meant "don't use the word more than about once a minute," which didn't help at all. Unfortunately, even after such advice and all those interviews, I have no idea where "non-gratuitous" use ends and "gratuitous" use starts.

10. The word is fine. A few outlets that never made a big deal of it, they just printed the word. Examples include American Lawyer, Time magazine, Publisher's Weekly, and The New Yorker. These outlets aren't as much fun to talk about, but I do appreciate their courage.

11. Say "asshole" A LOT. A satellite radio host asked me to repeat the word "asshole" over and over again because his listeners would enjoy it and it would help me get all the censorship out of my system. I was happy to comply.

12. You can say "asshole" but not "arse." That was the guideline imposed by one British Broadcasting Corporation "presenter" because, as she explained, "arse" would offend her mother, but "asshole" would not. As Bernard Shaw observed, we are, indeed, two countries divided by a common language.

13. We can't use the word, but will take every opportunity we can to poke fun at the censorship. I had several interviews with hosts who thought it was idiotic that they couldn't use the word "asshole." My publicist, Mark Fortier, put together a "style guide" (posted on my blog) that suggested different ways to talk about the book without saying the dirty word. Mark's guide proved to be especially useful to Pete Wilson of KGO radio. Pete started by saying something like (as Mark advised): 'We can't use this word. But it means "jerk," starts with an "a," and sort of rhymes with "castle."'

I don't fully understand why people had such varied reactions and imposed such different rules, and doubt that I ever will. My hosts suggested three kinds of reasons. First, there is the threat of indecency determinations or fines in the case of TV and radio stations. I had many TV and radio producers warn me "If you say the word asshole, it could cost us over $300,000." A recent court ruling reduces this risk, as "fleeting" expletives now appear to be protected. So, if I accidentally say the word "asshole" just once or twice during an interview, the broadcasters probably can't be fined now. BUT there is still plenty of fear of FCC fines since as the rules remain quite murky about what constitutes an obscenity (most radio and TV producers were sure that "fuck" was an obscenity, but weren't sure of "asshole" was on the FCC's banned list) and, if asshole is an obscenity, most producers and broadcasters don't understand where the line is drawn between "fleeting" and "unacceptable" use. Given all this fear, most still err on the side of caution.

Second, some hosts are concerned about the "sensibilities" of their audiences. The host of a Canadian radio station told me that it was legal to say "asshole" on air, but she asked me not to after she read the title of the book once because "There are a lot of old ladies who listen to the show, and they don't like that kind of talk." On the whole, however, Canadians seem to be far more willing to print and broadcast the word "asshole" than their counterparts in the United States. I've noticed that outlets in Boston are among the most squeamish in North America. Editors at the Boston Globe, for example, are especially heavy-handed in their censorship. Third, and finally, concerns about the image and reputation of the publication or broadcaster often provoke censorship -- people worry that allowing dirty words to be said or printed might damage their careers or drive away customers (I suspect that this was part of the story at the Boston Globe).

The latter two reasons may explain why the print media has been all over the map, as they are not regulated by the FCC. Instead, they impose rules that reflect some complex blend of what they believe their audience wants, what best fits the image of their outlet, and what is thought best for individual careers. Although I am still not quite sure why, for example, a national publication like The New York Times would only use "The No ******* Rule," while outlets that I think of as more conservative and cautious like the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and BusinessWeek elected to print the full title.

And, of course, whatever title is made, someone will always be offended. For example, The San Francisco Chronicle followed the middle ground, using the "The No A- hole Rule" in a front page story that began with the following paragraph: "Robert Sutton, a respected 52-year-old Stanford University professor, is a gentleman and a scholar. But that isn't stopping him from making liberal use of an unprintable vulgarity to kick off his new campaign to jerk-proof the American workplace." Even though the Chronicle used a sanitized version of the title, the story elicited complaints, including this eloquent letter to the editor:

Editor -- You may call him a respected Stanford professor ("Crusade against the jerk at work,'' Feb. 24), but I call Robert Sutton a fallen educator, who has descended into the vulgarity and coarseness of our times.

The red-faced Chronicle is too embarrassed to repeat his book's unexpurgated title. The subject matter may be valid, but the odor of crudity and grossness has now seeped like sewage into our bastions of learning. Such low language from a Ph.D. is typical of the foul-mouthed, tasteless vulgarity that has corrupted television, radio, newspapers and other media with offensiveness and obscene billingsgate we used to hear from the mouths of naughty boys.

Sure, Sutton will sell a laxative of books with his sleazy title, but why slander that vital organ of our body? This will come to no good end.

VIC BEFERA

Palo Alto

I am glad that my dirty title provoked Mr. Befera to write such a compelling and funny complaint. Overall, however, I've been surprised by how few complaints I've had about the dirty title. I have also been a bit shocked by complaints about my decisions to censor the title in some venues. A few months back, I gave a talk to a group of Stanford alumni, volunteers who provide a range of free services to my university. I talked with my hosts about how to best describe the book. I was worried about offending the volunteers, as well as the head of the Stanford Board of Overseers, who introduced me to the audience. We decided to take the most cautious course. I'd called it "The No Bleep Rule" throughout the 45 minute talk. After the talk, two different alums -- both over the age of 80 -- gently berated me for censoring the title. One of them called me a "wimp" for not taking full advantage of the freedom of expression that comes with a tenured position at Stanford.

I know it is impossible to please everyone. But I do try to be sensitive to the different standards held by different communities. I've learned to just go with the flow with each of my hosts, to work with each group to help them decide which variation -- be it "bleep," "jerk," "a-hole," or the uncensored "asshole" -- feels most comfortable given the audience, standards within the group, and the personal values held by my hosts. And then I stick to their wishes. But no matter how much or how little censorship is applied, I always find a way to explain why call them assholes: At least for me, no other word quite captures the emotions provoked by these demeaning creeps.

It turns out, however, that even I have some standards. My French publisher joked that I could call the sequel "The Asshole Shits Again". I don't think that I could bring myself promote that one.