Asterisks & O'Bollocks

Andrew Donaldson on the tiny marching spiders plaguing the press


WARNING: readers are advised of strong language and other provocations.

YOU may have noticed, but there are a lot of politically correct a*******s about these days. Direct a vigorous public disparagement at the source of your bother and before you know it the accompanying news reports will be full of them, whole plagues of tiny marching spiders.

We are referring, of course, to the asterisks that many editorial executives laughably suggest will, with insertion into contumely, pull the teeth from base invective and spare readers much discomfort. In reality, though, they are of no bloody use whatsoever, but still the godawful mites are trotted out.

Earlier this week, for example, gossip website Channel24 ran a story on the actress Brenda Ngxoli recalling an incident “where a white male called her a ‘k***** meisie’…” 

Later, we learnt of businessman Adam Catzevelos’s R150 000 “settlement agreement” relating to the racist video he posted on social media while on holiday in Greece last year. 

According to News24, Catzevelos had been delighted there were no black people on the beach he was visiting and declared, “Not one k***r in sight, f*king heaven on earth... You cannot beat this!” (Note, if you please, the asterisk parsimony, possibly indicative of budgetary constraints at the media house.)

But who in all honesty is unaware of what was uttered here? Would it really be more offensive if these words were spelled out and, as a result, delicate sensibilities be rendered yet further indelicately insensible, or some such? 

If so, should not similar courtesies be extended to w**** m***s in the interests of balance?

Do asterisks really protect the innocent? In that sense are they like the dashes inserted at the insistence of timid publishers into the moist passages of Victorian erotica, despite the fact that such vandalism often had the opposite effect to the one intended, stirring, as it did, the more prurient imaginations. To whit: 

“I trembled with ecstatic joy when the p––––– was finished, for I felt sure that, when I looked up, the f––––– would have descended and devoured my f–––– c–––…” [1]

But, cutting to the chaste present, it appears as if tiny spiders have infested every available nook and cranny in the British media following the suspension of the UK parliament. Typical of the reactions to Boris Johnson’s prorogation was this tweet from the actor Hugh Grant: 

“You will not f*** with my children’s future. You will not destroy the freedoms my grandfather fought two world wars to defend. F*** off you over-promoted rubber bath toy. Britain is revolted by you and you little gang of masturbatory prefects.”

One of those prefects is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons and a man who has evidently confused old-fashioned civility with smug arrogance. He has mocked such fury as phoney: this “candy-floss of outrage”, he told the BBC, was “almost entirely confected” by those wishing to remain in the European Union. 

Such disdain rankles, but his opponents feel powerless to respond lest they be insulted in Latin by Rees-Mogg. Which is more effective than asterisks.[2]

But the anger is real. The commentariat is demonstrably puce with rage — although it could also be sunburn. 

The crisis is such that dedicated TV pundits cut short holidays in Spain and elsewhere to dash back to the London studios. Many brushed aside the customary make-up ministrations in the scramble to be the first in front of the camera. As a result, they glared out at the nation, faces a deep, angry pink save for the “white mask” that comes from wearing sunglasses while tanning. 

A divided nation, they all could have said, was facing an uncertain fuchsia…

We briefly dwelt on these matters, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), before turning to developments in the old country, where concerns have once more been raised about curtailing freedom of expression.

In a recent piece on the right to be heard, the Helen Suzman Foundation’s head of research, Charles Simkins, recounted a disquieting incident when he and two fellow foundation members gave a presentation to a parliamentary committee in September last year regarding land expropriation proposals.

EFF MP and well-known alleged VBS bank looter Floyd Shivambu asked them: “Why should we listen to three old w**** m**?”

Stripped of context it may seem a stupid question. As an MP, Shivambu is expected to be familiar with the Constitution, particularly Section 9(3) which declares: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

But Shivambu is no ordinary MP. Possessed of a mind capable of accommodating but one thought at a time, if that, he does appear to believe that w**** m*** cannot be the targets of racial abuse, only the targeters. This is particularly so whenever w**** m** say anything he disagrees with.

In this regard, Simkins did make the point about the false assumption among the wide awoke that seeing or hearing something they may dislike or find offensive is harmful. 

“In fact,” he writes, “hearing an argument which you initially hear with displeasure, may help you. It may stimulate you to work out your own view in more detail, as you seek to counter it. Or some part of you may admit that you had never thought about it, and that you now have to take into consideration.”

This may seem sensible, but it does put satirists in an odd position. What is the point of satire if it’s harmless and doesn’t wound? If it doesn’t disturb and upset the complacent?

The late and sorely missed Robert Kirby was quite energised about this, and told me on several occasions of the problems he had with Pieter Dirk Uys, who, he claimed, was a failed satirist because the Nat ministers he lampooned delighted in seeing themselves imitated on stage. Piet Koornhof, in particular, thought Uys a scream and would roar with laughter whenever the prosthetic ears were produced.

Irony deficiency is common. Twenty years ago, a Pretoria school teacher, Chris Roos, was sacked for assigning his pupils a well-known Herman Charles Bosman short story “to explain to the children”, as he put it, “the issues of racism and that we are all equal”. 

Their parents hit the roof when they say how many times the word “kaffir” appeared in Unto Dust. They demonstrated outside the school on a Monday, and Roos was out by the Wednesday.

The story has a strong anti-racist theme. It describes a long forgotten 19th century battle in the Western Transvaal between burghers on commando and local tribesmen. A burgher, Hans Welman, is speared to death by a warrior who, in turn, is shot dead by another commando member. Months later, a burial party sets out to retrieve Welman’s remains, but the weather and wild animals have scattered and mixed the bones of the two men.

One of the burial party, Stoffel Oothuizen, tells of the “queer situation” that followed: “We found that what was left of Hans Welman and the kaffir consisted of little more than pieces of sun-dried flesh and the dismembered fragments of bleached skeletons … But we could not tell which was the white man and which the kaffir.” 

There’s a yellow dog as well, but to reveal much more would give the ending away.[3]

The political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi, who was then a spokesman for the Gauteng education department, felt that however well-intended he may have been, the wounds from the apartheid era were “too fresh” for Roos to have addressed them in such a direct manner.

“The story has a very powerful anti-racist message,” Matshiqi told the Associated Press. “I am convinced the teacher’s intentions were noble. But maybe the timing is a bit incorrect. Our schools are still trying to grapple with race issues.”

Two decades have passed, and those issues have long since gotten the better of us. I wonder what sort of trigger warnings would now be needed in teaching Bosman at school. As for tertiary institutions, forget it. Given the content, the fallists would probably burn his books. If, that is, they know where the library is.

I was reminded of Roos and Unto Dust after reading of complaints about a recent Guardian column by the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, which offered an assessment of the prime minister by using his career gaffes as nicknames: “What was Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson up to now? I wondered.”

In his response, the newspaper’s readers’ editor, Paul Chadwick, referred to the Guardian’s editorial guidelines: “Respect for the reader demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend. Use swearwords only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes. The stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it … and never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out.”

Chadwick added that “thresholds and tolerances” do vary: “Mostly, when I enquire I find that writers and editors have deployed the controversially strong words for considered effect. This is particularly so in satire.”

Lastly, consider these expert words on the asterisk: “The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives with which profane and violent people are wont to garnish their discourse, strikes me as a proceeding which, however well meant, is weak and futile. I cannot tell what good it does – what feeling it spares – what horror it conceals.”

That was Charlotte Brontë, by the way, writing in the preface of her sister Emily’s 1850 novel, Wuthering Heights. We have moved on since then. Or perhaps not. 



[1] This, alas, is not 19th century smut, but a sentence from Olive Schreiner’s autobiographical writings and, in its correctly published form, innocently describes the religious intensity she felt as a child when saying grace before dinner: “I trembled with ecstatic joy when the prayer was finished, for I felt sure that, when I looked up, the flames would have descended and devoured my fatty chop.” 

[2] Fluent in several languages, Rees-Mogg must surely know of backpfeifengesichtOne of those German words that have no actual English equivalent, it can be loosely translated as “a face that begs to be slapped”. Many feel it apt in the case of the Brexiteer.

[3] Human & Rousseau issued the greatly bowdlerised and racially purified Bosman collection Selected Stories in 1980 as a school set-work book. In her MA English thesis, Unstable Ironies: Narrative Instability in Herman Charles Bosman’s “Oom Schalk Lourens” Series, the journalist Rebecca Davis points that one of the writer’s best stories, Makapan’s Caves, was too “problematic” and omitted from the anthology altogether. She notes the story’s “oft-quoted” opening lines — “Kaffirs?” said Oom Schalk Lourens. “Yes, I know them. And they’re all the same. I fear the Almighty, and I respect His works, but I could never understand why He made the kaffir and the rinderpest.” — before asking: “Can any serious critical reader these days take that statement at its racist face-value, in the light of the story to follow: one which adheres to Bosman’s characteristic formula of presenting the reader with a denouement which overturns the baseless bigotry of the story’s preamble?”