Elliptical faith: Religion in the dots and thin spaces

On Saturdays, I do a few hours of subediting work on the News Corp Australia metro newspapers, such as the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney and the Herald Sun in Melbourne. This weekend I subbed a couple of stories that contained some bad language; the conventions we follow on the newspapers to deal with such words in print left me a little miffed, and I got to thinking …

Typically, we keep the first and the last letter of an “offensive” word, and blank out the middle letters with dots (to represent the missing letter) and “thin spaces” (which is a character space that’s narrower than a full space and which also prevents the word from being broken up by hyphenation). So, for example, the word “fuck” is rendered, in the newspapers, as f . . k. The word “shit” is rendered as s . . t. And so on.

Which, if you think about it, is a load of b . ll . cks. And I’ll tell you for why.

The first story had already been modified slightly when I received it for editing, and it contained the following word: t . ts.

That’s right, t . ts.

The problem of course is that everyone who reads that is going to say “tits” in their head, whether it’s rendered as t . ts or not. Except for maybe people who have never heard the word (and who hasn’t heard the word tits?!).

I still remember where I was the first time I heard the word tits spoken by an adult. I was in Paris, on a school trip run by our three French teachers, and my bunk was beside the door of the room where the teachers drank French wine once we were all down for the night. They made such a racket I couldn’t get to sleep, and it was then, lying awake listening to them getting more and more drunk, that I heard the one male teacher asking Miss Hitchen, who we all adored, to show him her tits.

But that’s my story. I suppose it’s possible that there are some people who have never heard the word before—small children, perhaps, or adults who have never read a book, such as rugby players and supporters of Donald Trump. But, I would argue, such people are also unlikely to be reading the Telegraph or the Herald, so it hardly matters whether we print “tits” or not.

In the absence of any logical reason for the censorship, I can only assume it’s because the masthead wants to eliminate all chances of being blamed for offending anyone. But really, is “t . ts” any less offensive that seeing the actual words “tits” in print? I don’t think so. Particularly when they both, like the Benny Hill theme song, make you say “Tits!” in your head anyway.

All the censorship achieves, realistically, is the absolution of the newspaper. The act of creating offence by sounding the word out in one’s head is passed to the reader. It’s common sense—if the reader chooses to say the word aloud in their head, well, that’s their decision and any offence is their fault. If they choose to say the word repeatedly and without just cause—as in “Tits, tits, tits, tits, tits”—that probably indicates something else entirely and they should probably take it up with their therapist.

The second story was about a couple of sparring Liberal Party politicians, one of whom apparently called the other a “c . . t”. That’s right, a “c . . t”. That’s what I love about Australian politics—they’re not afraid of calling a sp . de a sp . de.

Now, try reading the elliptical word “c . . t” without saying it aloud in your head. It’s impossible. Unless you’re a right c . . t, most of us will say the word aloud whether we want to or not; whether we’re morally upright or not; whether we’re Christians (gasp) or not.

OK, so what bothers me? The hypocrisy, I suppose. I’ve had to confront hypocrisy concerning words and language my whole life, surrounded, as I was, by people who were doing dreadful things in secret but woe betide anyone who used a bit of bad language. Not even f . . k or c . . t either, just b . gger and bl . . dy and b . stard and p . ss (a word I first came across in Watership Down, of all places.

I’m sure I’ve talked about this in another blog … I wrote a nonfiction book about the Mafia in Western Australia in which I directly quoted the underworld figures I had interviewed. It was “f . . k this” and “f . . k that”, but the publisher decided to print the words in full. I was a churchgoer at the time, and the response of my fellow churchgoers was that I couldn’t possibly be a true Christian. Because of the book. Because of the Mafia. Because I had “done it on purpose to rile everyone up”.

I’ve been plagued with this attitude right up until the present day. Last year I was paid a sizeable sum of cash to take my name OFF a novel I had written (whose plot I had constructed and whose characters I had invented), for fear that fundamentalist readers would track down its author and discover that he wrote a blog (this one) in which he uses bad language. If it hadn’t been for the cash I would have been deeply and mortally offended.

You might ask, why invite the criticism; why include bad language in my posts or books or articles? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that, having grown up in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, I can’t be the writer I need or want to be unless I push those conventions and that ideology away from me—and so I use the offensive language to ring-fence my work from the pressure I feel from those people. I can’t write when I’m tempering what I say to suit their moral expectations of me. So, I’ve intentionally written in a way that’s given me some breathing space from those suffocating ideological beliefs. But the other reason is that I’m committed, in life as well as in my writing, to confronting all of who we are and the world we live in, the beautiful bits and the not so beautiful bits, as well as the downright ugly bits. I don’t want to change those things about us, either by what I write or by how I live, but I do want to acknowledge them, observe them, muse on them and write things about them.

Australian author DBC Pierre says a writer’s work exists in the gap between the ideas by which people live their lives and the facts that they deny. Writing, he says, is like a backstage pass on the human dilemma. It’s also a key to its central dilemma: that humanity has an extraordinary ability to bullshit itself. Good writers call the bullshit for what it is. Poor writers stick to the script and expose nothing. The convention that says we have to render “tits” as “t . ts” is part of the bullshit, as is the belief that I can’t be a person of faith because of bad language in my nonfiction book on the Mafia, as is the handing over of cash to remove my name from a book I wrote because of what people might think.

Utter bullish . t.

I’ve always wanted the backstage pass to the human condition, even well before I was a journalist. I was never afraid of what I might find there or what I might hear or what I might witness. Language doesn’t scare or offend me. The truth of people’s behaviour doesn’t disgust me (I’ll qualify this later). Seeing the word “tits” printed in full doesn’t cause me to have a meltdown, if that is what was said. What does cause me conniptions is when Christians, who have spent their life railing against bad language and the people who use it, then go off and have a secret affair (ostensibly squeezing a pair of someone else’s t . ts while refusing to use the actual word). In other words, what disgusts me is hypocrisy … and ultimately the refusal to admit our tendency to bullshit, and using the ideologies of Christian belief to do so.

I’ve referred to Dostoevsky’s use of the Holbein painting of the dead Christ in The Idiot before. The episode is used by Dostoevsky as a device to highlight the precarious nature of a faith that claims to follow the crucified God but at the same time cannot bear to acknowledge the depths of human frailty and darkness that the event encapsulates; or even the realities of death and the brokenness of a human body wracked by torture that give the event its meaning. I equate “t . ts” with the dilemma of Holbein’s Christ, and had Dostoevsky been around today, I’m sure he would have too.

It’s not just about words, though. The contamination spreads beyond mere bad language and the denial of it, to a whole way of being, to what I would describe as the religion of the dots and spaces—a type of “Christian” life that dwells and finds meaning and purpose in the ellipses, the spaces and dots between the letters f and k than in the full word itself. It’s a way of being that refuses to look upon the wounds and bruises of the dead Christ because their ugliness is too confronting, and instead looks away to an ideological Messiah that’s been constructed to make us feel better about our ability to bullshit ourselves.

I encountered it this week in the most unexpected of circumstances … religious folk fearful of truth and resorting to spin (bullshit) in order to shield themselves from the consequences of truth (and also deny themselves its benefits)—but worse than that, actually revelling in the bullshit; feeling good about themselves because of it. In the process I fear that I might have been damaged as I always have been, because, strangely, truth makes you an outlier, a trouble-maker, a disrupter. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t my fault that everything went t . ts up.

The practice of denying reality, particularly the reality of who we are, with all our flaws and foibles, as well as all the glorious things about us, is pretty much one of the most damaging conventions we have. Denying the words people actually use, or the feelings they actually have, or the actions they actually take, shouldn’t be part and parcel of a life of faith. The religious life, maybe. But not one animated by real faith, real love, real hope; a life that claims to be defined by the cross of Christ and is therefore free (theoretically) to admit its failings, to surrender to truth and deny the bullshit. And yet, we seem committed to elliptical lives and the practice of an elliptical faith … a faith of the dots and spaces … in which we seek to absolve ourselves of the uglier sides of our humanness, and in the course of doing it pass the offence onto others.

The problem isn’t a moral one; there’s no judgment here. It’s much worse than morality. The larger problem is that when we deny those things about ourselves, I believe we deny the amazing things as well: the beauty, the creativity, the uniqueness, the passion. There’s no joy in the dots and spaces. How can there be, when so much of our energy goes into covering our tracks and behaving in ways that we believe will keep people thinking the best about us. There’s only cynicism in the dots and spaces … hypocrisy and charade.

It’s just like David Brent says, in The Office: “‘If you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.’ Do you know which ‘philosopher’ said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she’s just a big pair of t . ts.”