More A-word

In a comment on my A-word posting (about Geoff Nunberg’s choice of a book title — The A-Word — that would allow the demure New York Times to cite it in print, despite the verboten word assholism in the subtitle), the commenter “John” writes:

Most notable of course is their handling of the book “The No-Asshole Rule.” See the author’s blog…

I don’t want to fall into the trap of being expected to catalogue every instance of taboo avoidance in the NYT — I’ve probably posted too often on the topic already — and I was sure that the paper had contrived to avoid asshole in the past (and dimly recalled a notable instance a few years ago), so I let the general principle of NYT asshole-avoidance stand, without exploring yet another case history. But, now, somewhat reluctantly, I’ll take up the story of Bob Sutton’s 2007 book The No Asshole Rule and how it fared in the NYT.

First, however, a digression on the comment above. The commenter used only the name “John” and provided no usable e-mail address. He did provide a URL (which WordPress doesn’t make available to readers, only to me), from which some detective work led me to his identity; all I’ll say is that, like Sutton, he’s an academic, but not in a business school.

Then there’s the link he provided to Sutton’s blog. Well, it wasn’t a link to the entry in the blog about Sutton’s history with the NYT; instead, annoyingly, it was a link that subscribed you to the RSS feed for Sutton’s blog, so that all of his blog postings would be unloaded as e-mail for you. Somewhere in there was the relevant posting (I’ll discuss it in a moment), which I was able to unearth by other means.

All this is by way of explaining why I deleted John’s unhelpful comment and am taking up the case in a separate posting.

Now: Sutton’s book, from Wikipedia:

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t is a book by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton, based on a popular essay he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. It sold over 115,000 copies in 2007, and won the Quill Award for best business book in 2007.

The theme of this book is that bullying behaviour in the workplace worsens morale and productivity. A rule is suggested to screen out the toxic staff – the no asshole rule. The author insists upon use of the word asshole since other words such as bully or jerk do not have the same impact. “There’s an emotional reaction to a dirty title. You have a choice between being offensive and being ignored.” [Sutton]

… [The] unpleasant behaviours [of the asshole] were catalogued by Sutton as The Dirty Dozen: Insults, Violation of personal space, Unsolicited touching, Threats, Sarcasm, Flames, Humiliation, Shaming, Interruption, Backbiting, Glaring, Snubbing

Note that Sutton considers, and rejects, alternatives to asshole: bully, jerk. Nunberg also distinguishes asshole from alternatives, in particular heel (pp. 122-7); a major point of Nunberg’s book is that these vocabulary choices are not mere synonymous alternatives, but represent subtly (but significantly) different ways of viewing social roles and relationships.

Now, finally, on to Sutton’s blog entry of 3/25/08, “Despite Kudos for The No Asshole Rule, The New York Times is Still Spineless”:

This morning’s New York Times has a well-crafted article by Tara Parker-Pope called When the Bully Sits in the Next Cubicle. This little article does a nice job of summarizing some of the most important research and it quotes some of the most influential advocates including Gary Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, and researcher Joel Neuman from SUNY, who has done some of the most rigorous research on workplace bullying.

I was also pleased to see the they gave The No Asshole Rule some credit for the movement against workplace bullying. In doing so, however, they continued their tradition of censoring the book title. Here is what they wrote:

This month, researchers at the University of Manitoba reported that the emotional toll of workplace bullying is more severe than that of sexual harassment. And in today’s corporate culture, supervisors may condone bullying as part of a tough management style.

But the tide may be turning, thanks in part to a best-selling book by Robert I. Sutton, a management professor and co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford. Among other things, the book argues that workplace bullies are bad for business, because they lead to absenteeism and turnover.

I appreciate the credit they are giving the book for raising awareness.  But I am highly amused and slightly annoyed by The Times’ persistent refusal to write the name of the book. [The Parker-Pope piece has neither the title nor a link to a website for the book.] When the book appeared on the best-seller list, they called it The No A******* Rule. [Using the asterisking strategy, which the paper reserves for offending titles.] My publisher had good fun goading them with the advertisement below:

Sutton goes on to note that some newspapers referred to be book as The No Ahole Rule, but many media sources just printed the title as it. Sutton finishes with:

All this leaves me somewhat confused about who The New York Times is trying to protect with this puritanical policy [the children, man, the children!]. I think their hypocrisy is exposed by their willingness to accept a series of expensive (I think these things cost about $100,000) full page ads from my publisher that made fun of The Times for not printing the title. These ads made it clear to any person who could read English that asshole is the censored word. I guess that The Times have what they imagine to be editorial high standards, but are willing to have them mocked and effectively disregarded if someone pays them enough money to do so!

My conclusion is that they are spineless wimps. Am I being too harsh?

They think they’re being principled (and protective, though many would view this attitude as patronizing).


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