The effects of the practice commonly referred to as water torture—even more commonly, Chinese water torture—are psychological rather than physical, causing excruciation of the mind rather than the body. The torture exploits on the one hand humans’ deep-seated need for variety—endless repetition is, literally, maddening—and on the other our (equally deep-seated) desire for predictability. By dripping drops of water on a victim’s forehead, and then by occasionally interrupting the rhythm, the torturer creates a potent combination that can cause that victim to go slowly—drip by excruciating drip—insane.
I mention that because I’m moderately sure that The New York Times has officially violated the Geneva Conventions…via an article this weekend, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors,” that was—drip, drip, drip—absolutely, profoundly, and utterly maddening. Not because what the piece did was bad—actually, it was generally quite interesting—but because of what it didn’t do.
The article in question, it bears repeating, is entitled “A Dirty Pun Tweaks China’s Online Censors.” It discusses subversive videos circulating around the Chinese Webosphere—about a fictional “grass-mud horse” (the subject of said “dirty pun”)—repeatedly referring, in the process, to “an especially vile obscenity” and “subversive behavior” and “an impish protest against censorship” and “the foul-named little horse” and “an icon of resistance to censorship” and “a juvenile response to an unreasonable rule” and “the little animal [that] neatly illustrates the futility of censorship.”
And then the article NEGLECTS TO TELL US what the vile obscenity/impish protest/juvenile response—in other words, the dirty pun—actually is.
“The creatures’ names, as written in Chinese, were innocent enough,” the Times notes, breezily, referring to the mythological, alpaca-esque grass-mud horses. “But much as ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ have different meanings in English, their spoken names were double entendres with inarguably dirty second meanings.”
[Oooh, interesting! you think, intrigued. What second meanings?]
“So while “grass-mud horse” sounds like a nasty curse in Chinese, its written Chinese characters are completely different, and its meaning —taken literally — is benign.”
[But, wait—what about the dirty meaning?]
“As depicted online, the grass-mud horse seems innocent enough at the start.”
[Okay, great. But what about the finish? How is it not innocent??]
“An alpaca-like animal — in fact, the videos show alpacas — it lives in a desert whose name resembles yet another foul word.”
[Okay, seriously. WHAT foul word?]
“The online videos’ scenes of alpacas happily romping to the Disney-style sounds of a children’s chorus quickly turn shocking — then, to many Chinese, hilarious — as it becomes clear that the songs fairly burst with disgusting language.”
[WHAT DISGUSTING LANGUAGE? What’s wrong with you? Why are you doing this???]
“To Chinese intellectuals, the songs’ message is clearly subversive, a lesson that citizens can flout authority even as they appear to follow the rules.”
[HOW??? HOW ARE THEY SUBVERSIVE???? FOR THE LOVE, NEW YORK TIMES, WHY WON’T YOU TELL ME????????]
But tell me the Times did not. (How fine the line between censorship and “tastefulness.”) Instead, the Gray Lady cheerfully pulled out every euphemism in the book with nary an explanation for the real words’ omission, apparently assuming that cheeky circumlocution would be enough to satisfy her readers’ curiosity.
If so…she assumed wrong. (Drip—drip—drip.)
The children are singing about grass mud horses (“Fuck Your Mother”) who live in a desert (“Your Mother’s C-word”) (ha), and defeat the river crabs (a word synonymous with “censorship.”)
There. Thank you. Was that so hard?Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.