The Washington Post
12 May 2002, page D06

Tyson's Foul Mouth Is a Window to His Soul

By Sally Jenkins

I have a friend, a very nice lady, who whisperingly refers to a certain type of vulgar discourse as, simply, "language." As in, "That movie has such a lot of language in it." Mike Tyson uses a lot of what she would call, with much consternation and in a very hushed tone, "language."

Tyson's language has been all over television last week. In interviews with ESPN and with the Fox News Channel to discuss his upcoming bout with Lennox Lewis, he liberally dropped the f-bomb, uttered innumerable lesser profanities, and delivered a variety of racially and sexually charged statements. The two cable networks chose to deal with Tyson's remarks in opposite ways: ESPN beeped out the offending words, while Fox News chose, with considerable warning to clear the room of children and other sensitive souls, to air his speech unexpurgated.

The interesting thing was that the effect was basically the same. Regardless of which channel the viewer watched, the impression left by Tyson's alternately ranting, blistering, Zoloft-muddled speech was the same:

Up the dosage.

Each cable network could make good cases for its treatment of Tyson. Norby Williamson, vice president and assistant managing editor of ESPN, decided that Tyson's spewing has become a boring stunt, no big deal, and certainly not news. Therefore, he beeped it out of the "Sunday Night Conversation." "Tyson going on a profanity-laced interview to me is not new, he's been doing that for shock value for a long time, and the decision was, this surprises no one," Williamson says. "So to leave the salacious language in there would have been gratuitous. He does it with a purpose, to say, 'Hey, I'm a bad ass, here I am.'

"There needs to be an objective understanding of the subject, you have to challenge it, and not just be a video news release service."

But Fox News Channel executives make an equally persuasive case for their decision to run reporter Rita Cosby's interview with Tyson unedited. "Our decision was that to beep everything that needed to be beeped would have been terribly distracting to the audience and wouldn't have given a clear picture of who Mike Tyson is right at the moment," says Kevin Magee, Fox vice president of programming.

Who Tyson is, at the moment, is an athlete not in command of himself and therefore not someone who should be granted any important public platform -- including a stage or a TV monitor. The irony is that it may be only through a more benign setting like an interview at a training camp in Maui that people will understand just how unfit Tyson is for any public appearance at all, whether in the ring or out.

Magee's decision was based in part on his feeling that the most important moment of the interview -- and perhaps most objectionable one -- isn't one of the 12 occasions on which Tyson drops the f-bomb on Cosby, or when he refers to one of his therapists as a "white mother [expletive]." Rather, it comes when Tyson, a convicted rapist, describes himself as "penis-centered" and then says to Cosby, "I'm sure at times you're a lady in the streets, and a whore on the sheets."

Critics of Fox will charge that this was simply more of Tyson's self-sploitation, a canny use of his notoriety to promote the fight. But Magee disagrees. "I don't think that's true, when he calls my reporter a whore," Magee says. His intent in airing the entire interview was to show the most menacing and uncensored side of Tyson, who continually portrays himself as a wronged victim, who continues to be granted licenses to compete, and who continues to be offered forums on news channels and in newspapers. He felt the audience, forewarned, should see exactly who and what Tyson is, especially in his treatment of women. "It showed a very troubled man in my humble opinion," Magee says.

What Fox essentially decided was that speech -- even Tyson's toxic gutter brand -- is useful in establishing character. This is a legitimate position, backed up by linguists. "These words serve a purpose for helping to classify the speaker, the user of the words," says Reinhold Aman, a philologist who edits Maledicta, a journal devoted to the study of profanity and other types of cultural graffiti. "They help establish milieu, the social class the speaker belongs to, or religious, racial, and age groups."

Tyson's use of profanity is not by itself a real offense, or even the real issue. Profanity is as old as speech itself. According to Aman, "As far as we can reconstruct, the first group of humans who met another group of humans they considered the enemy, had negative terms for it. Nothing has changed in maybe three million years."

According to linguists [=Aman], all the languages in the world include curses and blasphemies, the only difference is what each culture considers offensive. Words have a positive charge, a negative charge, or a neutral charge, and we ourselves, the users, assign the values. Overuse a word, and much of its integrity or taboo are drained away. What's more, almost everyone is guilty of using taboo words to one degree or another; no social class is exempt. "Professors, rabbis, priests, doctors, they can get foul-mouthed like anyone else when they're angry enough," Aman says.

According to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of "Talking Nine to Five," and "I Only Say This Because I Love You," there are two issues in Tyson's discourse. One is his intent to shock by his use of the f-bomb, at which she shrugs. "The f-word has become, to many people, a meaningless interjection. It's just something they add for pizazz, to make themselves sound like what they think they should sound like, a persona they want to put forth." But she found his conversation about sex with Cosby more disturbing. "Men will frequently use references to sex to cut the power of woman higher in the hierarchy," she says. "Calling attention to a sexual being is compromising to women in a way it's not to men. And, if you take it to the most extreme, there's an implied statement that you can be raped."

If that's the case, then Fox's decision was the right one, because above all, what Tyson's speech reflects is a man not entirely in command of himself. And this is the real issue, and surely is at heart of any licensing decision. Those who claim Tyson is merely a calculating self-promoter whose menace is mostly for show -- the same people who maintain that when he bit Lewis in the leg at a news conference, it was really a stunt gone too far -- are wrong. "He has very little self control," is Aman's analysis of his speech. "It's not that he's doing it on purpose. It's almost at the point of Tourette's syndrome."

This is who Tyson is -- a man not in control of himself. So watch him, listen to him, and understand who he is. And the next time he applies for a license, turn him down.

And then turn the TV off. And don't ever watch him again. Don't grant him a forum, or platform. Or a fight.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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