Writer and novelist Walter Mosley has quit his job on CBS’ “Star Trek: Discovery” after an anonymous complaint about him from the writers’ room surfaced. Writing in the New York Times, Mosley described the incident that led to his resignation. It began with a phone call from human resources informing him that there was a complaint about his using the N-word while telling a story from his past.
When the HR representative informed Mosley that he was not allowed to use the N-word in the writing room, Mosley, who is black, pithily replied that he “is the N-word in the writing room.” He went on to explain the nature of the incident in which he used the word.
“I hadn’t called anyone it. I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all n—ers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in n—er neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.”
Writing rooms are notoriously tense work environments in which a showrunner or runners marshal the talents of the rest of the scribes to piece together episodes and seasons. It is collaborative but also competitive, as each writer tries to get his or her own ideas into the script. Mosley is not only a well-respected writer, but he was also hand-picked by the showrunners, so jealousy could have played some role in his getting ratted out for using the N-word.
If Mosley’s decision to quit seems like an overreaction, it really shouldn’t. One of the most important elements of any collaborative artistic project is trust. Not only do the artists often draw on their own lives and experiences, as Mosley was doing when he dropped the N-bombs, they are also trying out ideas, not all of which are very good.
When trying to phrase a joke just right or pick the perfect plot twist, writers make a lot of mistakes before the good, usable stuff emerges. Punch lines that fall flat and story choices that result in a “meh,” are commonplace, and knowing you are on a team you can trust makes getting through those things a lot easier.
What Does Profanity Mean?
What Mosley’s anonymous accuser and the HR department at CBS both did was attempt to force Mosley to police himself, a black man, in regard to a word that he arguably has a special relationship to. It makes perfect sense that Mosley, who likely has many writing opportunities, would reject this and seek out a situation where he has more freedom and doesn’t get tattled on.
In regard to the word itself, the Mosley incident put me in mind of a recent column in The Atlantic by John McWhorter about the current state of profanity in our culture and language. McWhorter, writing about Beto O’Rourke’s use of the F-bomb, recently argued that that curse word is barely even a profanity anymore, describing it rather as “salty.” But what’s interesting is what McWhorter compares the F-word to.
He writes, “It becomes clear that the F-word today is spicy, but hardly evil or taboo. By contrast, today some well-meaning students believe their white professors shouldn’t even mouth the N-word when referring to historical usage. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what profanity means.” He goes on to argue that “slurs are our real profanity today.”
This seems about right. In my entire professional career, I have had someone complain about me cursing — which, you know, I live in Brooklyn — exactly one time. Almost nobody cares. But slurs, which I do not tend to use in any context other than one such as this, where they are at the center of the story, are completely different. And it is appropriate to be discerning in how we use them when we feel we have to.
Mosley Was Right To Quit
For whatever reason, Mosley felt using the actual word, instead of just saying “N-word,” was important to the impact he wanted his anecdote to have. This is a big deal for writers, who are simultaneously trying to tell a story and evoke emotion. He thought he was in a sophisticated enough artistic environment that his co-writers would indulge his use of the slur. Apparently he wasn’t.
At the end of the day, he was probably wise to quit. His offended collaborator should have approached him personally after the incident and expressed their concerns. Perhaps this didn’t happen because the offended party felt they had less power than Mosley, but either way, personally confronting him is what should have happened, not running to HR behind his back.
For CBS, the question now is whether its product will suffer from the loss of Mosley, a difficult question to answer. But for society, the question is how do we handle slurs, the last profanity? This also is a difficult question. The N-word is prominent in pop culture. In places like New York City, a version of it is used by non-black minorities in many areas.
How and when to prohibit its use is a complicated question. But it does not seem that for Walter Mosley, walking away from Star Trek was a complicated decision. Rather, it was one he made on the basis of artistic freedom and trust in the room. These are two things that are entirely reasonable for writers to demand.