Bad Language and Bad Speech

By now everyone knows the shocking tale of the bad language of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. At an informal gathering of supporters on the evening of January 4, just after she had been sworn in, according to the New York Times article,she said:

People love you and you win. And when your son looks at you and says: ‘Momma, look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t.’ Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.

The Times headline refers to Tlaib’s “expletive-laden cry.” Normally “expletive-laden” would imply that more than one expletive had been used. And indeed, one might gather from the article, in Tlaib’s brief remark there were two, both in the last three words. (And one was not “the.”) Which is worse, the twelve-letter m-word or the eleven-letter i-word? Thearticle suggests, the latter.

That response, by the Times and other sources of punditry, raises all kinds of questions about what (if anything) constitutes dangerous language these days, who may and may not use it, and what exactly Tlaib was doing and why. Was she risking great damage to the Democratic Party, as much of the discussion implies? Was she risking “censure” and persona non grata status in the House? Or might she have been doing something that powerful persons among her new colleagues didn’t mind, or even encouraged?

What about the bad language itself? Why are some forms of utterance terrifying, especially when used by someone like Rashida Tlaib – young, female, and Muslim? Why is there an expectation that such persons are and are supposed to be demure and careful in their linguistic choices, making their use of tabooed words especially shocking and therefore, especially meaningful.

The first thought of this 76-year-old, admittedly, was: Tlaib’s “outburst” is an argument against encouraging “young blood” in politics. Youth just doesn’t understand the basic proprieties and youth has trouble keeping its mouth shut. But…really?

Tlaib’s utterance was certainly indiscreet, but was it the “outburst” claimed by many reporters, or was it instead carefully planned? Why is it more comfortable to think of her words as a spontanous “outburst” rather than as a deliberate set of choices? Was the fact that it was uttered by a young Muslim woman related to the common interpretation?? And why is the use of such language judged particularly indecent when such persons do it?

And did it “upset” the Democrats? If so, the Democrat likeliest to be upset took Tlaib’s remarks in stride. Others were not so equable. Kevin McCarthy, House minority leader, demanded to know why Nancy Pelosi hadn’t “censured” Tlaib. “I’m not in the censorship business,” she said. Oddly, the person who was most outraged at the “disgraceful” language was probably someone who has proved himself highly conversant with questionable modes of discourse.

“I thought her comments were disgraceful,” said President Trump. “I think she dishonored herself, and I think she dishonored her family.” He added that her comments were “disrespectful to the United States of America.”

The President (the motherfucker in question) is hardly one you would expect to blanch at the use of that word. Based on his distress, a reasonable Martian might conclude that POTUS is a man of exceedingly delicate vocabulary and considered speech. I would argue, though, that his daily linguistic outbursts are worse than Tlaib’s in important ways.

First, he characterized her comments as “disrespectful to the United States of America.” Yet nothing in those comments could be construed as unpatriotic. Certainly they were disrespectful to Trump. But his equation of “disrespectful to Trump” and “disrespectful to the United States” is an example of the President’s tendency to conflate himself and this country, l’état, c’est moi syndrome, which is a lot more worrisome than any “motherfucker.“

At least as disturbing is another of Trump’s verbal traits: his habit of insulting everyone who dares to oppose or criticize him, especially women and members of minority groups. They are “low I.Q.”; they are “rapists”; they have blood coming out of their “wherever.” One difference between Tlaib’s and Trump’s choices of epithets is that the latter have real, and ugly, semantic content; Tlaib’s m-word in its normal understanding has neither, and so is capable of doing far less damage to its target. But because his words are not part of a tabooed list, and because they come out of the mouth of a privileged white male, they are far less shocking and disruptive to those who found Tlaib’s utterance both of those. The gentlemanly POTUS is shocked, shocked, but he is confusing bad language (hers) with bad speech (his) and the latter is much more dangerous to our democracy than the former.

Let us return for a moment to an earlier question: why has it always been so much worse for women to use bad language than for men to do the same? If these words are – as all the commentary assumes – intrinsically threatening, then they are intrinsically equally scary no matter who uses them. But if they are dangerous only coming from the mouths of out-group members, especially women, something else is going on.

Women – and other oppressed groups as well – have always been discouraged from expressions of anger. That makes sense: if the oppressed can give language to their oppression, they can communicate the injustice of the oppression to others, understand it fully themselves, and perhaps ultimately force changes unfavorable to the oppressor. The problem with all these words, whether four- or twelve-letter, is not that they literally encode some aspect of sexual expression – as many but not all do – but that they permit the expression of an emotion terrifying to the powerful, who are happy to terrify, but not to be terrified. They suggest that something is wrong with the status quo, that anger about it is justified. That might explain why the use of such language doesn’t bother Pelosi nearly as much as it does McCarthy, Trump, and Jerrold Nadler.

It’s also interesting that many of the people who profess shock are much older than Tlaib, who is just over 30. One reason is that the function, if not the meaning, of blasphemy, obscenity, and scatology – the three categories of tabooed expression in English —  has changed in recent generations. We tribal elders grew up thinking of such language as bad, indecent, shocking, and to be avoided especially if one were female.

But many members of Tlaib’s generation don’t agree. They toss f-bombs around with careless aplomb. The elders are bewildered and chagrined: how can the youth talk this way? How can their elders tolerate it? Surely the second coming is at hand.

So Tlaib’s comments rankle older people (like Trump and Nadler) two ways: one, she is using bad words, and she is someone who is not supposed to do so. And her casual use of such language reminds the elders that they are, in fact, old. The world now belongs to Tlaib, not to us. That fact does not make us happy. Just as the young are taking over in so many other areas (as they always eventually do), they are taking over control of the language, the discourse, and the narrative.

Pelosi,though she is 78, seems to enjoy the company of young people, dresses youthfully, and is unfazed by the passage of time, even when some of the youth (and some of their elders) tried to use a combination of misogyny and ageism against her.

But there might be other reasons why Pelosi was not flustered by Tlaib’s remarks, and in fact may have encouraged them, or at least had reason to be supportive of them and their speaker – especially the other bad word, the one many commentators thought was the more dangerous: impeachment.

It is no secret that Pelosi, Hoyer, Nadler, and many other powerful Democratic House members would be happy to see the President removed from office by any means available. But the elders are wary: they don’t want to rush in too soon or with too much eagerness, before a majority of voters is ready. Also, they are mindful that the next Presidential election will start in less than a year and conclude in November, 2020. So by the time any impeachment action might get underway, election fever will have seized the capital and no one will think of anything else

So the elders are reasonable to be cautious about impeachment talk and reluctant to be assigned any responsibility for it. But they would not mind at all if that discussion became part of respectable political discourse. And they note, with unconcealed delight, that any mention of the i-word drives the President into ever more embarrassing forms of crazy behavior. That in turn (as with the current wall/shutdown imbroglio) is loosening the ties between congressional Republicans and the President, and might eventually even force Mitch McConnell away from Trump. So the more the i-word gets mentioned, the more it is normalized, and the better for 2020, in any of several potential ways.

It’s true that Tlaib’s remarks were not the first time that “impeachment” has been brought into current American political discourse. But it has not yet become a topic of public discourse and debate: we’re not ready yet, say the pundits. But couple “impeachment” with another scary word, and put both into the mouth of an attractive, somewhat exotic, young woman. Now you’re talking and now people will take notice. The word – maybe both words – will become normal parts of current American political discourse.

The contrast between Tlaib’s bad language and Trump’s bad speech is important too because it reminds us of the way language should, and should not, function in a democracy. Tlaib’s bad words have no negative impact on democracy, because they make no claims equating membership in a non-privileged group with stupidity or criminality. They merely express a speaker’s dislike of an individual irrespective of his or her group identity. So bad language, as young people like Tlaib are forcing us to recognize, is only “bad” because the badness is a way to reinforce the old power of the privileged. Tlaib is refusing to be bound by those old ways of old people – hers is a new way, the antithesis of Trump’s way. But Trump’s habitual bad speech undercuts democracy: it “dishonors” everyone who is not white, male, and privileged. Trump’s distress is magnified because he has to confront two kinds of foes he never thought would cause him any trouble: invisible old women and voiceless young ones. It’s a new world, the President has been banished from it, and he finds that “disgraceful.”