On Saturday, former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell tweeted this about the U.S. President: “He really IS a motherf**ker,” the capital letters intended to throw support behind Rashida Tlaib, a newly elected Democratic congresswoman who last week was recorded using the same language, calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Ms. Campbell later deleted the tweet, and Ms. Tlaib’s office released a statement affirming the congresswoman “absolutely believes [Trump] needs to be impeached.” She tweeted that she “will always speak truth to power,” and included the hashtag #unapologeticallyMe.
There has been an endless debate about the use of the offensive word – which is, to be sure, not a word we often hear politicians use. Responses have fallen into several different camps. Some people are totally opposed (not surprisingly, Mr. Trump said the comments brought dishonour to Ms. Tlaib and her family.)
Others have thrown their support behind using the foul language, on the grounds that the President himself has destroyed any sense of decorum in U.S. politics – and therefore anything goes, linguistically speaking.
To be sure, this is a word that society has decided is inappropriate for mainstream public discourse. And yes, Mr. Trump has used wildly inappropriate language, too – most famously when he crassly bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. But the problem with that comment wasn’t the language. If Mr. Trump had said he likes to grab women non-consensually by the vagina, his comment still would have been disgusting and should have been disqualifying. Just like his glib mockery of a reporter’s physical disabilities should have been the end of his political career. No curse words were used and yet there was near universal outcry over Mr. Trump’s violation of standards of decency.
Those standards are currently at stake in our society, which makes what Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Campbell said particularly frustrating. Their comments only fanned the fire of the politics of indecency and hatred.
U.S. columnist Kirsten Powers was quick to note what she saw as a telling hypocrisy of those angry over the expletive. “If Rashida Tlaib saying a curse word offends you, but children being tear gassed at the border, or separated from their parents doesn’t, you need to do some soul searching.” I think Ms. Powers is making a good point here, and I’ve seen many others offer similar arguments. The idea is something like, “Don’t talk about the indecency of Ms. Tlaib if you’re not willing to talk about the indecency of the Trump administration.”
Fair enough. But rather than tackling indecency in political discourse, this perspective actually gives us all permission to be as indecent and uncivil as we want. If we are setting our norms based on how Mr. Trump is behaving, then anything goes, really. The man doesn’t seem to be constrained by even the minimal standards of human convention, so let’s stop pretending it’s okay to justify our public behaviour by what he’s doing. The President is an indecent man; he doesn’t seem to want to change his ways. Let’s not base our sense of ethics on his Twitter feed.
When Mr. Trump was originally elected to office, many people raged against any attempts at normalizing him. We were told to never think of him as a normal president who said normal things and made normal pronouncements about normal policies.
But something happened as we resisted normalizing Mr. Trump – we started to let go of our own norms. In our scramble to call attention to how the President bucked traditional presidential standards, we ourselves began to buck the traditional values that have long guided our society, such as decency, respect and basic human kindness.
Of course, even saying these words too loudly might get you accused of promoting respectability politics, of painting over injustices in the name of behaving properly in public. The popular use of this term has always infuriated me: as if behaving decently deserves to be mocked with an academic buzzword. At the moment, our politics desperately need more decency – not less.
Mr. Trump’s words should’ve been disqualifying, but sadly they weren’t. The proper response to him isn’t to take an anything-goes approach to disrespectful language, but to so strongly normalize decency and kindness that no one would ever again think of voting for a person who talks and behaves as the current President does.